As the Air Force Falcons are set to battle the Spartans this season, we have put our finest football minds to the task of previewing the Week 3 matchup.
This is an extremely underrated game on the Spartans schedule. While the expectation is for MSU to cruise right to a victory things may not be that easy. The Falcons run the ultra-complicated triple option offense which involves loads of running plays to either the Quarterback, Running Back or Fullback. The triple-option has all but become the official offense of the service academies with Army, Navy, and Air Force all running the perplexing offensive scheme.
The Falcons finished with a 10-3 record, went 5-3 in the Mountain West, and beat Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl by a score of 38-24. It was also a rebound season after a putrid 2-10 mark on the 2013 season. Air Force brought home the "Commander In Chief's Trophy" downing both Navy and Army last season. Of the group responsible for Air Force's incredible season, seven starters return on the offensive side of the ball while a measly four return on the defense. This season, the Falcons sit as 6000/1 favorites for the National Championship, or more realistically, 16/1 favorites for the Mountain West Championship.
Let's talk offense first, the Falcons, just like the other two service academies run the run-heavy triple option attack. The offense revolves around a scrambling Quarterback, a running back, and a hulking fullback. Air Force was a little more balanced triple-option team though, while they stayed true to their run-first style, they still managed to average 146 passing yards per game. In total, the Falcon offense was impressive on average moving the ball 419 yards per game, and 32 points per game. With starting QB Kale Pearson departed via graduation, Junior Nate Romine takes the reigns to the Air Force offense for the 2015 season. During his freshman season, filling in for Pearson, Romine threw for 603 yards and tossed 5 touchdowns. Running the ball, Romine accumulated 205 yards and found paydirt three times.
On the defensive end, the Falcons defense allowed 395 yards per game (259 passing, 156 rushing). Against the run, Air Force stacked up #28 nationally and formed a stout defensive front. Against the pass, not so much. The Falcons ranked 105th nationally against the aerial attack and struggled to contain teams with dynamic passing offenses. Only four starters returned for the 2015 season, so plenty of question marks remain on the defensive side of the ball.
Keys to the Game
1. Establish the pass: Connor Cook is going to have to come up big in this game. Exploiting the Falcons weakness against the Spartan passing attack will set the tone for the ground game.
2. Stay Home: This is an important defensive key when facing a triple option offense. With so many apparent handoffs, it's more important now than ever to stay home. Selling out to one particular result whether it be a handoff to the Running Back or a Quarterback keeper will allow for wide open rushing lanes.
3. Don't Forget about the Pass: While the Falcon offense is predominantly ground centric, they still like to throw from time to time. Be sure to not lose track of the QB or Receivers or big consequences will emerge.
4. Control The Tempo: The Spartans like to play slow, the Falcons like to play fast, it will be a war of attrition in the pace department. The best way to win this battle is to have long possessions and to hold the ball as long as possible. Control the Pace, Control the Game
5. Use the Home Field Advantage: Air Force plays in the Mountain West. While there's nothing wrong with the Mountain West, the Falcons aren't trained to play in rabid road environments. Get the crowd behind you, getting them up and loud early in the game will all but torture the Falcons players and coaches
The Pick: The game will be intriguing and anything but a cupcake but in the end, the Spartans take it 34-20.
I visited the Air Force Academy in High School and let me tell ya, Colorado Springs is a beautiful place. I would have considered going to school there except for the fact that I hate flying and didn't want to join the military. It's the little things.
SMALL WORLD FACT: Former Ohio State linebacker and current Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach, Anthony Schlegel (perhaps best known for decking a field-rushing fan last season) transferred from Air Force after his sophomore season. He was forced to sit out the 2003 season due to transfer regulations but he did practice. His defensive coordinator that season? Mark Dantonio. CHILLS I TELL YA!
AIR FORCE OFFENSE
Well, there's good news and there's bad news, Falcon fans. We'll start with the good.
