The Air Force Falcons close out the home portion of what has become an underwhelming season Saturday evening against the UNLV Rebels at Falcon Stadium. Kickoff is set for 4pm MT and the game can be found on the Mountain West Sports Network.
Air Force, sitting at a record of 5-5 for the season (1-4 in the MW), needs two victories in their final two games to become bowl eligible thanks to having two FCS teams on their schedule this season. By rule, they can only count one win against an FCS team towards the required six victories needed in a 12 game schedule to go to a bowl game. Even so, Air Force could be left on the outside of the bowl picture unless other conferences fail to fill all of their bowl slots. With Boise States loss to TCU last weekend, the Mountain West is unlikely to get a team into the Bowl Championship Series, and all of the Mountain West bowl tie-ins could be called for with one more Wyoming victory in their final three games. Both TCU and San Diego State, victors over the Falcons this season, already are bowl eligible and would likely be chosen for bowl slots within the conference before Air Force is selected.
But given the way this season has gone for Air Force, they may not even deserve to go to a bowl game if they gain eligibility. Their performance on the field has been lackluster for the most part. The defense has played an entire season of uninspired football, with very little passion that this unit has been known for in the past. The defensive coaching staff is due for a serious overhaul after failure after failure of preparing the players weekly and putting them in position to make plays. The play calling has lacked an edge to it to a point that the coaching staff is playing a soft zone in the secondary, afraid of getting beat deep. Instead every week they are being "dinked and dunked" down the field on quick screen passes just behind the line, short curl routes, and routes run across the middle where the defenders have left opposing receivers wide open. The front seven has very rarely gotten a pass rush going in any game, to the point that they have only recorded 12 sacks all season, 8 coming against the FCS opponents on their schedule (6 vs. South Dakota, and 2 vs. Tennessee State). When teams haven't been taking advantage of Air Force's soft zone coverage, they have been gashing it, running the football to a tune of 218.5 yards per game, which ranks 111th out of 120 FBS teams. One could say the reason for this is the injuries sustained on the defensive line have taken their toll, but in a next man up world of college football, that is only an excuse for a team that hasn't fought as hard as it has been known for.
Offensively turnovers have killed the Falcons. 24 times Air Force ball carriers have coughed up the ball, losing 15 of them to the opposition, no one more critical than fullback Mike DeWitt's fumble at the Wyoming 24 last week late in the fourth quarter on a questionable play call. On a 3rd and 6 at the Wyoming 25 with less than 2 minutes left and down 18-17, the Falcons ran a fullback dive to DeWitt. Even had DeWitt been able to hold onto the ball, Parker Herrington would have been kicking into a strong wind on a 42 yard field goal attempt that was anything but assured. The Falcons have also thrown seven interceptions, six by senior Tim Jefferson Jr. Air Force is a -3 in turnover margin this season after being a combined +50 during coach Troy Calhoun's first four years at the Academy.
As for Saturday's game, UNLV has questions at quarterback and the Rebels have used three different guys this season. Sophomore Caleb Herring started the first five for the Rebels, but was replaced by junior college transfer Sean Reilly for the next two games. Herring returned to the starter's role against Boise State, on Nov. 5th but was forced out of that game and missed the loss last week at New Mexico where redshirt freshman Taylor Barnhill got the start. For the season, Herring, a dual threat who is expected to be ready to start against Air Force, has completed 56% of his passes for 844 yards with 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He has also run the ball 64 times for 113 yards and one score. Reilly, more of a pocket passer, has completed 18 of 37 passes for 185 yards and thrown for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Barnhill has played in just two games for the Rebels including the start last week at New Mexico where he was 7 of 10 for 54 yards passing but ran 17 times for 77 yards. Barnhill's critical fumble late in the fourth quarter last week gave the Lobos the ball on the Rebels side of the field in a 14-14 tie. The Lobos took the lead with 1:15 left at 21-14 and the Rebels couldn't move the ball on thier final drive. The Rebels are led offensively though by their running back tandem of true freshman Dionza Bradford and sophomore Tim Cornett. Bradford has carried the ball 112 times for 569 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Cornett has scored 5 touchdowns on 76 carries for 406 yards. Look for Herring to change the flow and hook up with senior wide out Phillip Payne who leads the Rebels with 40 catches for 476 yards and 7 touchdowns. Both Payne and fellow senior Michael Johnson should find their spots to make plays against a weak Air Force secondary.
Where Air Force has struggled defensively, so have the Rebels. UNLV is allowing 278.8 yards per game through the air and 167.9 yards on the ground. Most glaringly though is the fact that the Rebels are allowing 39.2 points per game to their opponents. The Rebels have force 17 turnovers (6 INT, 11 fumbles) through 9 games. If Air Force senior quarterback Tim Jefferson is able to play, after suffering from concussion like symptoms after the first drive in last weeks loss to Wyoming, the Falcons should be far better off. Senior back-up quarterback Connor Dietz stepped in for Jefferson and ran the ball well, but the Falcons failed to do much of anything through the air against the Cowboys. Dietz also stepped in for Jefferson after he suffered a broken nose against New Mexico on Oct. 29th late in the first quarter. The Falcons didn't need to pass the ball in that one as they were able to continue to move it on the ground against the Lobos in a 42-0 rout. The Falcons can not be one dimensional, however. They need to take advantage of a weak Rebels secondary that has been lit up so often this season. Dietz probably will not be able to do that, as he hasn't shown as good an ability passing the ball as Jefferson these past four years.
So really this will come down to three things for Air Force. 1. Will Tim Jefferson start the game and give the Falcons a better chance to be diversified on offense? 2. If Jefferson can not play, will the coaching staff allow Connor Dietz to attempt to throw the ball to take advantage of the Rebels' secondary? 3. Will the Air Force defense be allowed to dictate the tempo of the game by playing a more agressive style than what the coaching staff has allowed them to do all season?
Deductive reasoning says Air Force should win this one in a walk. Air Force won at New Mexico 42-0, UNLV lost at New Mexico 21-14, so therefor... But with the Falcons lack of ball security and lack of passion on defense, who knows what will happen. All I know is that Air Force still has a lot of work to do to gain that precious bowl bid that they seek.