Kragthorpe: Utah State announces MWC arrival in rout of Air Force
College Football • USU turns emotional loss against Utes into motivation vs. Air Force.
Published: September 7, 2013 10:52PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:34PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Colorado Springs, Colo.

So maybe the Utah State Aggies have joined a league that enables them to play in front of bigger crowds, but you never would have known that by the scene Saturday afternoon at Falcon Stadium.

Other than the loyal cadet section, the stands were practically empty by the time the Aggies completed a 52-20 rout of Air Force, having made quite an impact in their first Mountain West football game.

Who invited these guys, anyway?

USU administrators shrewdly timed their arrival in the league to coincide with Chuckie Keeton’s further advancement in quarterbacking, that’s for sure. In the spectacular, sunny setting of the Academy, a school he once planned to attend, Keeton’s 32-of-40 passing day was good for 360 yards and five touchdowns.

Any issues regarding the Aggies’ ability to compete in this league were resolved when they scored touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half. This was a resounding statement by USU, much like the pitcher in “Bull Durham” who wanted to “announce my presence with authority.”

In a televised portion of his pregame speech to the team, first-year coach Matt Wells said, “The Aggies are here!”

Yeah, you could say that.

Afterward, Wells seemed more caught up in the emotion of the school’s first MW win than his own career breakthrough. The players awarded him a game ball in “definitely, a special moment for us,” Keeton said. “Hopefully, he cherishes that ball, because I know it was fun for all of us to get out there and earn it for him.”

Wells already was rewarded by the Aggies’ play. He chose to take the football after winning the coin toss, and the offense responded with a touchdown drive. Leading 31-13, USU stopped a fake-punt attempt that basically ended the game in the third quarter.

So it was the Aggies ventured into their new league and delivered a dominant performance in a venue where other Utah schools always were happy to win in any fashion. During the first quarter, MW commissioner Craig Thompson kiddingly asked me, “Is this your first Mountain West game?”

Well, yes, in this sense: I’d never seen BYU or Utah stage a showing like this at Falcon Stadium in the state’s previous era of conference membership.

The last time the Utes came here as MW members in 2010 and escaped with a victory, coach Kyle Whittingham said athletic director Chris Hill would be “a dead man” if he ever scheduled Air Force. Utah’s unbeaten teams of ‘04 and ‘08 defeated the Falcons by a combined 21 points - and USU led by 32 after three quarters Saturday.

Questions will persist about the quality of this young Air Force team. Yet the obvious conclusion is the Aggies have a shot of playing in the MW’s inaugural championship game in December. They’ll host Boise State next month in a game that may decide the Mountain Division winner.

That’s getting ahead of the story. The message from Saturday is the Aggies made their emotional loss to Utah work in their favor. Wells wondered if that defeat would stick with them “and turn into two losses or three losses,” but that did not happen.

If anything, the Falcons can partly blame Utah for this outcome. “It definitely gave us a lot of motivation,” Keeton said. “We tried to take it out a little bit on them.”

There could be no better sign of USU’s success than the steady stream of cars exiting the parking lot - in the third quarter. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who stayed to the end, labeled USU “no doubt … a top 20 team.”

Not bad, for a first impression.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt