Kent Nishimura, AP
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — A lack of execution on both sides of the ball by Air Force allowed a game that could have been close to develop into a rout Saturday.
Dropped passes turned two promising first-half drives into field goals, and the defense was gashed for 577 total yards as Utah State ran away with a 52-20 win at Falcon Stadium in both teams' conference opener. Air Force (1-1, 0-1 Mountain West) dug itself a 14-0 hole in the game's first 3:43 after sophomore quarterback Jaleel Awini fumbled on the team's first play from scrimmage, and Utah State (1-1, 1-0) scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives to begin the second half.
"We got thumped in every way you can diagnose it," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "They played like a strong, physically stout, athletic and highly skilled squad. We did an awful lot to contribute to that, too."
Chuckie Keeton matched his own school record by throwing for five touchdowns, including three in the third quarter, and Utah State gave Aggies coach Matt Wells his first win in the school's Mountain West Conference debut.
Keeton completed 32 of 40 for 360 yards passing, the fifth time in seven games he has thrown for at least 300 yards dating to last season. He also threw for five touchdowns as a freshman in a 63-19 win over Wyoming in 2011.
Keeton's performance earned the praise of the Falcons' head coach.
"He's as good as you're going to see at quarterback this year," Calhoun said. "He's quick, has great field awareness and is extremely skilled as a passer. I know the guy in College Station is pretty good, but this guy is pretty darn good."
Playing in place of injured Kale Pearson (knee), Awini fumbled on his first play in his first career start and finished 4 of 12 for 61 yards. Awini had a 3-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, but with Air Force down by 32 points late in the third quarter, was replaced by Karson Roberts.
"It was a good hit, but that first play was just jitters," Awini said of the fumble. "Dropped balls, I feel like it's my fault, too. We just didn't execute the way we should, but we'll come back from it."
Leading 24-13 at halftime, Keeton opened the third quarter by guiding the Aggies on an 89-yard touchdown drive, finishing it off with the scoring pass to a wide-open Ronald Butler.
Trying to quickly get back in the game on its ensuing possession, Air Force faked a punt on a fourth-and-3 play from its own 32-yard line. But the scheme backfired.
Punter David Baska was run out of bounds for no gain, and moments later, Keeton threw his third touchdown pass of the day, this one to Joe Hill, and Utah State had pulled out to a 38-13 lead.
"I think it could have been a tighter and closer game in the first half," Calhoun said. "But in the first 20 minutes of the second half, there was a clear difference. That might be putting it mildly."
The Falcons converted on just 2 of 15 third-down conversions, while the Aggies finished 11-for-15 on third down.
"We just couldn't get stops and get off the field on third down," said Air Force strong safety Jamal Byrd, who made a diving interception of a Keeton pass in the second quarter. "What you didn't see today was execution. We knew a lot of their formations and plays, and they didn't surprise us with anything.
"We've got to learn from this. This can't happen again."
Each of Keeton's scoring passes went to a different receiver. He started by completing a 30-yard touchdown to Travis Van Leeuwen. He then added a 23-yarder to Butler, 20-yarder to Hill, 36-yarder to Travis Reynolds and, finally, a 1-yard pass to Keegan Andersen.
Hill and Joey DeMartino each added short touchdown runs for Utah State, which made the move to the new conference from the Western Athletic Conference.
"I have lots of good feelings all the way around," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "I think they did exactly what we asked them to do. They not only played in their first MWC game, but won their first MWC game, and I told the team that is very special for them."
The Air Force defense, however, was left with a bad feeling following the lopsided loss.
"They made more plays than we did, and we need to make more plays," said linebacker Joey Nichol, who had a team-high 13 tackles. "For me, I just need to play with more anger and more drive.
"We just need to learn from the pain."
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