The Utah State Aggies have finally taken flight. The win last week amid a tumultuous season was their first — finally. And they're hoping to avoid being shot down in Week 14 by the visiting Air Force Falcons, which fly into Maverik Stadium in Logan for Thursday night's contest between Mountain West rivals.
Better yet, they'd love to turn one 'W' into two and so on — turn winning into a habit at Utah State.
"It's an everyday message about who we want to be," Aggies interim head coach Frank Maile told reporters, taking time Monday to address what some have deemed an unhealthy culture. "Who you are at the end of the day comes down to the choices you make. For these guys, it's all about training their habits (and) training their everyday lifestyles … We've taking leaps forward from where we're at mentality-wise."
But Maile & Co. are still just 1-4 both overall and in Mountain West action, getting that lone win last Thursday in a 41-27 dismiss of New Mexico. It was their first in three tries at Maverik Stadium this season.
Meanwhile, Air Force has just one win against two losses in Mountain West play so far this season as part of an overall 2-2 record. They've been stalled in action lately, having played just once in the last four weeks due to COVID-19 issues calling off three games. When we last saw them, they shut down New Mexico 28-0 at home two weeks back.
Last week's game at home against Colorado State was a no-go, as the Falcons were thwarted by the virus in trying to get longtime head coach Troy Calhoun his 101st victory with the program. But they're ready to launch this week.
“We’re a team — we all know that,” Calhoun told reporters. “It’s our players, it’s our staff, and it is an honor each day to get up and to work alongside these guys.”
Air Force holds a narrow 5-3 edge in the historic series and defeated Utah State 31-7 a year ago in Colorado. However, there are still players on both rosters that remember the Aggies ripping off three straight wins from 2015-17.
Air Force at Utah State
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 3 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -10
When Air Force Has the Ball
Air Force, of course, knows how to run the ball. The Falcons lead the nation, with 336.5, in rushing yards per game — and showed it against New Mexico.
Running back Brad Roberts ran for three touchdowns, covering five, 12, and 44 yards after quarterback Haaziq Daniels opened the game with a four-yard touchdown run. Roberts went on to carry the ball 28 times for 177 yards as part of the Falcons' 356 yards along the ground in the victory.
"There’s no quit in the guy," Calhoun told reporters, calling Roberts "a warrior" as the team's newly converted fullback. "He added some pounds, and we just felt like he was the most natural runner at the fullback position."
With Roberts acting as the workhorse, the effort vaults him to the team lead in carries (38), yards (280), yards per carry (7.4), and touchdowns (4) on the season. It gives the Falcons six players with more than 100 yards in 2020. Meanwhile, Daniels had 55 rushing yards to go with a 4-of-5, 66-yard passing performance. The domination was helped by 9-of-13 efficiency on third down.
Utah State isn't offering a lot of resistance against the run, allowing 202.8 yards per game — 101st in the country. The Aggies have held just one opponent under 4.4 yards per carry all season.
But the Aggies defense — led by senior Nick Heninger, who had career-highs with eight tackles, two sacks, and two force fumbles, including one for a scoop-six, against New Mexico — can gain confidence from last week's triumph. In stopping the Lobos, it allowed season-bests in points allowed (27), passing yards allowed (152), total offense allowed (348), and yards-per-play allowed (4.6).
When Utah State Has the Ball
The Aggies enjoyed a third-quarter explosion in the win over New Mexico. Three different pass-catchers — Justin McGriff, Savon Scarver, and Carson Terrell — caught touchdown passes before freshman linebacker Kina Maile capped the flurry with a 16-yard scoop 'n' score.
It turned a first-half struggle — as kicker Connor Coles was the only Utah State player to get the team on the scoreboard with a pair of field-goals from 27 and 44 yards out — into the program's first triumph of the campaign.
The biggest contributor in the turnaround was quarterback Andrew Peasley, who tossed the three third-quarter majors and rounded out scoring with a 62-yard run in the final frame. The sophomore finished 14-of-21 for 239 yards and ran for another 118 on 11 carries.
All told, Peasley guided the Aggies to season-highs in points (41), first downs (22), rushing yards (209), passing yards (243), total offense (452), and yards per play (7.5). And it made him the Mountain West player of the week and one of eight Manning Award Stars of the Week.
Peasley's first start for the program was a terrific get for Utah State after starting QB Jason Shelley was suddenly dismissed from the Aggies in early November.
"I was on the winning team my freshman year when we went 11-2, and it obviously felt good," Peasley, who found receiver McGriff for a team-high three receptions and 76 yards, told reporters. "Winning felt normal when I first showed up, and then kind of like slowly, we started losing. Then this year, starting off going 0-4, the team was just like, 'Yeah, this is hard, this is no fun.' And so, I think the win last Thursday really gave us confidence."
Heninger and Coles, who was 2-of-2 on field goals and 5-of-5 on extra points as he tallied a career-high 11 points against New Mexico, were named Mountain West defensive and special-teams players of the week respectively.
The Aggies hope all that star power carries over into the tilt against Air Force, which is led defensively by cornerback Elisha Palm and his 21 solo tackles. Freshman Johnathan Youngblood led the Falcons defense last time out with eight tackles.
There's never a lack of news these days at Utah State, it seems. On Monday, Maile described the dismissal of Shelley as "100 percent my decision, not due to any misconduct of any institutional policies or rules. Jason Shelley did nothing illegal. He is a great man."
Meanwhile, senior running back Jaylen Warren has left, entering the transfer portal despite 821 yards and eight TDs in 15 games with the Aggies. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Maika Magalei has also entered the portal, say reports. All this after three starters — senior linebacker Cash Gilliam, senior safety Troy Lefeged Jr. and junior receiver Deven Thompkins — went into the portal last week.
But with Air Force on deck, there's no time for Utah State to look back. Besides, what's behind the Aggies is a mess. It's time to toughen up.
"The biggest thing I'm telling my guys is, 'If you think you're tough, this is the team you measure your toughness against,'" Maile told reporters. "I love playing Air Force just for the mere fact that you can measure your physicality and mentality just by playing these guys."
'These guys' — the Falcons — are really good and should limit Utah's State's push to improve on its first success of the season.
Prediction: Air Force 34, Utah State 20
(Andrew Peasley photo courtesy of @USUFootball)