Wyoming takes on the Air Force Academy Falcons this Saturday at noon. While this is not a rivalry game, the competitiveness between these two programs has always run at a high level. Air Force has played a lot of hard-nosed, yet smart games over the decades. Their ability to focus on their positions, and retain a high level of discipline makes them a tough team to play for anyone around the nation.
The Cowboys are coming off of a rough, and mostly embarrassing, loss to Boise State. While BSU is a top 3 team, Wyoming did almost as much to hurt themselves as what Boise's outstanding offense and defense did. The good news for Wyoming is that they have few major injuries, and essentially all of the players available for last week's game should be available again. The team seems to be in good physical shape, and their conditioning is probably better than in years past. This is likely the biggest reason for the so far apparent lack of major injuries this fall.
Air Force is coming off a very tough loss to a good OU team. Oklahoma very nearly was beat by Air Force, and a couple of extra plays on defense could have given the Cadets a win. This was a really rough game, with some pretty hard hitting on both sides. AFA was able to effectively move the ball against a stout Oklahoma defense that dominated Florida State the week before. Air Force seems to be a little beat up, after having a couple of weeks that were quite similar to UW's. The first game of the AFA season was against a FCS opponent that they dominated. Then they played, and upset, the BYU Cougars the next week. Then of course the OU game. Unlike UW though, they are 2-1.
UW is looking to enter conference play with a bang. I believe the team has a lot of confidence in itself, and I certainly do not get the impression that they are unnecessarily down or despondent over two disappointing weeks of football. Coach Christensen runs a pretty tough program, and considering the amount of attrition the team has encountered due to quite a few players leaving, I think the personnel that are staying on are obviously those who are mentally tougher. There is very little shame in losing to two top 10 teams in a span of two weeks, but this does not mean that Air Force will be an easier team than the last two.
The areas where UW need to work on most after the past few games are not new to us. Offensive and defensive line play needs a big improvement. The front four on the defense are not getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback. The first game of the season saw SUU get quite a few rushing yards on this group. Then they seemed to pull together a bit more for the Texas game and had a decent showing. Then they reverted back to earlier form and allowed BSU to run all over them. Hopefully a lot of film and practice this week will help shore up this line, as it is facing its most difficult challenge yet with AF's running game. Historically UW has played tough against the ground attack of Air Force, but last week we also mentioned that UW has historically played tough against Boise State. Just as any decent financial advisor will tell their client, "Past performances do not guarantee future results." UW's front four on defense will have to really step up their game to pressure AF's offense into making poor decisions on the option.
The secondary was supposed to be the real strength of the defense this year, but they productivity is not at the level expected. Missed tackles throughout the entire defense is a big problem, but when the corners and safeties are continually getting run over and miss tackles, then the opposing score goes up quickly. The linebackers seem to be doing a decent job, but it is hard to gauge their effectiveness when the other portions of the team are looking so suspect. The linebackers are going to be the key to stopping the AFA rushing game. This game will certainly highlight to us how well, or poorly, they are playing.
The offensive line has also had some poor showings so far; too much pressure on the quarterback, too few effective running lanes, and other minor details which make running an offense on the whole a rather unproductive endeavor. There are no instant fixes for such issues, but getting off quick passes or quick handoffs for a run may at least get a few yards per down. Air Force has a tremendous defense for their size, and they have a lot of the same personnel which lead the Falcons last year to be one of the most productive defenses on turnovers. If Carta-Samuels is flushed from the pocket as much as he was last week, he may in fact have even less production against AFA as compared to BSU. Air Force's defense is full of smaller linemen and linebackers, but what they lose out in size they make up for in intensity, toughness, and speed.
Austyn also needs to make some better decisions coming into this game. A few mental errors in the BSU game lead to some costly turnovers. In the case of Wyoming's offense, he needs to hit some quick passes during the first possession. This would probably help to soften up the defense a bit, and actually get the ground game moving. Setting the tempo early with quick, accurate passes will do a world of good. Especially since the AFA cornerbacks are both very interception happy. Receivers need to run good routes, put a lot of effort into their running, be able to actually catch the ball, and show some speed through all of this.
Rushing of course is the biggest problem UW has. Averaging 24 yards rushing per game is simply awful. Alexander and Kankolongo need to really step up their play. The burden lies squarely on their shoulders, as there is no one else on the team that can run the ball as effectively as these two can. Both need to hit the holes quickly, accelerate, and get north and south in a real hurry. In watching what they did against BSU, there was a lot of side stepping and still some hesitation. Admittedly, it is much easier to look from above and see where they should be running and how, but this is an area that needs improvement fast if UW has any expectations of having a decent season and going to a bowl game.
If there is one positive about this game, it is that UW may in fact match up more closely with the AFA lines. The Cowboys have smaller, quicker linemen who probably have a lot more in common with their Falcon counterparts. What the difference is here though is seemingly mental toughness, situational awareness, and explosive playmaking combined with discipline. UW did hold AFA well down from their rushing average last year, and I hope that they do much the same this year.
There is no doubt that AFA is a very quality opponent, and if they win this game they will likely be ranked. But in terms of physicality, AFA does not have any real advantages over UW. Their only advantage is the one they carry in their head. If they stay focused, disciplined, and play their hardest until the game is over, then they can take on any team in the land and play them tough. If UW can match that discipline and intelligence, all the while playing a much more physical game (there is a small size advantage, and I believe we do have some better athletes), then there is a chance that UW can come out with a win.
Hopefully UW has learned a lot over the past three weeks about themselves, and certainly the past two games have been something of a crucible for them. If they keep their heads up throughout this week's practice, and work not only to play hard, but to "think hard", then there is the chance for an upset. Again, in terms of athletes, strength, and size UW does have an advantage. Now if they can match a very smart AFA team and play clean, mistake-free football, then we should see a very fun and competitive game. If the same team that came out to play BSU last week shows up, then AFA will have no problem putting 35 on UW and allowing the Pokes two scores or less.