Saturday at Air Force is a deciding moment for Utah State football

The Aggies have certainly played better teams this season, but they probably haven’t faced a bigger game.

Games against Wake Forest and LSU were great for Utah State’s strength of schedule, but in the grand scheme of the college football landscape, out-of-conference games ultimately mean very little. It’s the in-conference slate that truly defines a team’s season. Some might scoff at that notion, but (to be extreme) no one looks fondly on a winless conference season after going undefeated in the out-of-conference schedule. A 10-2 finish is still on the table for the Aggies, and with that would come a berth in the Mountain West title game and an outside shot at the Group-of-5’s automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Saturday’s showdown in Colorado Springs is Utah State’s ultimatum for 2019. Win and the majority of fans may forget about the Aggies’ shortcoming early in the season, replacing dread with a cautious optimism for what November and December could bring. Lose and USU would be sitting at 4-3 with an extremely difficult road to finishing any better than third in the division behind Air Force and Boise State. The safety net is nonexistent.

This may also be the toughest Air Force squad the Aggies have faced since 2016. At 5-2, the Falcons have already matched their win total from last season. A loss to Boise State to open MW play means Air Force has to rely on outside forces to make the MW title game. Despite the loss, the Falcons are still holding serve against the non-Boise portion of the conference, beating San Jose State, Fresno State, and Hawaii by a combined 66 points. Air Force’s recent success was even enough for head coach Troy Calhoun to openly wonder whether the MW presented enough of a challenge for the Falcons (despite the fact the Falcons have gone 4-4 and 3-5 in MW play the past two seasons, have never won a MW title, have played in only one MW title game, and would need Boise State to lose two games for them to even have a chance this season).

Calhoun’s appraisals may be extremely pompous and baseless, but the Falcons do boast the nation’s second-leading rushing offense at 304.6 yards per game. They also rank first nationally in passing yards per completion at 23.4, 10th in time of possession, 31st in total defense, and second in fewest penalties per game. Even with several injuries at the quarterback position, the Falcons have hardly misstepped. Senior QB Mike Schmidt stepped in after the team’s opening drive versus Hawaii and finished with 120 yards rushing and 147 yards passing with four total touchdowns and zero turnovers. Schmidt has been running with the first-team in practice this week, but with Air Force’s opening day starter Isaiah Sanders back to a full practice load, the Aggies are liable to see multiple QBs on Saturday night.

Regardless of who lines up under the center, the Aggies know what to expect: a punishing triple-option rushing attack partnered with a frighteningly efficient passing attack. Given USU’s occasional struggles this season with firm tackling techniques and discombobulated pass coverage, the Falcons’ strengths play right into the Aggies’ weaknesses. RBs Taven Birdow and Kadin Remsberg are a feisty one-two punch in the backfield. WRs Benjamin Waters and Geraud Sanders are a challenge for any defensive secondary to contain. And an opportunistic Falcon defense led by Demonte Meeks can turn any close game into an onslaught in a matter of minutes.

USU’s counterbalance is exactly who it has been all season: Jordan Love. Love and Co. face yet another lackluster passing defense, as the Falcons enter having given up 231.6 yards per game and 12 touchdowns through the air. The disconnect, however, is the Aggies have failed to light up such defenses this season. Love hasn’t topped 300 yards passing since Wake Forest, after reaching that plateau in seven games in 2018. While a receiving corps and offensive line ravaged by graduations and early departures for the NFL certainly haven’t helped matters, Love’s production to this point has been suspect, throwing for only seven touchdowns to nine interceptions on the season.

Utah State’s rushing defense has been admirable this season, and the Aggies arguably enjoy a special teams advantage over every team on the schedule. But for the Aggies to weather the storm of MW play and challenge for the conference throne, Love’s play has to improve significantly.

Saturday is the deadline. There is no safety net. The trajectory of Utah State’s season comes down to Saturday in Colorado Springs.

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