Like many of you, I find it hard to cheer against the service academies, even when they’re playing TCU. By that I mean, when we’re playing someone like Baylor or BYU, I want all of their players to get injured or die, sometimes more than I really want TCU to win; with Air Force, Army and Navy, I want us to win, but I also wish the opponent well. The reasons for this are clear, so I don’t suspect I need to go into them. So, rather than turn this into a negative snark fest and talk about how much we’re going to roll, I’ll keep it respectable and be as objective as possible. Besides, Air Force is actually good, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
What You Need to Know About Air Force.
They still like to run the ball. A lot. They lead the nation in attempts (60) per game and yards (346) per game and, since we've been in the MWC, they’ve never been out of the top five in either category to finish the year. So, same as it ever was, what you see is what you get when you play the Falcons. They are who we think they are, right Denny Green? This tactic is definitely a product of necessity due to the special cirucmstances of their recruiting, but when you look at what the Falcons and Navy have been able to do with it, who would argue with the results? Certainly not Notre Dame, and both have been to far more bowl games than Baylor, after all.
As Kerleys pointed out earlier in the week, the run game takes a big hit without Jared Tew being available to take hand offs, but the Falcons also played without QB Tim Jefferson last year when we rolled into Colorado Springs, and we all remember how that one turned out. And we surely all remember 2007 when the Falcons rolled off a bazillion yard TD run on 4th down late in the game which they eventually won. Needless to say, Air Force is capable of breaking a big run at any time and we will have to be extremely disciplined if we want to slow them down. But, we all need to get one thing through our heads: Air Force is going to rack up some yards on the ground. When you run it 77% of the time – yes, I did the math – eventually all of the blocks are going to set up perfectly or someone will attempt a sloppy tackle and it’ll be off to the races; even in their two losses, they ran up over 300 yards on the ground. So, when it happens, we can't get down about it and hang our heads because it's just reality.
Leading the charge is RB Asher Clark with 664 yards on the year, and QB Tim Jefferson places third with 464 yards and a team leading 7 TDs. The injured Tew is sandwiched between those guys with 540 yards, so that impact cannot be discounted, but when you have two players as dangerous as Clark and Jefferson, I’m not sure it’s going to necessarily be the death blow that you might expect. Especially when you consider that…
The Air Force Offense: Now With Optional Passing Mode. Yes, Air Force has started playing to their name and actually moves the ball through the air these days, and with some ease. While Tim Jefferson’s 838 yards per game aren’t going to get him on the Baugh watch list, you still have to consider those 6 passing TDs on the year as something to watch out for. Yes, I realize they only average 123 yards per game through the air, but for a team who has played – and won – entire games without even so much as thinking about attempting a forward pass, this is ground breaking stuff. They don’t have any big time play makers at receiver who are going to stretch the field and make the DBs play off them – their longest pass play on the year is 51 yards, and that’s well longer than the second best – but all it takes is a quick swing pass and a missed tackle to completely change the momentum of the game. Stereotypically you may think that Air Force, Navy and Army are government sponsored glorified intramural teams, but, at least speaking for Air Force, the players are far more athletic than you may think and, as we’ve seen first hand, they’re very fast. Like I said, Jefferson likely isn’t going to go deep on us, but the fact remains we didn’t face him last year due to injury so there is sure to be a modest learning curve.
Air Force Still Plays Defense. A Lot. Air Force, as they’re prone to do, are stingy on defense, only giving up 20 points per contest and 344 yards total. They’re especially not interested in giving up any yards through the air, ranking near the top of the entire NCAA with 163 yards per game; by comparison, TCU gives up 128. They have also picked off 7 passes on the year and recovered 4 fumbles. They’re not as scary against the run – 180 yards per – but, given that if his body clock holds true Dalton is due a down week, the Falcons may be able to overload us up front and force us to go against our offensive strengths. I’m not saying it will happen… but BYU has one of the worst rush defenses in the country and they came out and kicked us in the balls in that department last week, so anything is possible.
Personally? I don’t think we’ll have two back to back down weeks running the ball, but if they ARE able to slow us down early, it’s going to be up to Dalton to put points on the board, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult than last week. Statistically, this will be the strongest passing D we’ll face all year until Utah.
Air Force Will Not Turn the Ball Over. The numbers can look deceiving when you compare them to the stinginess that is the TCU offense – 7 fumbles, 1 lost vs. 8/5 for Air Force – but the Falcons have also run the ball 422 times, so that’s only about 1% of the time that they’re going to lose a fumble. They HAVE thrown 4 INTs on only 99 pass attempts – inexperience, it sucks – but considering we have linebackers that pick off passes better than a lot of team’s entire secondaries, I have a feeling they won’t be attempting anything too risky there. And, really, lost fumbles are typically the result of bad luck – we could easily be staring hard at 5 lost had the ball bounced the wrong way. I know a few of our seven were due to passed snaps, but considering the turnover bug that bit us against them last year – 3 to 0, although the cold certainly played a role – we can’t play that way this week and expect a similar result.
