The Wyoming Cowboys visit the Air Force Falcons Saturday at Falcon Stadium in a crucial conference matchup to determine bowl seeding. The game kicks off at Noon MT and is available regionally on the Mountain West Sports Network. Don't for a second believe that the odds makers (as of Friday morning Air Force -17) have found a way to gauge this game. Ten of the last 15 games played between these two have been decided by 10 points or less. The overall series leans in Air Force's favor at 26-20-3, but only because Air Force has won the past five meetings.
But things are changing in Laramie as head coach Dave Christiansen appears to have gotten this team to turn the corner and leave their struggles behind them. The offense has found their stride this season because of the consistent play of true freshman quarterback Brett Smith. His shot-put throwing style may be a little awkward, and was a red flag to many colleges who wouldn't offer Smith a scholarship, but the Salem, Ore. native had plenty of success in high school and it appears to be translating for the Cowboys.
Smith has completed 61% of his passes this season for 1,875 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has been picked off five times and has only been sacked eight times in eight games. But when Wyoming has been successful has been when Smith has used his legs. In the Cowboys five wins this season, Smith has carried the ball 56 times for 237 yards, a 4.2 average per carry, and scored five of his six touchdowns. However, in their three losses he carried the ball 16 times for 66 yards including 4 carries for 68 yards last week against TCU with one carry going for 61 yards.
Air Force must find a way to stop Smith from running the ball and make him into a one dimensional quarterback. The Falcons have struggled against the run this season allowing 219.2 yards per game which ranks 111th out of 120 schools in Div. 1-FBS. The Falcons must also find a way to slow down junior running back Alvester Alexander. In last seasons game in Laramie against Air Force Alexander ran for 123 yards on 22 carries and scored Wyoming's only two touchdowns in a 20-14 Falcons' win. But last year Wyoming was a one dimensional team who couldn't find their way through the air. That obviously hasn't been an issue this year.
The Falcons have to contain Smith in the pocket and not allow him to scramble and improvise. Smith has had some trouble with decision making and has been known to hold onto the ball too long. Last week he paid the price for that and was knocked out of the game against TCU early in the fourth quarter forcing backup QB Colby Kirkegaard into the game and preventing a Cowboy comeback. With a defensive line that is finally getting healthy, the Falcons might have a chance to start developing pressure on opposing QBs.
On the offensive side of the ball, Air Force should be able to take advantage of a Wyoming defense that has been even worse that the Falcons against the run. Wyoming is allowing 231.5 yards rushing per game. That ranks them 114th. The Falcons have been finished in the top ten among rushing teams in Div. 1 for the past 25 years. 20 times they have been in the top five. This year is no different as the Falcons are averaging 310.4 yards per game ranking them fourth in the country. But the 310.4 is the highest average at the Academy since 1997. They are led by Tim Jefferson Jr, Asher Clark, Mike DeWitt, and Wes Cobb who are accounting for 193 yards on the ground between them.
The Falcons must control the line of scrimmage when they have the ball. They can not allow Wyoming DE Gabe Knapton to dictate where they can be successful. The Cowboys utilize a 4-2-5 style of defense, similar to both New Mexico and TCU. Air Force was successful moving the ball against both the Lobos and Horned Frogs with 346 and 261 yards respectively. If they can find holes in the middle of the line they will force the Cowboy defensive backs to stay committed to the middle to help out the two linebackers, which should open holes to the outside. Wyoming has always shown an ability to limit Air Force's success in the past on the ground, so whoever is successful early on should indicate where this game will head.
Ultimately though this game will come down to turnovers. Wyoming is a +12 in turnover margin after forcing TCU into five turnovers last week, including two TCU fumbles inside the Wyoming 5 yard line and one interception in the endzone. Air Force is a -1 on the season and has fumbled the ball 19 times losing it on 12 occasions. With Wyoming giving up a lot of yardage, ball security must be essential for a Falcons' victory.
The odds makers will probably get this one wrong again and we will have yet another tight game between these Front Range rivals. Air Force is not playing with a killer instinct and has show signs of doubt because of their lack of ball control. Wyoming has be opportunistic, but has allowed opponents to roll up and down the field against them. The 50th meeting between these two promises to be another exciting close game. No one can predict what will happen in, so this is one that you have to watch.