It’s been a pretty wild 18 months or so for the Air Force football program. The Mountain West has basically disintegrated around them, with cash cows Utah, TCU, and BYU all leaving for greener pastures. The conference had already added Boise State, and will replace the defectors with Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii next year. While the Mountain West has been busy transforming themselves back into the WAC, Air Force has been mixed up the same Big East rumors as Navy. (Remember how BYU was excoriated for leaving the MWC? Can’t wait to see THAT double standard exposed). Like everyone else not in the Pac 12, Big Ten, or SEC, the future is a little uncertain for Air Force, at least off the field.
On the field, Air Force had a fantastic year. Well, depending on your point of view they did. For a service academy, it was as good a season as one could hope for. The team won 9 games, won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, and beat a BCS team in their bowl game. That’s a season I’d be thrilled with, but there was also a certain amount of disappointment in Air Force’s performance. As good as it was, it was also a missed opportunity to move up the conference food chain. BYU had an off year, and after Air Force beat the Cougars early in the season it seemed like Air Force would take their place in the Mountain West’s top tier. That didn’t happen; instead, San Diego State emerged as an up-and-coming program and beat Air Force to start a 3-game conference losing streak for the Falcons. As good as Air Force was, they weren’t able to break through to establish themselves as part of the new elite of the conference that will replace the programs that have left.
That was all supposed to change this year. It’s a new day for Air Force in the Mountain West. Eight starters were back on defense, along with Tim Jefferson, Jonathan Warzeka, and Asher Clark on offense. Air Force was showing up in a few preseason top 25 lists. BYU and Utah are gone, as are most of the key contributors from last year’s TCU Rose Bowl team. San Diego State lost their coach. Not only that, but TCU lost to Baylor to open the year. Baylor! They can’t be any good, right? (This is from an Air Force fan’s perspective. Just go with it). This HAS to be the year!
I’m being a little unfair to Air Force, honestly. They had a lot of hype going into the year, reminding some people of the kind of preseason buzz that surrounded last year’s Navy team. It isn’t the team’s fault that everyone else’s expectations were out of whack. It’s not like losing to TCU killed Air Force’s season. Maybe they aren’t going to win the Mountain West, but they can still meet most of their goals. They can start by beating Navy (assuming they think it’s an important game now, anyway).
That’s what’s sort of weird about this year’s game. It really is the start of the season for Air Force in a way. It’s hard to get a read on the game because we don’t really know anything about them yet. They haven’t played on the road. They were crushed by TCU. They beat a couple of mid-to-lower-tier I-AA squads, but didn’t look like world-beaters in the process.
Air Force scored on the first play of the game against South Dakota and cruised to a 37-7 lead in the third quarter. But Tim Jefferson threw two interceptions, and the team fumbled the ball four times (losing one). Troy Calhoun had to leave his starters in the game since South Dakota clawed their way back to make it 37-20.
The Air Force offense set all kinds of records against Ohio Valley cellar dweller Tennessee State, but the defense gave up 24 points and nearly 400 yards.
What do you make of all that? They lost badly to TCU, but they won’t be the last team to lose badly to TCU this year. And can you really put any stock in their defense going into cruise control after the team built huge leads over opponents that were overmatched? I don’t.
I do think, though, that this game is shaping up to be a little different than the last two where neither team was able to move the ball very effectively. There are a few key elements that seem to point in Navy’s favor.
1. Fumbles: It’s early in the season, but Navy is +3 in turnover margin so far while Air Force is -2. The Falcons have had problems holding onto the football, with 9 fumbles in 3 games. I can’t explain why they’re fumbling the ball, so I’m hesitant to list it as a factor. I’m a little less inclined to believe that it’s just bad luck, though, when it has been a problem through three games. Everyone has a stinker once in a while, but three games is a trend. Air Force doesn’t even need to turn the ball over for this to have an impact; even losing a couple of yards is enough to kill a drive if it ends up being another nip-and-tuck game.
2. Air Force’s defensive line: With 8 defensive starters returning from last season, the defense is supposed to be the strength of this Air Force team. It might still be, but if it is it will be for different reasons. Air Force’s defense will probably be without four starters on Saturday, with two of them being on the defensive line: nose guard Ryan Gardner, and defensive end Zach Payne. Gardner is the big loss here; not that Payne isn’t a good player, but dominant nose guards have a history of giving Navy problems in this game:
Navy’s offensive line, on the other hand, is a veteran group that has played well. Navy’s offense hasn’t won the line of scrimmage battle for a couple years against Air Force, but that should change on Saturday.
3. Navy’s slotbacks: Air Force likes to shoot the corners against Navy, and they’ve had success doing it:
They also like to run a lot of perimeter stunts: cross charges & 3-2 exchanges:
This puts Navy’s slotbacks in the spotlight. Shooting corners are the slots’ job to block, and in my opinion they’ve done a much better job of that task this year compared to the last 2-3. Perimeter stunts also mean we’ll see a lot of toss sweeps, trying to catch interior defenders running inside-out and beating them to the corner. The slots have demonstrated their big-play ability several times already. They’re the deepest position on the team, and they’ve played like it.
In other words, what are supposedly Air Force’s biggest weaknesses going into the game just happen to play to Navy’s biggest strengths. I say supposedly because, again, we don’t really know what this Air Force team is bringing to the fight. Still, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.
Was 2010 a pothole on the freeway of dominance, or was it the beginning of the pendulum swinging the other way? One Air Force win isn’t the end of the world, but two in a row might be a step in that direction.
The CIC Trophy is at stake. Recruits will be watching.
There is a lot on the line on Saturday.