Two Mountain West teams coming off decisive wins will meet at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs on Saturday night, as Utah State (4-2, 3-0 MW) battles Air Force (5-2, 3-1) in a critical game for both teams.
Last week, the Aggies set the tone early on Savon Scarver’s 100-yard first-quarter kickoff return, as they cruised to a 36-10 win over Nevada. Gerold Bright rushed for 126 yards on 15 carries and scored two touchdowns, while Jordan Love completed 13 of 31 passes for 169 yards with one touchdown and one interception. It's a good sign that Utah State can control a conference game from start to finish without Love at his best. The defense was lights out, as they limited a very good Wolfpack offense to one touchdown and 326 yards of total offense. They forced Nevada quarterback Malik Henry into a pair of interceptions.
The beat goes on for the Falcons, as they went over to Honolulu and crushed Hawaii 56-26 last Saturday night at Aloha Stadium. Mike Schmidt came off the bench to replace the injured Donald Hammond III at quarterback and took full advantage of the opportunity. Schmidt completed 5 of 7 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, and he picked up three more touchdowns on the ground, as he had 14 carries for 120 yards. Explosive plays were the theme of the night for the Falcons; they had three offensive plays of 60 yards or more. The defense also joined the fray with a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown by Milton Bugg III late in the fourth quarter to put an exclamation mark on the night for Air Force.
Utah State at Air Force
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 10:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Air Force -2.5
When Utah State Has the Ball
The Aggies are going to have to keep the Falcons off-balance with a mix of run and pass. This will also them to play a little bit of keep away from Air Force to save some wear and tear on their defense. Jordan Love will need to bounce back and get the ball to Siaosi Mariner and the rest of the wide receiving corp early and often. Gerold Bright should see at minimum 15-20 carries — if not more — as he is well on his way to a 1,000-yard season in 2019.
Patience will be a virtue for the Falcons defense, as they need to force the Aggies offense to work slowly down the field. The secondary had issues last year against Love, who threw for 356 yards against them with multiple explosive plays. Red zone defense will be another key for Air Force in order for them to get a win this week. The Aggies have just eight touchdowns in 24 attempts this season, and they'll need to improve in that area to win the Mountain West Conference championship.
When Air Force Has the Ball
It’s going to start up front with the offensive line for the Falcons, as the size and strength of the Aggies defensive front will test them. Air Force ran the ball 86 times for 323 yards in last year’s game in Logan. They will need to produce similar numbers on the ground on Saturday night. Expect the Falcons to try to impose their will in the running game with Donald Hammond III or Mike Schmidt at quarterback, along with Kadin Remsberg and the rest of the running backs. Also, Air Force will need to take their shots deep against the Utah State secondary to try and pop two to three chunk plays in the passing game.
The Aggies have an interesting challenge on their hands of dealing with the option and only having a week to prep for it. Utah State is surrendering 136.2 yards per game on the ground and 270.0 in the air, so they aren't the most imposing unit. Getting off the field on third down and making stops in the red zone are going to important keys to success this week for the Aggies defense. Utah State allowed opposing teams to convert 40.5 percent of their third-down opportunities, and opponents have scored 13 touchdowns in red zone 19 attempts. Linebacker David Woodward paces the team with 82 tackles and will have to lead the way on Saturday with a 15-plus tackle type of performance to give the Aggies their best chance to slow down Air Force’s option attack.
There is enough talent on both sides of the ball defensively to keep this game under last year’s point total of 74. Home field advantage should decide this one, as the Falcons will do just enough offensively to outlast a tough Aggie defense in the second half. Air Force will pick up win number six and knock off Utah State by single digits on Saturday night.
Prediction: Air Force 34, Utah State 29
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.