It's come down to this lobo fans. Two option teams. Two schools six hours apart in comparable elevation. Two teams that are below the majority of people's expectations and with little left to lose in front of the ESPN U cameras and their 70 million subscribers. They run well. They match up well. They have similar experience in each others' offense when 120 other teams need extra time for prep: All in an abbreviated week game.
Obviously our head coach has the edge in the nickname department (Footbawl Bawb vs. Hoody Doody) but the patterns themselves are clear. UNM and AFA deserve to pull a win from this game and get to decide who's going to stay in the MWC mountain division basement or on their respective paths towards next season.
AFA is not going bowling for the first time in six years, an impressive previous streak in the Troy Calhoun era. Troy is a pure alumnus at the head coach position and the 6th head coach EVER in Air Force's football program. He took over for Fisher DeBerry after 2006 and is facing one of the driest spells ever in his seventh year.
AFA is strange in the fact that they have three co-OCs. The quarterback coach and wide receivers coach coordinate with Calhoun and they also don't have a pure DC. Everything is fed through the head coach. It's very unique. This seems to be Troy's show and unique is the euphemism I'm going with .
AFA has been dragged through the ringer this year. 2-7 (one FCS win and last week against Army) and a bevy of injuries on an anticipated youthful roster has finally crushed the benefits of the Falcons' superior equalizing scheme. To their credit it took a lot to get to 2-7. Time and time again critics would praise AFA for doing more with less (compared to sizes in the conventional CFB world) and were reluctant to vote them down with low returning starters and questions in unit areas staring critics in the face. The bell cow was still producing milk and nobody was able to predict anything with this squad.
Unfortunately even the falcons have to experience how the bow breaks from youth and until this year have proved many wrong.
Since the match ups with UNM's current rebuild are so similar, let's take a look at how many differences we can find and how our current guys look matching up with the cadets.
Air Force runs a 3-4 defense and probably always will. There's a lot of factors that go into deciding what kind of scheme to run, but many of the difficulties that come with a military academies prospect list give Air Force a reason to fall back on the 3-4. Although it would be interesting to see them in a 3-3-5 sometime in the future, this straightforward and practical defense screams military issue all over it.
Due to size and height restrictions, academic prowess requirements, and the military commitment that comes with graduating from the academy, fitting a special niche makes all the difference in the world on the recruiting trail for Air Force. "All the difference" in making it extremely difficult to pull in the guys you're looking for! Lots of over-sized lineman and overly big cadets need not apply. Air Force doesn't have the luxury to look for square pegs for a square hole. The Falcons have to find square pegs tough enough to fit into a smaller sized rhombus shaped slot with minimal leeway and crafting sources. Easy? Not a chance.
Air Force will be primed and ready for a running affair. What do you do when you need to stop the run? The good ol' 5-2 is one of the classics for keeping the run under control:
Five guys on the line with the same three lineman they use on their base makes it more difficult to run inside the tackles. If you don't use a lot of lineman, this is what you can do for the run. Some teams have more options with four lineman (plus their rotating back ups) but this will do if you insist on having a linebacker in there to stop people on the line of scrimmage.
After the ball snap it falls on the last two linebackers in the stack to read and try to make a play in the fight in front of them. There isn't going to be a lot of razzle dazzle in this match up. Both sides are going to know what's coming at them (in theory) and they don't need much finesse to know how to defend it.
There isn't a whole lot more formation lore to document here. If you watched the Army game you literally saw the 5-2 dozens of times.
Strengths on the defensive side of the ball are in fact on the line for the Falcons. They have the most upperclassmen there and tend to have some comparable defensive ends to some other MWC squads. 250lbs with quickness will help defend the edges but the falcons are notoriously light across the board. The tackles are just slightly bigger than the ends across the D-line and top out at 260lbs. Thankfully they have returned the most starters here and probably dictate the defense's success in any given game.
Linebacker is in big supply but they're just starting out in their collegiate careers. Not a single senior in the bunch and they'll try to out run you to make a play. Topping out at 235lb; you'll see some guys closer to 210. Some linebackers on this roster have a lot of fight in them, but resemble some safeties at the FBS level.
Secondary: Young, young, young. You're guaranteed to never see more than the traditional four secondary players on the field at any given time and they've had trouble keeping oversized receivers back. You'll see them lined up fairly deep and will try to contain as best they can.
This defense has become a touch more aggressive than other Air Force squads I've seen in the past. Playing to their strengths, mainly speed and tenacity, puts the occasional blitzing linebacker into the A and B gaps. Definitely not as predictable as some other teams in the league, but playing teams that get into a running rhythm has seen the Falcons try to disrupt the backfield to try to force long 3rd downs.
They're down right now, but not to be underestimated. True to form these guys tackle well and fight well for their disadvantages. We have some things we can do well against this squad and the same AFA team we faced last year might not be the same story.
You know it. I know it. The cadets know it...Jack & Jill Stevenson from Biloxi, Mississippi (along with Jill's pet parakeet Petey) knows it because they caught a Falcon football game once in an airport lobby. Everybody knows Air Force is going to run the ball. Their method is very prevalent because of their football history and the coaching staff go to the drawing board from there...."there" being the opponents common knowledge of their scheme. For one, it's not changing anytime soon but Air Force does grow out of that base.
