The Story So Far
Air Force has been... boring. The Falcons have a rush to pass ratio of 22:3, and their starting quarterback, Nate Romine, is out for the year with a blown knee suffered last week against San Jose State. Romine will be replaced by Senior Karson Roberts, who only registered one rushing attempt and no passing attempts in 2014. In 2013, however, Roberts appeared in 10 games and had 49 rushing attempts (5.2 yards per carry) compared to 41 passing attempts (6.66 yards per attempt). I dunno if Roberts is more or less of a passer than Romine; it probably won't change the Falcons' strategy.
In week one, they overpowered a bad FCS team in Morgan State to the tune of 63-7, with a +278 advantage in the rushing game. Here's what we know from week two against San Jose State (thanks to Bill Connelly):
Air Force won by killing it inside the 40 (6.33 points per drive inside the 40 vs. the national average of 4.80) and being super efficient defensively (they held SJSU to a 27% success rate vs. the national average of 41.2%). That's consistent with their 10-3 record last season; one of their most outstanding categories was defensive efficiency at 13th nationally. The other was limiting opponents when they got inside Air Force's 40, where opponents scored just 4.1 points per trip (36th nationally).
Mountain West Connection also tells us that this game was probably closer than the final score indicated.
When Air Force Has the Ball
So I didn't realize that Air Force ran the third-fastest tempo in the FBS:
@SBNationCFB You guys didn't know that we play fast? The Air Force practically invented fast.
— Air Force Football (@AFFootball) May 19, 2015
By now, you probably know the drill. Triple-option, featuring lots of cut blocking. Air Force returned nearly all of their leading rushers from last year, and have averaged 6.2 yards per carry so far this season. The most important issues are discipline and tackling; after a pretty solid performance by the front seven against Oregon I don't expect much of a problem here.
It also helps that the substitution patterns were effective during the Oregon game, as I'd expect them to be used again in this game.
Air Force has attempted 18 passes, and has yet to give up a sack. I expect they'll do more passing tomorrow than in the first two weeks, though, since they'll likely be in worse down-and-distance situations. Last year, they were middling nationally in terms of sack rate which gives me confidence that the defensive line will be able to get Karson Roberts at least once in this one.
When MSU Has the Ball
The key category to the game. Air Force won 10 games last year by limiting opponents' rushing offense. They ranked 6th nationally in terms of defensive rushing S&P+ (a combination metric of explosiveness and efficiency, like OPS in baseball). Anyways, they're a break-but-don't-bend outfit - they were 112th nationally in defensive IsoPPP, a measure of explosiveness.
But this is why MSU's rushing offense is key. If Air Force's rush defense is disruptive, then Connor Cook will be forced to sustain drives on his own. This isn't impossible, but it could be limiting, especially if the weather gets wonky. If that happens, I'd guess the score line gets a little uncomfortable at times.
And let me be clear: I expect MSU's offensive line to dominate, and for L.J. Scott and Madre London to run wild. Air Force sports a 255 pound nose guard in a 3-4 scheme. It'll just be more comfortable if this plays out like we hope.
Air Force returns just 1 starter from their defensive secondary, but that might've been a little bit of addition by subtraction: they've allowed just 4.9 yards per attempt this year, compared to 7.7 last year. And that's even without sack-adjustment, where Air Force has tallied 8 sacks over the first two games. But that's probably sample size and level of competition. Yeah, let's go with that.
The biggest matchup here, as always, is Connor Cook versus himself. I think the receiving corps, between Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings, R.J. Shelton and Josiah Price is solid and varied enough in terms of skillset. The offensive line is top-notch in pass protection. It's just on a throw-to-throw basis with Cook.
If that's the biggest issue this offense has, then we're in especially good shape.
Just tackle the returners and hit the chip shot field goals, ok?
More seriously, Air Force did a good job in tilting field position last year, probably because their defense was so efficient. Considering Jake Hartbarger's 49.6 yards per punt average, as compared to Air Force's 40.6, I think MSU will have an advantage in terms of field position.
Just do the easy stuff and everything will be OK.
Bottom Line and Prediction
There's been a lot of talk about this being a trap game, with MSU coming in hungover after the win against Oregon. To that, I say: that would be a convenient narrative if the upset (or near-upset) occurs, but it's meaningless right now.
Most simply, it's a bad matchup for Air Force. The stuff that Air Force does well (run the ball & stop the run) are two things that will be very difficult for the Falcons to do against a team like Michigan State that is athletically superior.
So what's the narrative if MSU scores a blowout win? Probably something less exciting.
I think I'm starting to get it.
MSU 45 - Air Force 17
Oh, and here's a fun new addition: