Just four snaps into its victory at Navy last week, Air Force went for (and converted) a 4th-and-1 play from its own 34-yard line. The call was nothing new for the Falcons, who are 4 of 4 this season on fourth down and routinely trust their ability to move the chains in short-yardage situations. Utah State, under new coach Blake Anderson, has tapped into analytics and has shown aggression on fourth down so far this year, and is 6-of-8. “We look at where it’s probable, where it’s needed and where it’s a high-risk play,” Anderson explained. With both teams willing to roll the dice on fourth down, the defenses may be presented with opportunities to create what could in essence be game-changing turnovers.
In considering how this game might turn in its final 15 minutes, this appears to be a strength-on-strength situation. Utah State has outscored its opponents 49-3 in the first two weeks in the fourth quarter, clearly the product of the hiring of strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson. Jackson spent eight seasons in that role with Ole Miss and has also served on staffs at South Carolina and LSU in the SEC. Air Force has long felt it has one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in Matt McGettigan. The team’s conditioning, paired with a running attack that tends to wear down defenses, helps the Falcons eat clock or score late. If this game is close after three quarters, it will be interesting to see which team can find the more effective finishing kick.
The back four
The mission of the front seven on Air Force’s defense is quite clear – stop Utah State’s running game and turn the balanced attack of the Aggies into a one-dimensional one. The mission of the four defensive backs will be to cover a prolific set of receivers. Deven Thompkins is among the nation’s leaders with 16 catches for 266 yards and two scores, three others have six or more catches through two games for the Aggies. Air Force is excited about the talent it features at cornerback with Tre Bugg and Zion Kelly as the starters and James Jones IV among the deep crop of backups, and at safety where Corvan Taylor and Jalen Mererson started last week. Safety Trey Taylor is expected to be out again with an illness.