Air Force's offense is generally referred to as the "flex spread". The root of the phrase is from the "flex bone"; a formation that they continue to use to run some option plays and the spread forms they use to confuse.
Technically the flexbone has two skill players lined up symmetrically just behind the tackles (observe the starting point of the WR above at the "X") but Air Force chooses to run this one out of a mini "I" formation. Notice where the RB is lined up: that makes it an I formation. UNM itself ran a few of these motion plays last week to mix things up in their own option game.
Without getting on too much of a tangent, I feel it's important to point out several things that AFA does out of this formation:
- 1. They can run a moderate hurry up set and play on occasion; it sometimes shakes the defense loose from it's once in a blue moon nature.
- 2. They send the motion guy to the point of snapping the ball...but they don't snap the ball. This is to get the defense to show their cards and show any late blitzes that might be on the way. Disruption through blitz is a vulnerability with such a busy backfield and since Air Force doesn't mind burning clock, they'll try to coax out a threat. A late blitz shift usually isn't able to diagnose before the ball is snapped. This way AFA gets a chance to audible.
- 3. The play snaps as usual at the normal point of motion.
Air Force uses their offense very intelligently.
Oddly enough though, Air Force has gone to several spread formations to mix in their run and add short passing to their game. They've been around at least four to five years now. They're still under 15-20 pass attempts a game (if that) but it throws something new at the defense before they continue to run the ball the same way.
AFA is different from the Lobos Pistol Option in that they use a formal fullback type blocker...even if that guy is simply a running back. This helps when they're pulling a guard to power run block and it makes a difference when they're using lighter tight ends to block out of seemingly pass friendly formations. It's a good example of packaging one of your weaknesses (lighter tight ends) and turning it into a benefit
Air Force is in a 4 WR set and they send one of the larger hybrid WR/TE's in motion on the path drawn. Shortly after the snap, a power option follows the over sized receivers lead with the fullback leading as the second blocker. The formation makes the defense respect the threat of a pass and then matches an undersized safety to a bigger blocker through isolation...it's ultimately a sneaky power running play that ended up in a touchdown when the fullback made a block down field...following the wake of the motion man. The pitch RB took it to the house for eighty yards.
Injuries have been HUGE for Air Force and they continue to make their season difficult. They are currently on their fourth starting QB this year.
Let me say that again: FOURTH starting QB. Two season ending injuries, one QB dismissed and deemed ineligible from the academy and now they're starting a true freshman: Nate Romine. Romine is fairly smaller than most dual threat quarterbacks but shows a more consistent throw than past Air Force starters. He has some talent but he's literally starting his second collegiate game ever on Friday. Mistakes can be seen on the field in the form of several busted plays against Army.
Because of this the offensive call hasn't been spectacularly colorful and you can tell that Air Force is running with younger pups out there. They returned an abysmal amount of returning starters and it's odd to see them this down.
Two play making WR's have been out (Gagliano and MacArthur) and the next guy up in the roster have tried to make their mark (Brown, Huntsman). It's a recurring theme on their running back roster as well. Anthony LaCoste set a personal best against Army by a country mile. He had over 250+ yards on several 70+ yards plays.
Air Force just keeps plugging people in at skill positions and hopes to create a play with their scheme. Keying in on an individual player is fruitless in the end. Several 100 yard rushers have come from a hodgepodge of different folks on the roster. You just have to play disciplined ball and hope to stop them to a man.
So what do we do?
We show up for Brian Urlacher's jersey retirement, that's what. Above what happens in the game, every UNM football fan should make it in for this one time event. It's one hell of a once-in-a-lifetime experience to say you saw and attended later in life. Show up. Do it. There aren't many other retirement jersey ceremonies for a reason and the man deserves your attention and applause.
As to Air Force, we have a good match up against their roster size wise and an esoteric rep experience in defending their wacky scheme. Even on a short week, the youth and injured on their squad makes this hill slanted before the game even starts and UNM should get their points.
We have great match ups against their secondary and we can go at them with slight size advantages. These won't win the game exclusively but outside of an utter big play shoot out, Air Force will be hard edged to keep up if our defense is consistent enough to deny them points. Even if those denials are at the end of long drives.
Our defense is going to have to disrupt the line of scrimmage and force the Falcons inside. Romine can be a solvent passer and the Falcons might try to open up more passing for this game, but our game plan has to revolve around being around a pressured pocket for a number of reasons. His inexperience is a big plus...despite his military training he should be more easily rattled and we need to get him off his game.
AFA will be hard up on getting their tight ends into this game. Most of them are tall enough to possess as much mismatch as possible. Basic routes and out routes will be the security blanket to get their QB through this game. Against another option team they'll have to look outside of the box.
Expect Romine's mobility to show up on the draw.
Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle. We have to wrap up properly. No missed assignments with AFA's WR corps. They're quick but we should get a good bead against these guys.
Our option runners match up well size wise and this might be long day if the right blocks fall into place. It should be a higher scoring game with lots of points on the board in general.
We should be able to take this game, though the cadets will fight back bitterly. It should be a contest that's never completely decided til the very end.