Early on in Utah State’s game against Air Force Thursday night, the Aggies appeared to have built a bit of momentum off earning their first win of the season the week before.
The offense went on an impressive scoring drive to kick off the contest. The defense forced the Falcons into a fourth-and-long situation in Aggies territory on the ensuing possession.
Ultimately, though, Utah State couldn’t sustain those early successes — that included allowing the Falcons to convert that fourth down, then score a touchdown on the next play — in falling 35-7 to Air Force at Maverik Stadium in Logan.
“As the game went on, it was the same issues,” Utah State interim head coach Frank Maile said. “The offense kind of lost their mojo a little bit as far as trying to be on the field and control the clock. Defensively, we had opportunities to get off the field and we couldn’t do it.”
On Utah State’s first drive of the game, the Aggies struck a nice balance — with 35 rushing yards and 30 passing, while converting 5 of 5 third-down attempts — that led to a 4-yard Jordan Nathan touchdown reception. That included Andrew Peasley, making his second career start at quarterback, finding Derek Wright for a 10-yard gain on a third-and-9 in Air Force territory to keep the drive going.
“Coming into this game, I knew you can’t lose opportunities that are given to you against a team like Air Force because you only have so many drives,” Nathan said. “Every third down, I was saying we need to take advantage of this, we need to capitalize to help out the defense.”
By the end of the night, however, the good vibes that first drive created all but evaporated, as the Aggies finished with 232 yards of total offense. While they were 9 of 14 on third down, they were just 4 of 9 following that first drive. Utah State also was 0 of 2 on fourth down attempts, including Peasley throwing incomplete on a fourth-and-4 play at the Air Force 29 in the third quarter when the Aggies had the chance to cut into the Falcons’ 21-7 lead.
“It was lack of execution. There’s a lot of pieces in that and everyone plays a part in that offensively. The bottom line is that we didn’t execute the way we needed to,” Maile said.
Peasley — one game after making several key plays in last week’s 41-27 win over New Mexico — had a few positive moments against the Falcons, but finished the game completing 17 of 32 passes for 123 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, one of which came on the final play of the first half when USU had the ball at the Air Force 33. He led the Aggies in rushing, gaining 53 yards on eight carries, including a 14-yarder on the touchdown drive and a 27-yard carry later to convert a third down.
“Today, I told him, trust me and I’ve got you. He’s been through a lot. He’s done what he’s supposed to do. He’s a great person, a great leader,” Nathan said of the sophomore Peasley. “Utah State has nothing to worry about with the quarterback situation next year because he’s going to get the job done.”
Utah State could have used the services of running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who was a late scratch for the game. In his place, a trio of young backs took the bulk of the carries, as the Aggies finished with 122 rushing yards. True freshman Elelyon Noa had 10 carries for 30 yards, both career highs, and added three receptions for 15 yards.
The Aggies had a solid plan going into the game — control time of possession against the option-oriented Falcons — but it quickly wore down after that first-drive success. And while Utah State only had one three-and-out in the game, the Aggies failed to sustain drives, a theme that’s popped up often this year.
It was Air Force’s passing attack, not its vaunted option threat, that got the Falcons offense on track in the first half. That proved critical, as Air Force leaned on a strong passing game to move the ball before wearing down Utah State defensively.
Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels completed his first six passes — he finished 7 of 9 for 127 yards and touchdown — and that included two big completions on the Falcons’ first two drives, both of which ended with touchdowns. Daniels had been averaging only four completions per game entering the night.
“It wasn’t what Air Force usually does. We still prepared for any and all situations, but that was for sure an unorthodox game plan for them to pass as much as you did,” Utah State outside linebacker Nick Heninger said.
On the first drive of the game, Utah State forced the Falcons into a fourth-and-9 at the Aggies 35, and Air Force chose to go for it, rather than try for the long field goal. Daniels hit a diving Daniel Morris for a 14-yard completion, leading to a 21-yard Kadin Remsberg touchdown run on the next play.
On the Falcons’ next possession, after Air Force had just converted a short third-down attempt, Daniels found a wide-open Ben Peterson for a 49-yard touchdown strike to give the Falcons their first lead.
Daniels hurt the Aggies with his legs, too. He rushed for 47 yards, most of which came on a 37-yard touchdown run with 52 seconds left in the first half where Daniels cut back behind the line and broke into the open on a third-and-8 play.
“He did a great job. Hats off to him for the way he performed and ran their offense,” Maile said of Daniels. “When he had opportunities to throw the ball, which they don’t do often, he took advantage of it. For us, it was about eye progression and eye discipline. When we didn’t key our man … and who had who when it was (a passing situation), we paid the price and he took advantage of it.”
Air Force then took over with its rushing attack in the second half, controlling possession for more than 22 minutes in the final two quarters. The Falcons scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, and rushed for 334 yards, led by Remsberg (107) and Brad Roberts (98, one touchdown).
“It’s Air Force, so you have to be disciplined,” said Heninger, who finished with a career-hgh 14 tackles. “You don’t win games if you’re 90 or 95% disciplined. If you give up a big play, they score.”
Utah State did come up with a stop at a critical juncture, on the first possession of the second half with USU trailing by two scores. That included Justus Te’i getting the Aggies’ lone sack of the night on a third down to force a punt — the Falcons’ only one of the night — and give USU solid starting field position on its next drive.
Too often, though, Air Force had little trouble moving the ball on Utah State, in rolling up 461 yards of total offense.
The third aspect of the Aggies’ team did not have much of an impact on the game’s final score.
All-American returner Savon Scarver missed Thursday’s game, which gave true freshman running back John Gentry the opportunity to return kickoffs for the first time this season. He had five returns for 119 yards, including a 29-yarder in the final minute of the first half to give Utah State good enough field position — at its own 34 — to try and score before the break.
Freshman Stephen Kotsanlee had an effective night punting, averaging 44.3 yards per punt (with a 42.7 net) and dropping all three inside the Air Force 20. That included downing one at the Air Force 1-yard line in the second quarter.
One of the few hiccups for Utah State on special teams came when a holding penalty on a kickoff return in the second quarter forced the Aggies to start a drive at their own 12 after Air Force went up 14-7. While USU was able to dig out of that hole on the ensuing drive, it was a rather uneventful night on special teams.
With just one game remaining in the season — at Colorado State a week from Saturday — it’s been a rough go for the Aggies in 2020, and the positives have been too far between with a 1-5 record. Thursday night’s loss added to the frustration and dropped Maile to 1-2 as the interim head coach.
Again, offense and defense proved too inconsistent for Utah State to keep pace with the Falcons.
“Bottom line is that’s on me as the head coach, and I have to do a better job preparing these guys for the game,” Maile said.