COLORADO SPRINGS — Whatever positive momentum built from a decent showing against Iowa and a blowout victory over Idaho State did not transfer to Utah State’s matchup with Air Force. The Aggies were defeated soundly 39-21 in Colorado on Friday night with a start so poor it lead to starting quarterback Cooper Legas being benched in the second quarter.
The Game Flow
One could hardly draw up a worse showing for the Aggies, especially early in the game. Utah State went three-and-out on its first drive with a pair of incomplete passes and a run for no gain, the drive lasting for all of 59 seconds. Air Force then ran 12 plays and went 63 yards for a touchdown.
The next quarter and a half hardly went better than the opening pair of drives. Cooper Legas lost a fumble on a strip-sack which Air Force recovered and then scored on a three play drive. The Aggies punted on a four-play drive and Air Force marched 79 yards in seven plays for another touchdown.
On USU’s fourth drive there was some building of momentum as Legas completed his first two passes of the game — a pair of 23-yard completions to Micah Davis and Terrell Vaughn. But immediately after, Legas threw an interception that Air Force turned into yet another touchdown.
Following this continued downturn of events on offense, Blake Anderson pulled Legas and put in third-string QB McCae Hillstead in hopes of sparking something. The Aggies ultimately punted on Hillstead’s first drive after five plays but Air Force went three-and-out which gave some momentum to USU.
After the Falcons’ punt, Utah State drove the ball more than 50 yards deep into the red zone. On the drive, Hillstead scrambled for an 18-yard gain, though USU largely ran the ball with Faison and Booth. Once inside the two-yard line, Anderson put Levi Williams in on a goal line package. That Williams-led unit failed four times to get the ball in from inside the two-yard line (USU got a fresh set of downs in the midst thanks to a facemask penalty on Air Force). Hillstead came back in on 3rd & Goal to complete a two-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Vaughn.
The Falcons responded to USU’s first points of the game by driving 43 yards in 1:58 and kicking a field goal to go up 32-7 at halftime.
Air Force’s offensive production slowed in the second half relative to the first. The field goal late in the second quarter and a touchdown early in the third marked the last scoring the Falcons would do in the game as they climbed to 39 points. Utah State’s own offensive production rose, however. Starting with their final drive of the second quarter, the last four offensive drives of the game for the Aggies yielded 21 points and 256 total yards — this compared to 46 yards the rest of the game. Hillstead lead each of the three scoring drives and was key in the fourth, non-scoring drive that, despite not yielding any points, did make it into the red zone (ending with a turnover on downs).
The number of drives in the second half was severely limited by Air Force’s two long drives of that half, taking up 6:14 in game time on their opening drive and then 8:43 on a drive that burned out the remainder of the clock.
Notes and Quotes
Hillstead plays great after coming in for Legas
Anderson’s move to bench Legas came as a “quick shock” as USU wide receiver Micah Davis described it. Legas has been the starter since day one of spring ball but a quick trigger had been pulled to put Hillstead in over him. What ensued was the most efficient offense the Aggies had seen all day with four drives into the red zone, three ending in touchdowns. As Davis put it: “They threw him out there and he was ready for it.”
“We saw what we’ve really been seeing throughout practice,” Davis said. “He’s a good playmaker, good running and throwing. I wasn’t surprised at him making plays.”
The most impressive of these drives, at least for Hillstead, was a drive in the mid-third quarter. The true freshman accounted for all 74 yards on a 10-play drive. Hillstead completed 4 of 6 passes for 74 yards and also ran for a five-yard gain (cancelled out by a five-yard sack he took), eventually capping the drive with a nine-yard TD pass to Jalen Royals. Hillstead threw touchdowns on all three of the Aggies’ scoring drives, one to each of Vaughn, Davis and Royals.
For a true freshman, it was a quality performance, arguably the best since Darrell Garretson was thrown into the fray as a true freshman in 2013.
“I think for as inexperienced as he is, it was pretty darn good,” Anderson said. “He missed a couple things. He missed some pressures that he should have picked up. But otherwise he worked through and pulled the trigger. Didn’t turn the ball over. Managed the game relatively well in a pretty tough circumstance.”
Anderson wants to “be smart” with who will be starting QB next week
Anderson’s decision to put Hillstead in the game created a lot of questions. Firstly, why Hillstead over Levi Williams, the listed backup quarterback on this week’s depth chart?
“Just based on what I’m seeing every day in drill work and team work in terms of McCae’s skillset,” Anderson said. “His willingness to work through progressions and get the ball out. I love Levi to death and he’s got a role on our team, you saw it there on the goal line and that’s something we’ll continue to build off of. But even in the reps last week the inability or the ability of one versus the other to see things and clearly make a decisive decision and pull the trigger. We’ve got the skill out in space if we’ll get the ball to them. Felt like right now (Hillstead) gives us the best chance to do that. Nothing against Levi, just skillsets are different.”
The next, most obvious question is whether this decision is a permanent one. Will Hillstead or Legas be the first to trot out onto the field next Saturday when the Aggies host James Madison? Anderson wasn’t willing to provide an answer.
“I want to be smart and safe about making that decision. I don’t want to make it emotionally. I want to do it analytically and critically by dissecting the tape.”
Aggies bullied on both sides of the ball
Utah State lost most of this game at the line of scrimmage. The interior defensive line got moved way too often, especially on the early drives where Air Force ran it down the middle on most plays and gained a consistent and constant four-to-five yards per rush attempt.
