Football to fight a war on the ground against Air Force

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Justin Truong/SDSU Athletics

Senior quarterback Jordon Brookshire (4) leads the Aztecs into the game against San Jose State (Photo Courtesy of Justin Truong, SDSU Athletics).

by James Salazar, Staff Writer

The San Diego State Aztecs (6-0, 2-0 Mountain West Conference) will look to make history as they travel to Colorado to face the Air Force Falcons (6-1, 3-1 MWC) on Saturday, Oct. 23.

The Aztecs are undefeated at the halfway point and look to get off to the program’s best start since 1975, extending an eight-game winning streak against AFA dating back to 2010. However, the Falcons are entering this game full of confidence on the heels of four consecutive wins.

The Falcons are a well-coached team and despite SDSU’s success against them in recent history the Falcons are not to be taken lightly. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said Air Force looks as good as any team in the MWC.

The Aztecs are in for a unique matchup as the Falcons are unlike any of their previous opponents. This game will be played inside-out as — in what seems like a mirror-match — both teams have committed to and relied heavily on the run.

Offense

The Falcons primarily run a triple-option scheme. The keyword here is run because, despite their name, the Falcons seem allergic to putting the ball in the air. Like their academy brethren, AFA heavily favors the ground game with a 90% to 10% run-to-pass ratio. 

One can count on their fingers how many passes AFA attempts per game (seven) and would only need one hand to add up their average number of completions per game (about three). They are the only team in the MW completing less than 50% of their passes. However, when they do complete a pass, teams are so surprised by it that they often are not in a position to make plays. This has led to AFA averaging the most yards per attempt in the conference with 11.3 yards per catch.

In lieu of any semblance of a passing game, the Falcons boast a dominant ground game. AFA has rushed 462 times for 2355 yards this season — both conference-best by far. They average 336.4 rush yards per game — over 100 yards more than number two SDSU. The Falcons are not just running a lot, they are running well. As a team, they average 5.1 yards per rush and have scored 27 rushing touchdowns — both MWC highs. This all adds up to 31.4 points per game, making AFA the fourth-highest scoring offense in the MWC.

“Air Force is very dominant at the line of scrimmage. They take care of the football,” Hoke said.

The dominance on the ground is led by junior running back Brad Roberts, whose 178 carries, 818 yards, and eight touchdowns lead all running backs in the conference. That said, he only gets 38.5% of the team’s total carries because the nature of the triple-option results in many different players toting the rock. One of those players is junior quarterback Haaziq Daniels who ranks fifth in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns himself. Their remaining 183 carries, 1012 yards, and 10 touchdowns can be attributed to 13 different players.

To defend the triple-option you have to take away something the offense does to anticipate where the ball will be, whether it’s the dive or pitch doesn’t matter. Hoke knows this, “My background always has been, you got to stop the fullback” Hoke said. 

However, when so many players can touch the ball it stresses each defender’s assignment. 

“This week is really big on focusing on our keys and reading our keys,” senior linebacker Caden McDonald said. “[We] just got to contain [Daniels] and be sound in our assignments.”

Defense

AFA also trots out an effective defense. Their fourth-ranked pass defense and second-ranked run defense combine for the third-best total defense in the conference. They surrender the fewest number of first downs per game and have the top-ranked scoring unit allowing a measly 16.3 points per game.

While the Falcons’ defense is formidable, their stats are inflated by their ball-controlling offense. AFA’s opponents don’t get many opportunities to test their defensive unit because the offense dominates the time of possession by averaging 37.5 minutes with the ball per game — a MWC-best. Looking deeper, the Falcons’ average yards per play allowed, opponent third-down conversion rate, and red zone defense are all middle of the pack in the conference — hardly the defensive powerhouse their totals suggest.

With two offenses that can burn the clock, getting stops, taking the ball away, and winning the time of possession is crucial this week for both teams. “We both play really good defense when we’re watching the offense,” Hoke said.

Consensus

SDSU and AFA are very similar — both teams are looking to pound the rock and play smash-mouth football and enter this week with the top two rushing attacks to do it. However, both teams also pride themselves in their ability to stop the run —  boasting the top two rushing defenses. Ultimately, this game will be decided by who commits the fewest mistakes, can stay ahead of the chains, and wins at the line of scrimmage. Air Force — like all military academies — doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. They are the least penalized team in the conference. Therefore, the Aztecs must play a clean game and win the battle in the trenches.

“[Air Force] should be 7-0,” Hoke said, “This is definitely, definitely our biggest challenge of the year.”

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