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There’s no denying the 2020 college football season was one to forget for the Aggies, who went 1-5 and were soundly defeated in all five of those setbacks.

Utah State did put together one solid performance in its 41-27 victory over New Mexico at Maverik Stadium, but was thoroughly whipped by Air Force the following week in Logan. The Falcons ended the game with 35 straight points and outgained the Aggies by 229 yards en route to a 35-7 win.

To say the Aggies are motivated for another shot at the Falcons might be a bit of an understatement, especially since they laid an egg the last time they traveled to Colorado Springs. Air Force hosted Utah State in October of 2019, and it rolled to a 31-7 win, and the game was more lopsided than the final score suggested. The Falcons outgained the Aggies by a whopping 344 yards, 448-128, and possessed the pigskin for more than three-quarters of the contest.

USU is hungry to end a three-game losing streak to AFA in Colorado Springs and will get that opportunity this weekend. The opening kickoff from Falcon Stadium is scheduled for Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and the Mountain West opener for both programs will be televised on Fox Sports 2.

“Those kids, I mean, they’re human,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during his weekly press conference. “They remember what it felt like to play poorly against somebody and, as you mentioned, really kind of be dominated by an opponent. I’ve heard guys mention that they’re not proud of how they played against (AFA) ... and obviously want to play better. Every opponent brings its own challenges and this one is clearly unique with what they do.

“I’ve watched the (past) games (against Air Force) and we’re just a completely different team in every aspect, so I’d like to think that we can have a different result. We’ve got to play better than we did in the first quarter this past week. We’ve got to play physical football against this team. That’s just what they’re built around. We’ve got to play great assignment football, defensively especially.”

As is always the case when matching up against the Falcons, the Aggies must at least hold their own in the trenches in order to escape with a victory. That certainly did not happen in 2019 or 2020. Fortunately for the Aggies, they appear to be much more equipped to contend with AFA’s physical style of play this time around.

“We’re pretty excited to play Air Force,” USU defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said. “You know, this is a game we always look forward to, especially the D-line. This week, the D-line, we’re like the tip of the spear for the defense. We have to make sure that we do our job and play more physical or just as physical as them, so yeah we’re excited for that.”

Air Force gashed Utah State’s defense to the tune of 334 and 448 rushing yards, respectively, the past two seasons. The Aggies have done a solid job defending the run so far in 2021 as they rank 44th among FBS programs in rushing defense (107.0 yards per game). USU has only allowed 4.3 yards per carry, despite giving up a 64-yarder against WSU.

The Falcons haven’t been quite as efficient this season running the triple option compared to recent years, but still rank 10th nationally in rushing offense (273.0 ypg). Air Force only averaged 49.5 yards passing in its first two contests, victories over Lafayette (35-14) and Navy (23-3).

And while the Falcons did struggle a bit offensively in their first two outings, they played lights out on defense, especially against Navy. The Midshipmen picked up one measly first down during the first three quarters and only managed to muster 68 total yards in the contest. AFA only allowed Navy and Lafayette to convert on 6 of 24 third downs, to boot.

The Falcons rank first in the Mountain West and in the top five nationally in scoring defense (8.5 ppg), rushing defense (39.5 ypg) and total defense (177.5 ypg). One of the biggest keys to Air Force’s success so far has been its ability to generate a potent pass rush. The Midshipmen dropped back to pass 15 times against the Falcons and were sacked five times.

Additionally, AFA had three sacks against Lafayette. The Falcons have been much more successful in this aspect of the game than they were a year ago, when they finished with seven sacks in six games.

“They do a lot of movement up front,” Anderson said. “You know, we’re going to have to do a great job of handling the movement. They are physical. I think the strength and the size of what they have up front is probably their best asset defensively. I think for us our matchups out in space may be a little better, and obviously they haven’t seen anybody spread the field quite like we do with guys like DT (Deven Thompkins) and Kyle (Van Leeuwen) and Brandon (Bowling), and those guys out in space. I’m hoping that makes them really, really uncomfortable. But we’ve got to stay ahead of the chains and sacks are a great way to get you off schedule and put you in a position where you’re very one-dimensional.”

Indeed, this will be a significant challenge for the Aggie offensive line, but those guys have been up to the challenge so far. After all, USU has only allowed one sack in two games, plus the O-line has been instrumental in the team’s success on the ground. In wins against Washington State and North Dakota, the Aggies averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry, plus 219.5 rushing yards an outing.

Quite frankly, the Aggies have been much more dynamic offensively than the Falcons’ first two opponents, so Saturday’s showdown will be a formidable test for the AFA defense. USU ranks second in the conference and 15th nationally in total offense (531.0 ypg), plus the Aggies are also in the top 36 nationally in passing offense (21st, 311.5 ypg), rushing offense (33rd) and scoring offense (36th, 37.0 ppg).

Additionally, several offensive weapons have emerged for the Aggies, so the Falcons can’t focus on one or two players.

“It’s the kind of offense where everybody can have that big game, right? I think three of us (combined for) four touchdowns (catches against North Dakota),” USU slot receiver Brandon Bowling said. “Derek Wright had two, I had one and DT had one, and next week it could be (Justin) McGriff and Savon (Scarver) and anybody else, so it could be anybody in this offense. Everybody’s got to be ready to go and that’s just how it’s going to be.”

It’s also apparent both teams will find out a lot about themselves come Saturday evening.

“What they do is a challenge in every aspect,” Anderson said. “... They’re very well coached. You know, it’s a different challenge, but conference play (brings) a heightened sense of awareness. But we need to get off to a good start and this will be a huge game to win if we can find a way to do that on the road against those guys.”

NOTES: The Falcons have won five of their last six games against the Aggies. ... USU has prevailed in its last 10 September contests. ... This is Utah State’s ninth season in the Mountain West and this will be the fifth time during that timespan it has opened conference play against Air Force. ... The Aggies are aiming for their first 3-0 start since 1978. ... The Falcons are 63-21 all-time at home under the tutelage of current head coach Troy Calhoun. ... Five athletes made their debut for the Aggies a week ago in defensive linemen Darius McFarland, Addison Trupp, Johnson Hansen and Seni Tuiaki, and linebacker Jaymason Willingham.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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