Air Force was one of the biggest turnaround stories in college football last season! Hooray! Troy Calhoun's squad bounced back in utterly unpredictable fashion from a 2-10 2013 campaign to win 10 games a season ago. Included were wins over eventual Fiesta Bowl Champion Boise State and fellow MSU non-con opponent Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (which has claimed greatest Bowl Game name from the since-defunct Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl #RIP).
Starting Quarterback Kale Pearson gave Air Force something they rarely possess - a QB who can actually throw the ball. Pearson tossed an almost unheard of 14 TD's - plus only 3 INT's - and ran for nearly 700 yards, adding a dimension opponent's simply weren't prepared for.
Now for the bad news - since they do not red-shirt players, Air Force will always face more turnover than your normal program; that is nothing new. This year, however, they are tasked with replacing three starting offensive lineman...and Pearson. Ouch. Nate Romine, QB of that '13 team that was so... not good, will take over as signal caller. He has experience but is a much more limited passer (811 yards in 14 career games). Even with 800+ yard receiver (not a misprint) Jalin Robinette returning, the wideouts (and QB) will need some more breakout performances if the passing game is going to be anything more than a novelty.
Player to Know - RB Jacobi Owens
Air Force remains the most ironically named team in the nation. Since Fisher DeBerry installed the Flexbone offense there has barely been any air attack to speak of. Even with Pearson at the helm they only averaged 145.6 passing yards per game. What there has always been, however, is plenty of is ground (Ground Force Academy!? Go Moles!). Owens is another in a long line of productive running backs to come through Colorado Springs. Last year he rushed for 1,054 yards despite not playing in the final three games of the season. While fellow ball carriers Shayne Davern and the aptly-named Devin Rushing return as well, Owens is easily the most explosive backfield option. With the passing game likely taking a step back, expect to see a lot of the junior on September 19th.
Toughest Matchup for MSU Defense - Linebackers vs Reading the Option attack
Air Force is another program with an offense that outdates its Head Coach. The Flexbone has been a staple at the academy since the 80's but luckily the Spartans will have seen a similar, if not exactly the same, scheme the previous week.
The Falcons go through a series of quick pre-snap motions and option handoffs - not totally unlike those Oregon uses. The main difference is how ground heavy they will likely be with Pearson gone. Making the correct reads and fishing through the mess of blockers falls primarily on linebackers Riley Bullough, Darien Harris, and whoever fills in for Ed Davis. The group will once again have their hands full but, unlike against Oregon, they will be able to key in on Romine, Owens and Co. running the ball on most plays.
Best Matchup for MSU Defense - Joel Heath and Malik McDowell vs AFA's Interior Offensive Line
In reality, the defensive line is going to be a major advantage for MSU in almost every game this season. Against an Air Force team that, a year after having to replace 7 of its top 10 lineman, will have new starters at all three interior OL spots, it should be an especially pronounced edge. Blowing up the center and pulling guards Air Force so frequently utilizes could make it a very long day for Romine, even when he attempts to run the ball himself.
Starting defensive tackles Malik McDowell and Joel Heath, in particular, should have a field day in this one. They are let off the leash to penetrate and disrupt the ballhandlers while the defensive end's play more contain. It would be surprising if we didn't see just about every last one of the rotational DT's (the Enoch Smith's, Craig Evans' and Damon Knox's of the world) get some significant burn.
AIR FORCE DEFENSE
This was where the Falcons really stepped their game up from their disastrous 2013. Steve Russ was promoted from co-coordinator to coordinator and, boy, did it make a difference. Behind Senior LB's Jordan Pierce and Spencer Proctor, DL Nick Fitzgerald and Troy Timmerman and DB's Christian Spears, Jordan Mays and Justin DeCoud, Russ's defense became one of the nastiest in the Mountain West, surrendering only 24.2 points per contest all season - good for 34th in the nation.
Entering 2015 these cadets will need some reinforcements. All the above players are now gone and, with the exception of one, those who remain were not huge playmakers especially behind the line of scrimmage. LB's Connor Healy and Dexter Walker had over 100 combined tackles, but only 9 tackles for loss and DE Alex Hansen had 3.5 sacks last season which was the most of any returning player. Yikes. The Falcons need a lot more pressure than that if they want to make this one worth watching past halftime.
