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Air Force's lofty goals intact after clearing first major hurdle at Utah State

September 25, 2016 Updated: September 26, 2016 at 6:17 am
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Air Force players have not been shy about a hope to run the table this season.

They are only a quarter of the way there, but a 27-20 victory over Utah State in what on paper looks like the most significant road challenge gave those hopes a boost late Saturday night.

"This was the first big test," tailback Jacobi Owens said. "I'm ecstatic. I'm ready. I'm hyped for the season. I'm happy. We play freaking Navy next week. Come on, this is the big time."

Air Force ran for 213 yards, held Utah State to 42 rushing yards and forced two turnovers against the Aggies, who had won 11 straight Mountain West games at home. The Falcons also registered six sacks and held Utah State scoreless on three trips inside the Air Force 35-yard line.

It was easy to question the legitimacy of the big numbers Air Force posted in wins against overmatched foes Abilene Christian and Georgia State, but an identity was easier to see at Maverik Stadium. This is a Falcons team that, as usual, can run the ball. It can stop the run, too.

Air Force ranks second in the nation in rushing offense (359.3 yards per game) and rushing defense (51.7 yards per game).

The Falcons can also pressure the quarterback. Kent Myers is probably the best dual-threat quarterback in the Mountain West, and he ran for minus-4 yards. He did manage 360 passing yards, completing 29 of 47 attempts, but Air Force's pass defense is probably not foremost on its mind with games against run-heavy Navy, Wyoming and New Mexico next on the schedule.

"There's a lot of stuff that went wrong, especially in the secondary side of the game," said safety Brodie Hicks, whose interception with 2:03 remaining in the first half marked the first forced turnover for Air Force on the season. "I'd say if we were to get graded we'd get about a C+. So, we passed, still, but there's a lot of things we can learn from this."

The Falcons also showed the passing game could be effective. After starting the game by misfiring on four attempts, quarterback Nate Romine closed by going 5 of 9 for 113 yards and a touchdown.

"We've just got to keep trusting the passing game," Romine said. "We know we'll have our big ones come."

Romine completed passes of 47 yards to Ronald Cleveland, 40 yards to Jalen Robinette and a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Reffitt, so the passing game did supply a couple of "big ones."

But the biggest factor, according to coach Troy Calhoun was Air Force's ability to defend from deep in its territory.

"The second half we played really well defensively. I mean, really, really well," Calhoun said. "Because field position, we were playing on our side of the field with our backs against the goal line pretty much the whole second half."

The Falcons had to do more than half of that defending in the second half without safety Weston Steelhammer, who was ejected late in the third quarter for targeting after he tackled Myers as he ran down the sidelines.

More adverse situations are sure to find this team as it pursues its lofty goals. And Air Force is eager to accept those challenges. They entered Logan, Utah, as 5.5-point favorites, and left as seven-point winners.

"We have to believe in ourselves moving forward," linebacker Haji Dunn said. "We're not the underdogs anymore."

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