While we fans have been basking in the glow of last Saturday's victory over Oregon, MSU has been busy preparing for this week's opponent -- Air Force. Duane Grasmick of Mountain West Connection gave us the scoop on what to expect from the Falcons this Saturday. To the questions!
EDIT: Austin's Q&A with MWC can be found here
1. Last season, Air Force was one of the best turnaround stories in all of College Football; improving from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 with a Bowl Win over Western Michigan. What was the key to the dramatic reversal?
There are a number of factors as to why Air Force turned around from the only really bad season Head Coach Troy Calhoun has ever had at the Academy. First, Kale Pearson stabilized the quarterback position last year, playing in 12 of the 13 games. In 2013, the Falcons went through four quarterbacks, including freshman Nate Romine who started six games for Air Force that year. Second, the Falcons used co-defensive coordinators in 2013 which was a disaster. Calhoun named former Denver Broncos linebacker and Air Force grad Steve Russ as the only coordinator in 2014, and Russ put in a philosophy of stopping the run at all cost and forcing turnovers in obvious passing situations. The upset of Boise State last year, when the Falcons turned over the Broncos seven times was an perfect example of that philosophy. Finally, I think that Air Force used that motivation from the 2-10 season all off-season and the seniors were determined not to let that happen again for the Falcons. They were very vocal about that during the bowl week.
2. The offense looks impressive, averaging 50 points a game thus far. Who are the key playmakers on that side of the ball?
The best players early in the season has been slot receiver Garrett Brown, fullback D.J. Johnson and quarterback Nate Romine. Unfortunately for Air Force, Romine is lost for the year with a blown knee. He is replaced by Karson Roberts, and while Roberts is a better fit as a running quarterback, losing Romine's presence as a passer could hurt the Falcons. Garrett Brown is an all-purpose player, he is a pitch man on the offense, is the perfect complement in the passing game to star wide receiver Jalen Robinette who has started slow this season, and also has a punt return for a touchdown this season. But the most impressive player for me has been Johnson, who is a bowling ball in a football uniform. He has been great on the fullback runs this year for the Falcons, including his three touchdowns in the last game against San Jose State when Air Force scored 20 points off of his three touchdowns.
3. Obviously, the running game is the focal point of the triple-option offense. Schematically, what is the key to slowing down the high-powered attack?
Air Force runs a unique offense in that everything revolves around the triple option, but the Falcons do a really good job of giving you multiple looks to keep a defense off balance. But, you take away the fullback from this team and it hurts the offense. Johnson and Shayne Davern, who I will not call a backup but more of a 1B fullback option, really came on strong the last half of the season and are averaging close to six yards a carry. If the fullback gets established, it opens up the pitch game for guys like Brown, Jacobi Owens and Benton Washington. I would imagine that Michigan State will try to penetrate the line as much as possible to try and disrupt the timing of the offense and force the Falcons into passing situations with Roberts.
4. The Falcons had a very strong defense a year ago, holding opponents to 24.2 points per game. A lot of talent graduated, however. Who will need to make plays if Air Force wants to stick around in this one?
The Falcons are led by safety Weston Steelhammer, the best football name maybe ever, and defensive lineman Alex Hansen. They run a 3-4 scheme and their linebackers are undersized by really quick to the ball. Weak side outside linebacker Dexter Walker is a big play guy and the best cover linebacker because he is a converted safety. Brothers Connor and Patrick Healy man the inside and sophomore Grant Ross has really built a name for himself in the first two games. The secondary has three new starters around Steelhammer, but have produced a touchdown along with three interceptions and done a very good job limiting big plays in the passing game.
5. Final Score?
My heart wants Air Force to do well in this game, simply because of what the Academy stands for, but my head says that Michigan State is one of the special teams that is going to have a special year, especially after the huge win over Oregon last weekend. I think Air Force is a top 40 team though, and will be competitive, especially if Michigan State comes into the game with a Oregon hangover. I am going to say Michigan State 34 Air Force 20.
Thanks again to Duane for answering our questions!