Entering their Saturday night showdown San Diego State was 6-0 ranked 21st in the nation while Air Force was 6-1 and receiving votes, just a few steps outside the Top 25.
The Aztecs had the nation's number one rushing defense (61 yards a game) while the Falcons had the country's top rushing offense (336 yards an outing). As it turns out, the passing game had the biggest impact in Colorado Springs.
The Falcons turned it over twice, both on pass attempts, helping the Aztecs to a 20-0 lead that turned in to a 20-14 win, making SDSU 7-0 for the first time since 1975.
Air Force got it first and immediately showed everyone why they don't throw it very often. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels' first pass attempt of the night was picked off by defensive back Dallas Branch, who leapt into the air and made a one-handed grab reminiscent of Antonio Cromartie's 1-handed theft of a Peyton Manning pass back in 2007.
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Branch returned it inside the 10 but the SDSU offense, which struggled to move the ball for a second straight game, couldn't find the end zone, settling for a short Matt Araiza field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Air Force likes to go for it on 4th down. Only Mississippi has converted more 4th down opportunities than the Falcons. That strategy did not help them in the 1st half. On 4th and short, Aztecs defensive lineman Keshawn Banks dove underneath the left guard and grabbed Daniels leg behind the line of scrimmage to get the stop at the Air Force 42.
That led to a 1-yard Kaegun Williams TD run and a 10-0 lead. On their next possession the Falcons went back to the air but DeAndre Hughes took a shot from SDSU safety Trenton Thompson, the ball came loose, and Noah Avinger jumped on it along the sideline at the AFA 46 yard line.
Again, the Aztecs offense couldn't find the end zone, relying on a 51-yard Matt Araiza field goal that gave them a 13-0 lead at halftime. SDSU got it first in the 2nd half and finally got a big play. Chance Bell took off on a 32-yard run before being tackled at the 3-yard-line. He scored on the next play to make it 20-0.
But, the lack of capitalizing on drives that started in enemy territory nearly bit them in the end.
Playing 6,000 feet above sea level, against a team that keeps hitting you with the run game, a defense starts to wear down. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Dalton King caught a 13-yard touchdown pass (although it looked like he dropped the ball before completing the catch) to make it a 20-7 game. SDSU punted again and the Falcons went 89 yards of 15 plays to score another touchdown to cut the lead to 20-14 with 3:59 to play.
At that point the Aztecs had a mere 213 total yards, just 69 of them passing. It was a chance to put together the kind of drive that wins championships.
They tried a short screen and two running plays, earning seven yards and only taking 1:41 off the clock. Thank goodness for Matt Araiza.
The soon-to-be All-American punter let loose a 55-yard punt that was fair caught at the Air Force 13 yard line. Araiza also had an 81-yarder in the 1st quarter and again looked like the best player on the field.
So, the game was in the hands of the SDSU defense. They were more than up for the challenge, forcing a 3-and-out to get the ball back with 1:35 left. This time the offense was able to put it away.
Chance Bell ran right up the middle to get the 1st down the needed to finish the game in victory formation.
The Aztecs host Fresno State next Saturday night. With five games left SDSU is in a very good spot to finish with a perfect record.