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Is another shootout in the offing between Utah State and Air Force?

The Aggies and Falcons have combined to score 155 points in their last two meetings

SHARE Is another shootout in the offing between Utah State and Air Force?
Air Force wide receiver Jared Roznos (13) runs in a touchdown during game on Sept. 2, 2023, at Air Force Academy, Colo.

Air Force Falcons wide receiver Jared Roznos (13) runs in a touchdown during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Air Force Academy, Colo.

The Gazette, Parker Seibold via Associated Press

Since Blake Anderson took over as the head coach of Utah State, meetings between the Aggies and the Air Force Falcons can best be described as barnburners.

Combined over the last two meetings, the teams have scored 155 points, racking up over 2,000 yards of offense (2,020).

In 2021, the game ended in Utah State’s favor — 49-45 — and that score, large as it is, doesn’t tell the whole story. USU recorded 628 yards of offense, with 26 first downs, with Air Force not far behind, tallying 619 yards and 23 first downs.

In 2022, things calmed down slightly in a 34-27 win for USU.

Still, though, the Aggies had over 400 yards of offense (414), while the Falcons had 359 yards.

It has been all offense when the Aggies and Falcons have met the last two seasons, despite their respective approaches being drastically different. (Air Force famously runs the triple option, while USU’s spread attack is all about space and speed.)

What will the 2023 matchup look like?

Will things revert to a defense-heavy game? After all, three weekends into the 2023 season and Air Force has the top-ranked defense in the country, yielding a measly 118 yards per game.

Utah State has been middle of the road defensively thus far — ranked No. 73 after allowing 354 yards per game — a slight improvement on 2022, when the Aggies ranked No. 82 to end the season.

As far as Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is concerned, though, it will be more of the same — meaning offense and lots of it — when Utah State and Air Force meet at Falcon Stadium Friday night at 6 p.m. MDT.

“I don’t, I don’t expect that,” Calhoun said, chuckling at the idea of the Falcons slowing down the Aggies’ offense. “I mean, I just think the number of games where they’ve been 450 yards and 25 to 27 first downs and scored 35-plus points. They’ve had a bunch of them and they’re going to have a good number this year, too. So by no means at all do we think we’re going to be something that’s different that way.”

Why are the Aggies so difficult to contain?

It is all about space —  specifically USU’s ability to create it and exploit it.

“They do create open field, open space,” Calhoun said. “And they move exceptionally well. So open space stays open space. They don’t have to have a real wide window to be able to get through it. And that’s at a bunch of spots where that’s true.”

Air Force has made significant changes on defense in an attempt to limit opposing offenses, not just the Aggies but across the Mountain West. Calhoun noted that the Falcons underwent a major change in terminology in 2022, and in 2018 before that, in an attempt to stay viable in modern college football.

“I just think that is kind of the evolution of college football,” he said.

Against USU, Calhoun is hoping his defense can just stay in front of the Aggies enough to limit the big scoring plays that helped Utah State to a record-breaking 78-28 win over Idaho State last weekend.

“Maybe the inside backer can help a little bit, maybe close some gaps,” he said. “We’re talking about open space and if we can close some of that open space sooner we’d like to, so instead of a play being a 40-yard play, now is that maybe eight-yard play. That doesn’t sound like a huge win, but that is a victory at least in the short term just because you’re keeping the ball in front a little bit.”

Of course, the Aggies will have just as difficult a time containing Air Force’s triple-option attack.

And they know it.

For the last three weeks, even while preparing for Iowa and Idaho State, USU has been working on defending the triple option. Practicing how to play against yet another unique offensive system, after facing Iowa’s pro-style attack, followed by Idaho State’s Air Raid offense.

“The challenge gets extremely difficult on a short week against a very good Air Force team,” Anderson said. “So we know what that presents. ... It is always difficult (to travel) but then when you put the triple-option football, the style of play that they have in all three phases, just how well coached they are, how many few undisciplined mistakes they make and how they run the clock short, this is a huge game for us.”

This Air Force team isn’t last year’s — or the 2021 iteration — in large part due to the absence of running back Brad Roberts, but Anderson expects the Falcons to be as difficult to challenge as ever.

As he explained it, Air Force knows the type of players it can recruit, knows the type of players that fit its system and consistently plugs new pieces in year after year to great effect.

“They’re replacing a senior quarterback. They’re replacing Brad Roberts, who was one of the best running backs/fullbacks they’ve had in a long, long time,” Anderson said. “So I mean, they’re not without some hurdles to cross to. But they have not gotten too far away from their personality. I think (they’ve added) some bells and whistles, some eye candy, to make you chase things. That makes you more vulnerable inside if you’re not careful.”

“I know (we’ve) been preparing for Air Force. Since last spring. You don’t go into game week and then decide what you’re going to do versus the triple (option). We did spring work, summer work and fall camp work. We’ve worked triple the last two weeks, during the week.

“We worked it against Iowa and we worked it last week against Idaho State. That’s the only way that you have a chance to be sound and match up and work all the different keys that you have to because (the triple option) is so unlike anything else you’re gonna see.”

Anderson is confident that Utah State’s offense can have success against the Falcons — “I think the way we play is just so distant, different from what they do every day, what they see every day,” he said — and after the last two meetings, he has good reason to.

The same goes for Calhoun and the Falcons.

So expect fireworks Friday night in Colorado Springs. That’s quickly become the norm when Utah State and Air Force meet.