AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Isaiah Sanders was battered and bruised in his first career start on Saturday night.
“Worth it,” he said.
Third on the depth chart a week ago, Sanders ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday night — including a go-ahead 10-yard score with 1:38 remaining — and Air Force beat Utah State 38-35.
Sanders had a school-record 44 carries and his final run of the night put the Falcons ahead on the fourth lead change of the final quarter.
“That was a hard-rock performance,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “And really, by our whole team.”
Jacob Stafford added 112 yards rushing and Tim McVey ran for a score for the Falcons (5-7, 4-4 Mountain West), who snapped a three-game losing streak. Air Force finished with 407 yards on the ground.
“Bottom line is this: we didn’t stop the run,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “And when you don’t stop the run you bleed, and bleed, and bleed until there is no blood left.”
Air Force was without starting quarterback Arion Worthman due to a knee injury and backup Nate Romine to a broken collarbone. Sanders cut an early deficit to 21-17 with four seconds left in the first half on a 2-yard run and gave the Falcons their first lead since Oct. 28 — against Colorado State — with a 4-yard score midway through the third.
He was shaken up on the decisive drive in the waning minutes but came back to score the winner.
“I got hit between two guys and then I felt like a crack or something in my back,” Sanders said. “But it wasn’t anything too serious and I wanted to be able to finish what I started.”
Aaren Vaughns and Gerold Bright each had rushing scores of more than 70 yards in the opening minutes for Utah State (6-6, 4-4), while freshman Jordan Love threw for 284 yards, including two touchdowns to Ron’quavion Tarver in the fourth. Vaughns took an end around and weaved around a backpedaling defense to give the Aggies a 7-0 lead 1:51 into the first quarter. Then, on the Aggies’ next offensive snap, Bright went to the house untouched to make it 14-3.
Following a defensive stop on the goal line in the fourth, Love led a 99-yard drive with a 46-yard pass to Savon Scarver and a 24-yard TD to Tarver to make it 28-24. Air Force retook the lead when Grant Ross’ strip-sack of Love was recovered in the end zone by Santo Coppola a few minutes later. But the freshman quarterback again responded – putting the Aggies up with a 22-yard TD to Tarver with 5:28 remaining.
“We knew we were going to have to make as many plays as possible,” Love said. “It hurts a lot to not be able to get it done tonight.”
Utah State: The Aggies were carried by their running game early on, but their freshman quarterback carried the load late. They will return to a bowl game for the sixth time in seven seasons.
Air Force: The Falcons, who are not bowl eligible for the first time since 2013, may have found their future quarterback in Sanders.
Utah State’s long rushing touchdowns in the opening minutes marked the first time the Aggies had multiple touchdown runs of at least 70 yards in the same game, according to the team.
“I thought our offensive line blocked well and we hit some creases,” Wells said. “We have some athletic kids and they got some space and they did a nice job of finishing those runs off.”
WHAT A KICK
Kicker Luke Strebel became the all-time leader in points at Air Force with 254. He said he bit his tongue with all the celebratory helmet slaps and head butts.
“That’s a kicker moment for you,” he said.
Utah State: The Aggies will have to wait to find out their bowl pairing.
Air Force: The Falcons host Stony Brook to open the 2018 season.