How They Lose. The big question – in the two games the Falcons have lost, what happened to make things go sour? To preface, the Falcons two losses have only come by 5 combined points – 3 to #1 ranked Oklahoma in Norman, 2 to a San Diego State team that may bust into the top 3 in the MWC this year. And while OU is probably ranked at least 4-5 spots too high in the BCS, the fact remains they ARE #1 and they have beaten Florida State and Texas, both in the Top 25.
The OU Game – Really, if you look solely at the stats, it’s absolutely SHOCKING that the Falcons lost this one. They controlled the time of possession, first downs, total yards, you name it. They limited Landry Jones to 1 TD on the day and just 250 yards passing, but the difference in this one is very good news for us – RB DeMarco Murray had 110 yards and 2 TDs. Ed Wesley, take note. And, to play devil’s advocate for OU, it WAS 27-10 in the third quarter before OU went into coast mode and let the Falcons score two in the 4th. But still, the #1 team in the country shouldn’t be afforded the luxury of sneaking by on cruise control, so if they truly deserve their billing, this one should never have gotten that far. Two other things that killed Air Force – special teams as they let OU run a squib kick back into their own territory, and their one turnover was absolutely KILLER and shut down a drive deep in OU’s end of the field. You’d like to think that if you’re only going to have one turnover in a game against a team like Oklahoma you’d still have a chance, but this was definitely one of those ones that will stick with them. Basically this game came down to one player and that was DeMarco Murray, who in addition to the 2 rushing scores had a TD reception, and he hasn’t played that well since that game which suggests a thing or two about the Air Force front seven. Again, Ed Wesley, take note.
The SDSU Game – This game is almost a mirror image of the OU loss as Air Force DOMINATED the stat sheet but still came up short. And, again, it was the run defense that let them down as SDSU stud RB Ronnie Hillman had 191 yards and 2 TDs. Sensing a trend here? Given, Hillman’s TD’s came on runs of 65 and 44 yards, so a tackle here and a tackle there may have completely reversed this outcome… but it didn’t. Ed Wesley, take note. It should also be noted that AF lost Jared Tew in this one, which didn’t help matters, and then had a 2 pt conversion reversed on replay, which decided the outcome. I think you can definitely make the case for Air Force getting caught looking ahead in this one, but the Aztecs are a far more talented team than anyone is ready to give them credit for. And, like OU, they held a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter, with Air Force only coming within a field goal with 2 minutes left… and then they let Hillman run a TD on the first play after recovering an onside kick, and that was that. Air Force DID score with 18 seconds left, but the Hillman TD ruined their chances. Again, Ed Wesley, take note.
What I Think. Since you all care, and all. Our overall offensive strategies are very similar - run the ball and control the clock and the game will take care of itself. However, I think our defensive and offensive fronts are stronger than theirs, so this is a battle we should be able to win. As much as I tried to downplay it above, I think losing Tew is going to be a pretty tough blow for Air Force to deal with tomorrow night. When the vast majority of your offense is running the ball, losing a key contributor like Jared Tew is going to make life a little more difficult. Without him the majority of last week, Air Force was held under their season average… but they still had 312 yards, and even went above their passing average with 175 and scored a TD that way. But, if they stick to this tactic this week, this will play greatly into our hands. Like I said, Jefferson isn’t going to throw anything too deep, but if we’re playing the receivers tight and he’s forced to throw, that situation should be ripe for a pick six. As I said earlier, if Dalton’s body clock is still in tune, he’s due for a let down this week - especially considering the defense - and the ground game is going to have to be the difference maker, but to be honest the tables couldn’t turn at a better time. BYU may have shut us down with a worse run defense, but I don’t think we can underestimate how much they’ve benefitted from having Bronco Mendenhall run that operation the past couple of weeks. It won’t be like Colorado State or Wyoming, but I have little doubt Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker and Waymon James will up to the task. Air Force will pile up some rushing yards, but we’ll beat them at their own game.
The Pick. TCU 31, Air Force 17.
Our second and last night game of the year at Amon G. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve really hated all of the day games we’ve been forced to deal with. Not just because of the sun, but just because it really tempers the mood when you have to be raring to go by 2:30PM. Other than Utah and now maybe San Diego State, this is our toughest game of the year, and having it played at night is going to be a huge advantage. There could very well be a Rangers game 7 going on, and if so, screw those guys for not closing it out in 2 chances, but Cliff Lee will be on the mound so you really shouldn’t have much to fret about. I expect to see everyone inside and make this a true sellout.