Utah State visits Air Force, 8:15 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2, 740 AM
SUBPLOTS WE’LL WATCH
Which Jordan Love shows up?
The statistics are down for Utah State’s Jordan Love. And here’s what Air Force coach Troy Calhoun says you can do with your statistics: “I think statistically, if you were his agent – his representative – I think statistically you’d do OK here in about seven months.” Love, the Mountain West’s preseason pick for Offensive Player of the Year, is projected by many to be a mid-first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Last year, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior threw for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. This year he’s on pace for similar yardage but only 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Utah State’s 40% success rate on third down has had a lot to do with the inability to finish drives the way it did lats year. Air Force knows full well what Love can do, as he has completed 43 of 68 passes for 640 yards and four touchdowns in two starts against the Falcons. “We know who we’re facing,” Air Force safety Grant Theil said. “We’re going to have to play our best ball on Saturday to be able to give our team a chance to win.”
Will Air Force continue its trend?
The Falcons have outscored their past two opponents – Fresno State and Hawaii – 49-6 in the second half. It may be nitpicking, but the defense would prefer the entire games to go like that. In those contests, Air Force has given up 44 first-half points. “We always talk about catching up to the speed. But I want to establish the speed. So I think we need to start faster,” said linebacker Kyle Johnson. Added safety Jeremy Fejedelem, “I just think that we’re playing the way that we should second half and not really the way that we should the first half. We’re going to try to get better at that.” Overall, Air Force has outscored its opponents 113-80 after halftime, while Utah State has been outscored 73-69. Reasons for Air Force’s second-half improvement? Some players have pointed to coaching adjustments. Johnson goes back to improved tackling, noting that many of the first-half breakaways have come from missed tackles or assignments. Calhoun has mentioned a veteran defense that can adjust on the fly and notes this is “the best conditioned team I’ve been around in any sport.”
Expect another close game
This series has rarely been short of good theater. The past four meetings have seen Air Force score 132 points, with Utah State at 125 – an average score of 33-31.25. The Aggies hold a slim 1,863-1,817 edge in total yards in those games, each of which was decided by 10 points or fewer. It was in this series that Falcons’ quarterback Isaiah Sanders made his first career start, rushing for 196 yards and three touchdowns on a school-record 44 carries in a 38-35 thriller. It was also the series that saw future Denver Bronco Hunter Sharp post a 194-yard receiving game. Air Force has rushed for 300 or more yards in three of the past four meetings, while Utah State has gone over 300 passing yards in three of the past four. And much as this year’s game could help decide the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title (depending on how Boise State’s season plays out), the winner of this game in 2013 and ’15 went on to play in the conference championship game.
Defensive back Eric Ward waited 3 1/2 years for a starting spot for Air Force, and when it arrived it was even more special to him than he anticipated.
Mike Schmidt isn't guaranteed a spot on the field for Air Force despite a breakout game at Hawaii, but he's fine with any role the team needs of him after a whirlwind of a week.
Air Force defenders Grant Theil, Tre' Bugg, Demonte Meeks and Eric Ward describe Bugg's unlikely 95-yard interception return for a touchdown at Hawaii.
Air Force is known for its running game, but receiver Geraud Sanders could give it a second national leader in a surprising offensive category for the second time in four years.
BRENT BRIGGEMAN, THE GAZETTE