This is the game that Air Force has been building up to since Troy Calhoun was brought back to his alma mater five seasons ago. Since the beginning of the Mountain West Conference in 1999 the Falcons have been cruising along in the second echelon of the league. They haven't cracked the top tier since winning the WAC title in 1998. They haven't had a better opportunity than the one they have sitting right in front of them this Saturday. Yeah, it may be because TCU is not as strong this year, but you play with the hand you are dealt.
Troy Calhoun has built a program that Fisher DeBerry would be envious of. DeBerry was known for getting the best out of his players despite their lack of skill, size, and speed. Calhoun takes that a step further by finding great athletes and molding them into smart football players. What they lack in ability they make up for with intelligence and with his ability to make adjustments during games, Calhoun can guide this team to victory as long as the players believe in themselves and one another.
In the past against TCU, Air Force has had to deal with a defense that seemed to know the play call right out of the huddle. TCU coach Gary Patterson has game planned the Falcon offense better than any other coach in the conference. It helped by having one of the stoutest defenses in the country over the last four years. But things appear like they have changed in Ft. Worth this year. TCU is fresh off a 50-48 loss to Baylor. The Horned Frogs haven't given up that many points since a 2005 shoot out win at BYU 51-50. That's 73 games and a 63-10 record over that span.
Air Force senior quarterback Tim Jefferson must take advantage of the Horned Frogs inexperienced secondary that was torched for 414 yards on 23-29 passing by Baylor QB Robert Griffin III. In the Falcons offense, Jefferson is not going to be throwing the ball 29 times. Even if they were trailing by four touchdowns early in the second quarter, Calhoun would not take his offense out of its comfort zone. What Jefferson will need to replicate is the 79% completion percentage that Griffin had last week. Even 65% would be fine. TCU's inexperience was glaring last week and Air Force must be able to exploit the deficiencies TCU showed in man coverage against Baylor. With the option style offense the Falcons employ, man coverage is what TCU will primarily use leaving an extra defender in the tackle box to stop the run. Jefferson will have to find his big targets Zack Kauth and Josh Freeman over the middle enough to force TCU to respect the pass as much as the run.
Even if the Falcons have minimal success against the TCU pass defense, the safeties for the Horned Frogs are going to have to step up and play assignment football and fill in the holes Air Force will try to create. If the Baylor game is any indication, this might prove easier said than done. When Robert Griffin III wasn't throwing darts over their heads, Terrance Ganaway was slicing them at 5 yards a carry for 120 yards. Now there is no denying the talent is still there for TCU, but the lack of experience and playing as unit is there as well. If this game were played in late October or November, TCU would probably have a greater advantage, but like I said before, you have to play with the hand that you were dealt.
Defensively, Air Force must disrupt the timing that Sophomore QB Casey Pachall is trying to build. This will be Pachall's 9th appearance in a college game, second as a starter. He has the talent, but it is still raw. Air Force must put pressure on him from all angles. Junior outside linebacker Alex Means has been used as an extra down lineman and has been given the assignment to get after the quarterback. Means came up with 2 sacks in last weeks win against South Dakota. His long 6'5" athletic frame may be difficult for TCU's tackles and tight ends to control off the edge.
Perhaps the biggest thing Air Force needs to take advantage of is the altitude of Falcon Stadium. At over 6,600 feet the air is thinner and there are two separate phases of the game that can exploit it. For all of spring and fall camp the Falcons have been running a no-huddle offense. Air Force used it extensively against South Dakota and the Coyotes were left winded, blowing all three of their first half time outs before 5 minutes had gone by in the second quarter. With the overall experience and knowledge of the playbook, running a hurry-up gives the Falcon offense another edge. But more important than wearing out the TCU defense, the altitude must be utilized in the kicking game. Greg McCoy averaged more than 38 yards per kickoff return against Baylor. The Mountain West indoor track champion kept TCU in the game and shortened the field for Pachall. If Erik Soderberg can continually boot the ball deep into and even out of the end zone on kickoffs, McCoy could be neutralized. Pachall would then have to succeed on longer drives, therefore possibly exposing some of his inexperience.
If Air Force can combine their experience, senior leadership, intelligence, and increased athletic talent they can take that next step that Falcon fans and alums have been waiting for since the Mountain West began. The straight-laced flyboys of Air Force have always made for a great feel-good story in college football. But rarely have they been more than that. With the team that Troy Calhoun has finally pieced together in