Utah State’s defense is bracing for a steady dose of Air Force’s running attack.
The Falcons’ defense is hoping for the opposite, even though that could mean tempting fate with big plays.
“It would be amazing,” Air Force linebacker TD Blackmon said when asked about the possibility of Air Force’s long-proven run defense turning the Aggies into a one-dimensional offense. “Knowing that we could drop a couple guys in coverage and put some pressure on the quarterback without having to worry about the running game makes football so much easier.”
Of course, this was only a hypothetical. Making it actually happen, well, it hasn’t happened yet to Utah State in two games under its new coaching staff.
The Aggies boast the nation’s No. 15 total offense (531 yards per game), with production balanced at 311.5 ypg passing and 219.5 ypg rushing.
For context beyond a two-game sample size, consider that offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker was part of the offensive coaching staff at UCF that, in his three on staff, threw for more than 250 ypg and ran for 200 ypg.
First-year Aggies coach Blake Anderson comes from Arkansas State teams where his teams for the past two years passed for more than two-thirds of the team’s total offense, but in 2018 the Red Wolves threw for 281.5 ypg and rushed for 186 ypg in an eight-win season.
So there’s clearly offensive balance ingrained in the team’s coaching DNA.
“Offensively, the key for us is to be who we are,” Anderson said of facing Air Force. “Make them uncomfortable, do what we do best.”
What Air Force does best defensively is stop the run, a category in which they rank fifth nationally. They were 14th against the run in 2019, 18th in 2018 and 15th in 2016 — all this despite facing rushing offenses from Army and Navy (and previously New Mexico when it was running the option) that are perennially in the top five.
“If we’re not able to run the ball, then you probably won’t see that much success from our offense,” Utah State wide receiver Brandon Bowling said.
But this Aggies offense is unlike anything Air Force has seen this year.
The NCAA Football Championship Subdivision opening opponent, Lafayette, has thrown for 467 yards and rushed for 75 in its 0-2 start.
Navy, of course, was the exact opposite. The Midshipmen (0-2) have rushed for 373 yards and thrown for 93.
The Falcons took away the running game from both teams and won both games handily.
This week's challenge will be different. Utah State has a quarterback in Logan Bonner, a graduate transfer (though only a junior) who came from Arkansas State with Anderson and knows how to execute the offense. It also has weapons like Deven Thompkins, who ranks fifth in the nation in receiving yards (133 ypg).
If Air Force is seeking a blueprint from its recent past on how it would want this game to go, look at the Cheez-It Bowl from 2019.
The Washington State Cougars entered that game with the nation’s top passing offense, but also a running attack that averaged a keep-the-defense-honest 70 ypg. The Falcons smothered that running offense, holding former coach Mike Leach’s team to 15 rushing yards on eight carries. The passing game produced 351 yards, but there were also 14 incomplete passes and two sacks on pass plays.
Combine that with Air Force’s clock-eating offense and the time of possession swung 43:24 to 16:36 in favor of the Falcons and they won 28-15.
It’s a system that is built to work together. Air Force works best when its rushing offense and rushing defense are in top form. Utah State, so far, has worked with its passing offense and rushing offense working together to create a pick-your-poison scenario for defenses.
Air Force wants to limit that approach to one poison, and play the odds that it will survive the dose.