College football • Keeton impressive in USU's league debut.
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Colorado Springs, Colo. • From their first scoring drive to the last kneel in victory formation, the Utah State football team sent a message with its 52-20 win over Air Force.
To the fans. To the new conference. To themselves.
"I think it's a statement that, 'Hey, we're here to play,' " linebacker Zach Vigil said.
The Aggies (1-1) took their first step into the Mountain West with a commanding and decisive win over the Falcons (1-1) on the road Saturday afternoon. The hostile confines of Falcon Stadium and the pressure of the program's first-ever conference game could not slow down an offense with quarterback Chuckie Keeton at the helm.
The Aggies' junior star played one of the best games of his career, firing for 360 passing yards and five touchdowns on a 32-for-40 day. Coming out of halftime already with the lead, he beat down a toothless Falcons defense with four straight touchdown drives, on which he threw scores to four different receivers.
Air Force's dismantling was made complete by a defense eager to prove itself after an underwhelming performance in a season-opening loss to Utah. After first-half penalties and breakdowns kept the Falcons alive, Utah State's defense shut them out until the game was well in hand.
Matt Wells, who earned his first win as a head coach, said it was clear his team felt they had something to prove after falling at Utah. He was pleased to see that his players drew motivation from defeat.
"I was hoping it wasn't going to be a bitter loss, that it wasn't going to linger and turn into two losses or three losses," he said. "I was hoping that wasn't the case, and it absolutely wasn't."
Utah State wanted to start fast, and it couldn't have hoped for much better: After Keeton capped the first possession with a 30-yard strike to Travis Van Leeuwen, Vigil forced a fumble that set the Aggies up for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead before four minutes had ticked off the clock.
The Falcons fought back early, as Jaleel Awini took shots down the field against the Aggies' secondary. Awini led the team to a pair of first-half field goals and eventually scored a rushing touchdown, but his receivers dropped several dangerous passes.
"We caught some breaks there," Vigil said. "They dropped some balls that could've been touchdowns."
Keeton managed to lead two more scoring drives before the half: a touchdown by Joey DeMartino and a 41-yard Nick Diaz field goal. But after Utah State's defense made a quick stop on Air Force's opening possession of the second half, the offense moved too fast for the Falcons to keep up.
Touchdowns piled up: a 23-yarder to Ronald Butler, a 20-yard strike to Joe Hill, a 36-yard pass to Travis Reynolds. Even as the Aggies slowed down, they kept finding seams. Keeton's last pass of the day was a 1-yard toss to Keegan Andersen, as he tied his career high for touchdowns in a game.
Keeton said one of the most memorable moment of the day was in the locker room, when the team gave the game ball to Wells.
"It was definitely a special moment for us," he said. "It was great for us to go out there and earn it for him."