Utah State to open conference play Saturday night

LOGAN – After a 2-1 start to the football season, Utah State is ready to begin conference play. Matt Wells’ Aggies will start it against the team that put a final end to last year’s conference hopes.

Utah State went into Colorado Springs last fall and found itself trailing by a touchdown with just 41 seconds to play and 17 yards to the first down marker. Kent Myers’ last-chance fourth-down pass to the end zone was swatted by Air Force defensive back Weston Steelhammer before wide receiver Andrew Rodriguez could get a finger on it.

By then, all the jubilation from the big Boise State win was completely gone. The division USU was on top of weeks ago belonged to Air Force.

This year, the Falcons were picked to finish second in the Mountain Division, one spot in front of the Aggies but behind Boise State. Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. showdown in Logan is the first Mountain West game of the year for any team, but it could go a long way in determining the division race.

<h2><em><strong>Experienced Falcons</strong></em></h2>

Steelhammer is one of four starters in the secondary that is back from last year. The senior’s 11 career interceptions rank fifth all-time at Air Force. Three of last year’s starting linebackers return as well, but the defense is only one-half of a talented, experienced group.

“I see a senior-laden, a senior-dominated team,” head coach Matt Wells said. “I look at the defensive depth chart and there are eight seniors starting and four back-ups that are seniors. I look at the offense and I know (quarterback Nate) Romine started at the beginning of the year before he got hurt, but you look at the tight end, the fullback, both wideouts, offensive ends, those guys have all played.”

Air Force has only played two games this year, but its offense has proven to be dangerous. So far, after wins against Abilene Christian and Georgia State, it ranks first in average time of possession (39:51), first in rushing (432.5 yards per game), second in the nation in passing efficiency and fifth in total offense (566.5 yards per game).

Those stats aren’t completely unexpected. Air Force has been known to run a disciplined triple-option attack. Wells said his team needs a solid, sound plan.

“You have to understand who has the fullback, who has the quarterback and who has pitch every play,” he said. “You just have to be very sound in your assignments. When you’re pressuring, you have to be sound. Guys have to be on point and you have to tackle well. You have to have your eyes in the right spot and you have to tackle well against a team like this.”

<h2><strong><em>Improvements needed</em></strong></h2>

Despite jumping to a 24-0 lead against Arkansas State and eventually winning by two touchdowns last week, there were times the offense seemed to struggle. In fact, the Red Wolves finished the game with 357 offensive yards to Utah State’s 334 and went on a 20-3 run to put the game in question in the second half.

All in all, USU produced 198 yards rushing and 136 yards passing to a defense that gave up an average of more than 600 yards in its first two games.

But the second-half problems weren’t just the offense’s fault. Wells said the defense didn’t play well in the third quarter when Arkansas State was making its comeback. He also said the special team need to improve.

“We have to win on special teams,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve won on special teams yet. We played better on special teams this week, but I don’t think we won in any of the three games for our standards on special teams. If we do that this week, that’ll give us a much better chance at winning. We have to continue to clean up issues we have in the kicking game and coverage units. That’s the biggest thing.”

<h2><em><strong>Extra prep time</strong></em></h2>

The Aggies last played on Friday, which gave the team an extra day to prepare for Air Force, but Air Force is coming off a bye week, which gives them a one week advantage.

Wells said the timing of bye weeks can be good and bad.

“Sometimes it comes at a time where you’re kind of banged up and hurt, you’ve had some really physical, close games and it comes at a good time physically,” he said. “Sometimes it can come at a time where you have a rhythm and you’re kind of rolling and you’re like, ‘Dang, I don’t want to get off schedule.’ They’ll be rested, they’ll be fresh and they got an extra week of prep for us, so I’m sure that comes in handy for them.”

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