NCAA Thursday Night Football: Air Force/Utah State Preview

by Alec McMordie

Air Force plays at Utah on Thursday night in a game between two Mountain West Conference teams facing different forms of adversity.

For the Falcons, the biggest challenge this season has been getting to play their scheduled games given COVID complications. Air Force had their scheduled home contest with Colorado State canceled due to an outbreak within their program.

The Falcons decided to embark on a season in the fall well before their other Mountain West Conference reconsidered their initial decision to postpone games. Air Force opened their season on October 3rd with a 40-7 victory over Navy. They waited another three weeks for their conference brethren to begin their seasons but lost that game at San Jose State by a 17-6 score. The Falcons lost at home to Boise State the next week by a 49-30 score but then had COVID issues that result in them not playing for three weeks before hosting New Mexico, who they shut out by a 28-0 score. Air Force goes into this game with a 2-2 record along with a 1-2 mark in conference play.

The Falcons’ flexbone option under head coach Troy Calhoun in his fourteenth season with the program continues to put up huge rushing numbers. Air Force leads the nation by averaging 336.5 rushing yards-per-game. Freshman Brad Roberts had a breakout game against the Lobos with 177 rushing yards with three touchdowns on 28 carries.

Senior quarterback Donald Hammond III left the team in the fall to enter the transfer portal rather than returning for his third year as a starter with the program. Sophomore Haaziq Daniels has emerged as the first-string quarterback with 189 rushing yards with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average in three games. He also has offered the offense a threat in the passing game by completing 17 of 31 passes for 199 yards.

The Falcons defense has once again been strong after ranking 17th in the nation last season by allowing only 319.6 yards-per-game. Air Force is allowing 18.3 points-per-game this year along with just 324.5 yards-per-game.

Utah State won their first game of the year last week with a 41-27 upset victory over New Mexico as a 6-point underdog. The Aggies gained 452 yards on offense while holding the winless Lobos to 348 yards in what was their best performance of the season on both sides of the football. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Peasley led the way in his first career start by completing 14 of 21 passes for 239 yards with three touchdown passes along with another 118 rushing yards with a touchdown on the ground.

The victory for Utah State was also the first game under co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile who was named the interim head coach the previous week after Gary Andersen suddenly led the program. Anderson has become quite the enigma with his coaching career arc. He brought the program to great heights, including an 11-2 mark in 2012 with a conference championship and a bowl game victory. Andersen got wooed by Wisconsin to take over their program, but it was determined to be not a good fit for either Andersen or the Badgers.

Andersen was able to get another power five conference job at Oregon State. Yet his tenure there ended with him leaving the program midseason amidst a rebellion from his assistant coaches. After serving as the defensive coordinator for his former mentor Kyle Whittingham at Utah, Andersen returned to Utah State to keep that program going after a successful six-year run under his former offensive coordinator with the Aggies in Matt Wells. But after only seven wins in seventeen games, Andersen left the program in what is a described mutual decision. Perhaps Andersen has lost his fire for coaching. Or the Utah State administration was frustrated with the direction of the program.

The Aggies have seen players leave the program since the Andersen departure. Senior linebacker Cash Gilliam, senior linebacker Troy Lefeged, and junior wide receiver Deven Thompkins left the program last week to enter the transfer portal. Senior running back Jaylen Warren and sophomore linebacker Maika Magelei made that choice this week. Maile also dismissed quarterback Jason Shelley last week in what of his first actions as head coach, which created the opportunity for Peasley to make his first start. Maile communicated this week that Shelley’s dismissal had nothing to do with any team violations while vouching for his character. Yet Maile has made it a point to change the culture of the program.

BookMaker lists Air Force as an 11.5-point favorite with the total set at 51.5. The CBS Sports Network has the broadcast starting at 9:30 PM ET.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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