After one week, the 2013 version of Utah State is coming into clearer focus.
A 30-26 loss to Utah highlighted some of the strengths but also revealed a few weaknesses for the Aggies. Although Air Force presents some unconventional challenges, the Aggies will have to fix some things from their season opener in order to have success against the Falcons.
Although Air Force is smaller and less explosive than Utah State, it's hard to argue with the track record. Troy Calhoun has worked with those disadvantages for years and has a 29-18 conference record to show for it. The Falcons can exploit Utah State's mistakes.
Here's what I see as the big keys for the Aggies - if they accomplish these things, they should win.
Don't blow defensive assignments. The top priority this week, as every Aggie defender and coach has said, is "assignment football." It's important to play the right assignment every week, but against Air Force, freelancing can lead to major breakdowns. The Falcons are a by-the-book fundamental team and thrive on finding seams and cracks in defenses. The Aggies know Air Force will get rushing yards, but it's important that the safeties and linebackers don't give them more by making mistakes and missing their assignments.
Keep pressure on the backfield. The quarterback change this week could be a critical advantage. Although Jaleel Awini should be as composed as most cadets are, he'll probably be more prone to mistakes and anxiety than injured starter Kale Pearson. Look for the Aggies to find ways to make him uncomfortable and get pressure in the backfield. He won't throw often, but Utah State wants to make sure when he does have to throw, he'll do it under durress. Getting the Falcons in third and long situations should also help.
Keep the pace high on offense. The Aggies showed against the Utes that getting the snap off quickly can be a dangerous weapon. Air Force is usually considered one of the more conditioned teams in the FBS, but pacing doesn't just tire teams out - it forces them to adjust more quickly. That can make teams disorganized or unprepared for the next snap. It can also catch opposing players offside or before they get to the sideline to sub out. If Utah State can use their tempo to their advantage, it could be a big help.
Play penalty-free ball. It's a high goal, but one worth aiming for. Matt Wells said it didn't take long last week to remind his players to be smart when it comes to hitting guys near the out of bounds marker, or stopping play once you lose your helmet (although probably not many more of those this season). Fifteen-yard penalties can give life to opponents. On the plus side, the offensive line didn't have a false start last week, although they can take care of getting a few holding calls out of their game. Big penalties aren't quite as grave as turnovers, but a lot of them add up.
Be prepared for the unexpected. This can apply to all three phases of the game. On offense, Utah State has to be ready for Air Force's creative blitz packages. The undersized Falcons often find unconventional ways to get to the quarterback. On defense, the Aggies can't completely sell out the run, because Air Force has a knack for getting a handful of completions when their opponents get complacent. On special teams, the Aggies can't let an onside kick or any other kind of unusual play catch them off guard. As they learned the hard way, a special teams play can turn around an entire game.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon