AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — If Saturday is any indication, the future in the Mountain West Conference looks pretty bright for Utah State.
Chuckie Keeton matched his career high with five touchdown passes, and the Aggies scored 31 unanswered points en route to a 52-20 victory over Air Force in the MW opener for both teams at Falcon Stadium.
“It’s a statement that says we’re here to play,” USU linebacker Zach Vigil said. “But, there are a lot of good teams in the Mountain West and a lot of good quarterbacks, and a lot of good offenses we’re still going to have to face.
“Air Force is a really good program, we knew they were going to be tough. These guys are going to defend our country later, so you know they’re not going to give up. They’re going to give it to you for four quarters. But for us, Utah State’s football team, this is huge.”
This was the Aggies’ first-ever MW game after spending the past eight seasons in the Western Athletic Conference.
“It’s definitely a great feeling to come out with a win, but knowing it’s back here at the Air Force Academy is amazing,” said Keeton, who originally committed to the Falcons before signing with the Aggies. “It’s the first Mountain West game for us and that’s incredible. To be able to come out with a win is great.
“Coming off of last week’s (30-26) loss (at Utah), it definitely gave us a lot of motivation and we tried to take it out a little bit on them. But, it’s going to give us a lot of morale going into next week against Weber State.”
Besides this being the Aggies’ first-ever win in the MW, it was also Matt Wells’ first victory as the head coach of his alma mater.
“I’m not sure it’s really sunk in for me personally yet, to be honest with you,” Wells said. “I’ll tell you what’s special is it’s Utah State’s very first Mountain West game. When you’re a part of that win, everything that president (Stan L.) Albrecht did, everything that (director of athletics) Scott Barnes did to get us into this league, it’s like I told those kids, ‘They’ll never ever take that away from you.
“‘You not only played in the very first Mountain West game, but you won the very first Mountain West game at Utah State.’ So yeah, it is special.”
Keeton, once again, proved he’s a special talent as the junior signal caller was 32 of 40 for 360 yards. All five of his touchdown passes were to different receivers and his 32 completions were a career best.
Keeton also led the Aggies (1-1, 1-0 MW) in rushing with 77 yards on eight carries.
USU finished with 577 yards of total offense, while Air Force (1-1, 0-1) was limited to just 270.
“It’s a really good feeling for us right now,” Vigil said. “Then you think back to last week and we didn’t show up last week, so that’s kind of frustrating. But at the same time, I’m really proud of the guys today.
“The defense and the offense came out here and executed at a high level. We knew what they were going to do and we stopped them, so it worked out good for us as a defense.”
The Falcons racked up 481 yards of total offense in a 38-13 victory over Colgate a week ago. They did most of their damage on the ground against the Raiders with 438 yards.
However, it was tough sledding against the Aggies, who limited Air Force to just 162 yards rushing and 3.3 per carry.
“I think we got thumped in every way that you can diagnose it,” Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun said. “(Utah State is) a heck of a football team. There’s no doubt, they're a top-20 football team. They’ve played that way, especially during the last two months of last year.
“They played like a strong, physical stout, athletic, highly skilled squad (today). And, we did an awful lot to contribute to that, too.”
In the second half alone, USU forced the Falcons to punt four times, as well as turn the ball over on downs another time.
“The biggest thing is they knew they had to start putting up points because our offense was rolling,” Vigil said. “They tried a bunch of different stuff that probably they’re just not used to running as much. As a defense, when they tried to run their conventional stuff, that’s what we knew how to stop and that’s what we did a really good job of stopping them from doing today.”
Perhaps the biggest play in the game was a stop on special teams.
After Ronald Butler hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Keeton to give the Aggies a 31-13 lead early in the third quarter, the Falcons were faced with fourth-and-3 from their own 32-yard line on the ensuing possession.
Air Force lined up to punt, but faked it instead as David Baska received the deep snap and took off running to his right. However, USU stopped him for no gain, and the Aggie offense was back in business.
Three plays later, Keeton hooked up with Joe Hill for a 20-yard touchdown pass, and the rout was suddenly on with a 38-13 lead.
“That was a big turning point, a big momentum changer for us,” Wells said. “The defense came up with a couple of big stops and we turned them into points.”
Did the Aggie coaches sense a fake was coming?
“We were all screaming it,” Wells said.
USU won the coin toss and elected to go on offense first, which turned out to be a very good decision.
Travis Van Leeuwen hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Keeton to give the Aggies a 7-0 lead just 2:10 into the game.
“Offensively, we asked them to start fast and that’s why we took the ball right out of the gate,” Wells said. “We wanted to start fast, that was the plan. Thank goodness it worked. It looked good.”
It didn’t take USU very long to add to its lead.
Jaleel Awini, making his first career start at quarterback for the Falcons, fumbled on Air Force’s first offensive play of the game. Zach Vigil forced the fumble and Kyler Fackrell recovered it.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Vigil said. “It was good for us to set the tempo early in the game and take the pressure off the defense right off the bat.”
The Aggies took over on the Falcons’ 35-yard line and were in the end zone four plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run by Hill, making it 14-0 with 11:17 to go in the first.
However, Air Force answered back with a pair of field goals by Will Conant, from 33 and 34 yards, respectively, to cut the deficit to 14-6 late in the opening quarter.
The Aggies took a 21-6 lead with 9:16 to go in the second thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run by Joey DeMartino.
Air Force answered back on the ensuing possession when Awini scored on a keeper from three yards out to make it 21-13 with 3:20 left until halftime. USU’s defense helped keep the 13-play scoring drive alive for the Falcons with two pass interference penalties on third down.
The Aggies went into the locker room with a 24-13 lead after Nick Diaz connected on a 41-yard field goal just before the half.
Travis Reynolds and Keegan Andersen capped the 31 unanswered points onslaught by USU with touchdown catches of 36 and 1 yards, respectively.
Air Force’s Joey Nichol finished with a game-best 13 tackles, while Jake Doughty recorded 11 stops for the Aggies.