Player to Know - SS Weston Steelhammer
First of all, this may be the best football player name of all time. Yes, I know there have been some good ones - Yourhighness Morgan, Jazzmar Clax and Lion King are all players that actually exist. No, really. Those people are on this planet! The same one we all live on! Isn't the world a wonderful mysterious place? - but Steelhammer is as good as any of them. He's not bad at football either.
Last season, Steelhammer (that felt so good to type) was one of the biggest playmakers for this defense. He did it all from his safety position picking up six interceptions and even getting into the backfield for six tackles for loss and three sacks. Being the only returning starter in the secondary puts a lot of pressure on the 6'2" 200 junior to continue his playmaking ways but, if nothing else, his name should make most guys think twice before crossing the middle.
Toughest Matchup for MSU Offense - MSU coaches and seniors vs the Post-Big-Game-Letdown
MSU will be coming into this game off of either a massive win that vaults them into every playoff conversation in America or a crushing loss that has a similarly opposite effect. The question is can they handle the outcome, good or bad? The responsibility to avoid a letdown falls on the MSU Coaching Staff and their senior leaders.
This team has legitimate playoff expectations - the motto "Reach Higher" is plastered all over the Duffy Daugherty building - and if they want to attain them the program's leadership cannot allow a week of lax preparation for this tricky offense.
Can MSU win this game without clicking on all cylinders? Absolutely, but given how out-of-nowhere AFA's 10 win season came a year ago, it would be very dangerous to overlook this bunch - just ask Boise Stat. Luckily, the Spartans are about as good as it gets in the leadership department. With Dantonio, Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun around, I'm inclined to think motivation won't be an issue.
Best Matchup for MSU Offense - MSU Running Game vs AFA Front 7
Remember all those seniors listed off back in the overview section? Yeah, well, they all have to be replaced, including four of the front seven that made AFA so tough to score on a season ago. Not great, Bob!
Pierce and Proctor take their combined 30 TFLs and 11 sacks with them to post-grad life, while Fitzgerald and Timmerman's 40.5 tackles are gone as well. Replacing them will not be easy, but seeing as each of those players made significant leaps once Russ took over as DC, there's no reason to think a similar talent evolution couldn't take place.
Unfortunately, it probably won't matter. Like their defensive counterparts, MSU's offensive line will be a mismatch against just about everyone they face this season. Going up against a fresh-faced group whose largest returning player checks in at 270 lbs shouldn't pose too many problems. Jack Conklin and the brothers' Allen should be able to create plenty of holes for the running backs (I'd wager you see all four in this one) to pop through. The second OL group will use this game as an audition to replace the two (likely three) lineman who will be departing after this season.
So since we are going personal touches to Air Force, I have a recent and pretty big reason to love the Falcons. That is because after three seasons, including one as captain, of my cousin working his tail off playing junior hockey, he earned himself a spot at Air Force playing division one hockey. So, this summer I have acquired my first Air Force shirt and I am ready to get out to beautiful Colorado Springs, hopefully more than once in the next four years to see him play.
This team was difficult to pick a Parks and Rec analogy. Sure, you want to quickly say Ron Swanson because he seems the most military of anyone on the show, but that analogy feels lazy and incorrect to me. I didn't stray far from Ron Swanson though as I decided to go with Ron Dunn, mostly known as "Other Ron" who held Ron Swanson's position for the Eagleton Parks Department. You see other Ron is the opposite of what you expect from a Ron on Parks and Rec. He is a nature loving, granola crunching, hippie lettuce imbibing, well, hippie. This is similar to the dichotomy of Air Force, a team that runs while having Air in its name, and is a campus full of upright, outstanding future military men and women, which is quite the opposite of the Colorado Springs crowd who goes to nearby Colorado College. So while Ron Dunn on the surface may look like a Ron Swanson, deep down he is a wishbone running Air Force Falcon.