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3 takeaways from Utah State’s thrilling 49-45 win over Air Force

The Aggies rallied from a double-digit deficit and secured their first 3-0 start to a season since 1978

Air Force’s Demonte Meeks misses a tackle on the Utah State quarterback Andrew Peasley during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Air Force Academy, Colo.
Air Force’s Demonte Meeks misses a tackle on the Utah State quarterback Andrew Peasley during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Air Force Academy, Colo.
Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette via The Associated Press

Looking to go 3-0 to start the season for the first time since 1978, the Aggies made the trip to Colorado Springs Saturday evening to face Air Force and its reputation-preceding triple option offensive attack that Utah State fans had become very familiar with over the years.

In a game that had viewers on the edge of their seats throughout, Utah State overcame an 11-point deficit to secure a 49-45 victory over the Falcons, earn its first Mountain West victory of the season and improve to 3-0 in the first season under head coach Blake Anderson. The high scoring event saw six lead changes and over 1,200 yards of combined offense from both teams.

After taking the lead on a 61-yard touchdown run by Calvin Tyler Jr. with just under four minutes remaining in the game, senior linebacker Justin Rice came in clutch, stripping the ball from Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels to force the turnover and allow his squad to kneel the game out.

The play was indicative of the whole game for an Aggies squad that came through when they needed to despite struggling to contain the Air Force offense all night.

“The game did not go at all like I expected it to go, but when we had to have plays, guys stepped up,” Anderson said after the game, adding that he hopes to see a giant turnout at Utah State’s home game next week against Boise State.

Here are three takeaways from the third win of the season for the Aggies:

Heroics from Justin Rice

Coming off of a performance against North Dakota that saw him named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week, Rice likely delivered a performance that will earn him the award for a second straight week.

Rice finished the ball game with a career-high 14 tackles and an interception to go along with the late forced fumble that was arguably the most significant individual play of the night for the Aggies.

Anderson seemed to think the play was in fact the biggest of the night.

“The guy is playing great ball,” Anderson said of his star linebacker. “With Justin, that’s just what the guy does. I’ve gotten used to seeing him make big plays when we’ve needed them most and none of them were bigger than (the forced fumble).”

Rice said that the game-saving play came down to his studying film of Daniels running the ball.

“We knew that they were all-in to score,” Rice said. “All week we talked about how (Daniels’) ball security wasn’t very good once he gets past the line of scrimmage, so I saw him loose with the ball and just started going after it.”

Quarterback carousel making a return?

After performing well through the first half, quarterback Logan Bonner took a late hit to his lower back early in the third quarter after throwing a touchdown strike to Justin McGriff. The shot would see Bonner sit out a couple drives before attempting to make a return, only for him to throw Utah State’s only interception of the game.

In the two drives that Bonner sat out, quarterback Andrew Peasley went 7-8 through the air for 94 yds and two TDs to go along with another 28 yards on the ground. The immediate impact performance was enough for Anderson and his staff to hand the reins over to Peasley after the failed return from the hampered Bonner.

Peasley would go on to lead the Aggies to 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to overcome an 11-point Air Force lead and secure the victory.

Though the job will likely still be Bonner’s when he’s healthy, the performance from the junior quarterback certainly showed just how close he and Bonner are in terms of talent level.

Peasley said his preparation for the game is what helped him come off the bench and fire on all cylinders quickly.

“I take preparation seriously throughout the week in case things like this happen,” Peasley said. “You don’t want it to happen, but when (Bonner) went down coach talked to me and said, ‘Just go out there, execute and do your job,’ and that’s what I did.”

The comebacks are becoming routine

In both of the first two games, the Aggies found themselves trailing by double digits only to come back and secure the win. For the third straight game, Utah State found themselves trailing by double digits and for the third straight game the Aggies still came out on top.

The win marks the first time in school history that a football team has overcome double-digit deficits in a victory in three consecutive games.

Anderson attributed the season’s prior comebacks to the superior conditioning of his team and, once again, that appeared to be the case as the Aggies seemed to get better as the game wore on.

For Saturday evening’s game, Anderson said his players indeed showed that superior conditioning he had often referred to, but they also showed excellent mental conditioning.

“The guys’ willingness to keep playing, not quit, not get frustrated, believe that it’s possible, stay positive, stay within the system ... that mindset is huge,” Anderson said. “But also our willingness to continue to play at a tremendously high-effort level. We continued to play a high rate of speed and you could see fatigue setting in (for Air Force). I told the guys to just keep it close and when we get to the fourth quarter it’s going to pay off, and it did.”