“We knew that the run game for them would start with the dive, and if you don’t stop the dive you’re not going to get much else,” Anderson said. “We got the dive and a little bit of toss sweep but we didn’t handle the dive all night.”
Obviously their O-line is really explosive (and) good,” USU linebacker Cole Joyce said. “We just had to kind of fit to where it was going to be. And then we figured it out, it was just maybe too late for that play and they just kept on running it.”
On offense the Aggies really struggled to move or stop the Air Force defensive line. Legas and Hillstead were chased by pass rushers all day, with the latter being sacked three times on a single drive. Anderson said he’ll have to look a little more on tape to see if the issues were more individual or team-wide, but did note a few issues he saw.
“There were some pressures that we didn’t pick up great,” Anderson said. “There were some times that we should have been protecting differently, and those go back to quarterbacks seeing those things and adjusting the protection, that’s part of the job.”
The rush attack didn’t fare much better. There were a few solid runs by Faison and Booth but, along with being partially abandoned due to the score, it struggled to get off the ground with USU only gaining 54 yards all night, it’s worst rushing performance since 2021.
Deep USU running back room banged up
Utah State has boasted a three-deep running back room, but by the second half the Aggies were down to just one of those three, Rahsul Faison. Starting back Robert Briggs didn’t play as he recovers from an injury sustained last week against Idaho State and Davon Booth left after a nine-yard reception where he went helmet-to-helmet with an Air Force defender and didn’t return. Booth had made his first start of the season but it was Faison who had to take essentially all of the snaps at running back in the second half.
Utah State players are in bold, Air Force players in italics
- McCae Hillstead – 18/27, 202 yards, 3 TDs
- Zac Larrier – 3/4, 84 yards,
- Cooper Legas – 2/7, 46 yards, 1 INT (1 fumble lost)
- Levi Williams – 0/1, 0 yards
- Owen Burk – 15 att, 110 yards
- Emmanuel Michel – 28 att, 106 yards, 3 TD
- John Lee Eldridge – 7 att, 58 yards, 1 TD
- Zac Larrier – 10 att, 56 yards, 1 TD
- Rahsul Faison – 7 att, 40 yards
- Davon Booth – 7 att, 19 yards
- Micah Davis – 4 rec, 84 yards, 1 TD
- Terrell Vaughn – 6 rec, 61 yards, 1 TD
- Jalen Royals – 4 rec, 52 yards, 1 TD
- Jared Ronzos – 1 rec, 49 yards
- Brandon Engel – 1 rec, 28 yards
- Alec Mock – 11 tackles (8 solo), 2.0 sacks, 2.0 TFL, 1 pass breakup, 1 forced fumble
- Cole Joyce – 11 tackles (4 solo), 1.0 sacks, 1.0 TFL
- Ike Larsen – 11 tackles (5 solo)
- MJ Tafisi – 9 tackles (4 solo)
- Trey Taylor – 6 tackles (4 solo), 0.5 sacks, 2.0 TFL
- Johnathan Youngblood – 3 tackles (3 solo), 1 INT
By the Stats
- With 202 passing yards Friday, McCae Hillstead threw for the most yards by a USU true freshman since Darrell Garretson had 298 yards at UNLV on Nov. 9, 2013.
- Hillstead’s three touchdown passes are the most by a true freshman QB since Kent Myers had three TDs on Nov. 1, 2014
- The 22 points allowed in the first quarter is the most allowed by the Aggies in a any quarter since giving up 24 in the second quarter to No. 1 Alabama in 2022.
- Air Force’s 29 points is the most the team has scored against an FBS opponent since it scored 42 against UNLV in 2022.
- Terrell Vaughn now has 29 receptions this year, which leads the NCAA.
- Vaughn has four touchdown receptions the year (T-5th in NCAA) and has caught a touchdown in every Aggie game so far
- Micah Davis tied a career-high in receptions with four and accumulated 84 yards, his highest receiving yards total in FBS since facing the Aggies as a member of Air Force in 2021 (110 yards in that game with four receptions)
- Utah State’s 54 rushing yards are its fewest in a single game since 2021 against BYU (22 yards)
- * Sophomore S Ike Larsen (6) had a career-high 11 tackles for his first-career double-digit tackle outing.
- * Sophomore ILB Cole Joyce (20) had a career-high 11 tackles for his first-career double-digit tackle outing. Joyce entered the game with six tackles in his career. Joyce also tied his career-high with 1.0 sacks.
*Stat was provided by USU Athletics Media Relations
Mountain West Standings
Standings and results updated through 10:30 p.m. MT on Sept. 15.
|Team||This Week’s Opponent||MW Record||Overall Record|
|Air Force||39-21 W vs Utah State||1-0||3-0|
|Fresno State||@ Arizona State||0-0||2-0|
|Wyoming||@ No. 4 Texas||0-0||2-0|
|San Diego State||@ No. 16 Oregon State||0-0||2-1|
|New Mexico||vs New Mexico State||0-0||1-1|
|Utah State||39-21 L @ Air Force||0-1||1-2|
|Hawaii||@ No. 13 Oregon||0-0||1-2|
|San Jose State||@ Toledo||0-0||1-2|
|Colorado State||at No. 18 Colorado||0-0||0-1|
|Boise State||vs North Dakota||0-0||0-2|
NEXT UP FOR UTAH STATE — Sept. 23 vs James Madison (2-0)