Utah State couldn’t overcome a poor first quarter, a slew of miscues and a pair of costly first half turnovers in losing 39-21 to Air Force in the Mountain West Conference opener for both programs Friday night.

The Aggies (1-2) have more questions than answers after getting blown out by the Falcons (3-0) as they start off conference play with a defeat.

McCae Hillstead provided a spark on offense

True freshman McCae Hillstead was inserted into the game just a few minutes into the second quarter for the Aggies after Air Force had built a 29-0 lead.

Two Cooper Legas turnovers — one a fumble, the other an interception — led to two Falcons touchdowns, and the pick ended a promising drive deep into Air Force territory with no points.

That led to Hillstead coming on in relief, and the Skyridge High product looked impressive overall in his first significant college action.

Hillstead had his freshman moments, sure, but he also led every scoring drive for Utah State and completed 18 of 27 passes for 202 yards, three touchdowns and, importantly, no turnovers. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Hillstead also ran for 6 yards on seven carries.

“He’s a good playmaker. I wasn’t surprised at him making plays,” said Utah State wide receiver Micah Davis, who had four receptions for a team-high 84 yards and a touchdown — his 6-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter was the final score of the night. “They threw him out there and he was ready for it.”

Davis added that Hillstead’s teammates rallied around their young playmaker.

“We knew he’s young, so we knew we had to rally and help him out, just make some plays for him, get him comfortable and he did the rest,” he said.

Will Hillstead’s performance lead to a change at quarterback for Utah State?

Utah State coach Blake Anderson said a change at signal caller has been in consideration since Day 1 of fall camp.

“I wanted to give Coop every opportunity to settle in and get into a confident place and get to a point where he would pull the trigger when he saw something he knew was real and could see his reads and progressions,” the coach said. “I just didn’t see that happen.

“This week, unwillingness to pull a trigger in a couple situations, misreads for the turnover, I just felt like it was time to move on.”

Immediately following the game, Anderson wasn’t willing to declare just yet whether the change at quarterback would be permanent.

“I’m going to think about it tonight, watch the tape. I don’t want to overstep anything. I just want to deliberate about the next step,” he said. “It could very well be a change. It could just be a change for tonight but it could very well be a change for the future.

“I want to be fair to Coop as well, be sure I saw on film what I saw in person, before I make that decision.”

While backup quarterback Levi Williams briefly replaced Hillstead for a few plays near the goal line during a second-quarter drive, Anderson explained that Hillstead’s skillset and decision-making gave him the edge over Williams and why he chose to ultimately go with the true freshman for much of the night.

“For as inexperienced as he is, it was pretty darn good. He missed a couple things — he missed a couple pressures that he should have picked up, but otherwise he worked through,” Anderson said of Hillstead’s performance. “He pulled the trigger, didn’t turn the ball over, managed the game relatively well in a pretty tough circumstance for your first opportunity.

“(Playing against) that defense in this environment, that’s pretty tough to ask.”

Utah State’s defense got pushed around by Air Force’s run attack

It’s not uncommon for the Falcons to dominate their opponents with their rushing attack, and that was certainly the case Friday night at Falcon Stadium.

Air Force entered the game ranking second nationally in rushing yards per game, and the Falcons ran over, around and through the Utah State defense all night — it could have been worse considering the Falcons had some penalties wipe out long runs in the second half.

Even so, Air Force finished the game with 344 rushing yards — that’s 155 more than the 189 rushing yards Utah State had given up in its first two games combined.

“They’re really good downhill. They got movement all night,” Anderson said. “We thought we had a good plan coming in. … Tonight we didn’t execute that plan very well and never really ever got them off balance.

“You put that along with offensive turnovers and frustrations over there, it’s a recipe for the game you just saw.”

The Falcons piled up a lot of their yardage in the first quarter-plus of action — by the time Air Force scored a touchdown on its fourth straight possession, it had 225 yards of total offense and three drives that covered 60 or more yards. 

Utah State sophomore linebacker Cole Joyce, who had a career-high 11 tackles and a sack against the Falcons, stressed the importance of not letting this performance — against a team that runs the triple-option offense — linger into the future.

“We can’t let it completely tear our confidence down,” he said. “If we just do what we normally do, prepare like we prepare, we’ll be great next week. We can’t let this loss carry into next week.”

Air Force had four players run for 50 or more yards. Emmanuel Michel ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns, while Owen Burk added 110 yards with a 7.3 yards-per-carry average. John Lee Eldridge III (58 rushing yards) and quarterback Zac Larrier (56) also had touchdown runs.

Utah State struggled much of the night to get the Air Force offense off the field — the Falcons held a 38:40-21:20 edge in time of possession and converted 9 of 13 third downs.

“We got pushed around most of the night,” Anderson said.

Utah State’s early offensive woes helped set the tone

It was not the best night for Legas, the senior quarterback.

After Utah State went three-and-out on its first drive and Air Force drove downfield for the first score of the night, Legas fumbled on the ensuing possession. The Falcons recovered at the Aggies 11-yard line and three plays later, Air Force scored its second touchdown of the game to quickly make it 15-0.

That set the tone for a frustrating night of miscues.

Air Force pushed its lead to 22-0 on its third offensive possession, and Utah State responded with a drive that reached the Falcons 23. 

That’s when another costly turnover essentially squelched any hopes for a road win to start conference play. 

On the third play of the second quarter, Johnathan Youngblood stepped in front of an off-the-mark Legas pass, an interception that prematurely ended a promising drive that could have made the game competitive again.

While Anderson reiterated that while the offensive struggles were not limited to Legas, he was deliberate in wanting to see more out of the quarterback play.

“Those turnovers were turnovers we just can’t have. You can’t beat good teams if he’s jittery or indecisive,” Anderson said. “At that point, it was time to make a change.

“Proud of the way McCae came in and played — as a true freshman, he did some really good things.”

By the time Hillstead took over, the momentum was already well in Air Force’s control and Utah State was forced to be one-dimensional offensively one week after rushing for 380 yards against Idaho State. This game, Utah State ran for just 54 yards.

Anderson said nothing went right on this night, while emphasizing, “How you act in adversity is way more important than how you act when things go great.

“... How we respond this week is going to be critical to that.”

Slow starts have become a theme for the Utah State offense so far this season — through three games, the Aggies have been outscored 43-7 in the first quarter.

“We’ve got to come out the gate with a little bit of fire in us. We’ve got to be confident in ourselves, know we can go out there and make plays. We’ve got to really together,” Davis said.

What’s next?

Utah State will play a pair of nonconference games over the next two weeks. The Aggies host James Madison next week, with a trip to UConn the week after.

Following that, Utah State will kick off eight straight weeks of MWC play with a home contest against Colorado State.

“We’ve got to eliminate mistakes, we’ve got to quit hurting ourselves and give ourselves a chance to compete,” Anderson said.

“There’s work to be done across the board.”