The Air Force Falcons play a virtual playoff game Saturday in Fort Collins against the Colorado State Rams. Game time at Hughes Stadium is at 4pm MT. The game will be broadcast on the Mountain West Sports Network. The Falcons, sitting at 6-5 must win in order to become bowl eligible, after having two of their wins come against FCS schools.
Air Force may have gotten a preview of what to expect from the CSU offense two weeks ago against Wyoming. The Cowboys started freshman quarterback Brett Smith who shares some similarities to CSU freshman QB Garrett Grayson, who will be making his second career start Saturday. Both Smith and Grayson are mobile threats with good throwing arms and instincts. Grayson got his baptism by fire last week against TCU where he went 14 of 24 for 248 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also carried the ball eight times for 53 yards. Grayson started out the game with a nice throw on the run, finding senior wide receiver Matt Yemm for a 34 yard strike who was not his first option on the play.
The Falcon defense has struggled with dual threat quarterbacks who run spread or option offenses all season, first with TCU's Casey Pachall (20-24, 206 yards, 2 TDs, 9 car., 32 yards), then came Navy's Kriss Proctor (14-24, 132 yards, 1 TD, 37 car., 134, 3 TDs), and finally Smith (17-30, 139 yards, 1 TD, 16 car., 75 yards, 2 TDs). Air Force must contain Grayson in the pocket and force him into making mistakes. Whether or not they can do this has been the question all season. The Falcon front seven has been unable to bring steady pressure on QBs and have had their secondary picked apart because of it. Against UNLV they were able to bring some pressure and confuse another young QB in sophomore Caleb Herring who was only 6 of 14 for 41 yards and one interception.
The key point in this game will be who can sustain their running game on offense and produce touchdowns. Both the Falcons and Rams rank among the worst rush defenses in the country. Air Force has allowed 219.3 yards per game (110th out of 120 in FBS) while CSU is giving up 223.5 yards (115th). The Rams are lead in rushing by Chris Nwoke, who has an 84.6 yards per game average, but has a 5.1 yard per carry average and has found the end zone seven times. The Air Force defensive line has had too much trouble shedding their blockers getting swallowed up by offensive lines and forcing their linebackers and defensive backs to make way too many tackles. The defensive line has to find a way to disrupt the Rams rushing attack and force Grayson to make mistakes throwing the football.
Offensively, the Falcons need to keep on keeping on. They lead the Mountain West with 318.2 yards rushing per game and rank third nationally. Tim Jefferson Jr is making his last regular season start in an Air Force football uniform before trading it in for a flight suit next spring. Look for him to build upon last weeks performance against UNLV where he was 7 of 12 for 128 yards and a touchdown, and carried the ball 12 times for a season high 81 yards and another touchdown. Senior running back Asher Clark is also coming off a season best game against the Rebels carrying the ball 15 times for 169 yards and a touchdown. The 169 yards was a career high and Clark is just 143 yards away from catching Air Force's all-time rushing leader Dee Dowis at 3,612 yards. With CSU's poor rush defense, Clark definitely has a shot to catch Dowis in this game.
Ultimately this one will not only come down to who runs the ball more effectively on offense but who can take care of the football and not turn it over. The Falcons are still at a -2 in turnover margin with 16 fumbles lost. The Rams are also at a -2 in turnover margin and have lost 10 fumbles and thrown 10 interceptions.
This is a rivalry game and a trophy is at stake. OK, so Air Force's big goal was the secure the Commander in Chief's Trophy, which they did for the second straight year. However, they have held onto the Ram-Falcon Trophy for five years and don't want to give it up especially since a bowl berth is on the line. And because of that berth, the Falcons have more to play for than do the Rams who are playing out the string of a third straight losing season.
Provided the Falcons can bring the same passion they had against UNLV last week and they can protect the football, Air Force should be bowl bound for the fifth straight year.