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Air Force-UNLV Preview: Three Key Factors

Air Force and UNLV find themselves as mirror opposites this season as they get ready to clash in a Mountain West Conference cross-divisional match up in Las Vegas Saturday afternoon.

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Time/TV - 2:00 p.m. MST on Mountain West Network

Series Record - Air Force leads 13-6

Last Meeting - 2013 - UNLV 41 Air Force 21

Last Week - Air Force 23 Army 6, New Mexico 31 UNLV 28

The Air Force Falcons and UNLV Rebels enter this weekend's match up as polar opposites. But not in the way you think.

The Falcons and Rebels meet in almost the exact opposite situation from where the teams were  a year ago when they battled in Colorado Springs. UNLV was the team marching towards a bowl game and the Falcons were the team to provide the Rebels their sixth victory on the season. Air Force was the wounded team, the team limping to the finish just hoping to get the season over. This season, Air Force is entering the game in Las Vegas with a 6-2 record and soaring high off capturing the Commander-in-Chief Trophy while UNLV is 2-7 coming off a loss to New Mexico in a match up of the two teams stuck in the basement of their division standings. Saturday, the teams will clash with three important factors that could be the keys to victory for the Mountain West foes.

The UNLV Rushing Defense

UNLV has struggled all season stopping the run, and the Falcons enter the game as the 2nd best rushing team in the Mountain West, averaging 269.5 yards per game on the ground. The Rebels are giving up an almost identical 267.9 yards a game on the ground defensively to provide the proper motivation for a huge ground attack by Air Force. The map is there for Jacobi Owens and Kale Pearson to find huge plays on the perimeter while Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson slice up the middle of the field with the fullback dive. Air Force can use the example set by the Lobos last week of outside options and inside runs as they carved up UNLV for 301 yards on the ground. UNLV is 0-6 when they give up over 200 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 0-2 when they haven't rushed for 200 yards. Expect a heavy dose of run when Air Force has the ball.

The Air Force Passing Defense

While Air Force's running game is in a great opportunity to exploit the weakness of the Rebel defense, the Rebel offense that is averaging 249.8 yards passing and quarterback Blake Decker have a favorable matchup against the Falcons pass defense. Decker, who is a dual threat quarterback with 312 yards rushing, will look to find the tandem of Devonte Boyd and Devante Davis often to exploit a Falcon defense that is improving statistically but gives up 224.9 yards a game in the air. The one area Air Force will have to exploit is the inability of the Rebels to protect the quarterback. UNLV has given up 27 sacks so far this season, which could bode well for the Falcons as they have 23 sacks on the season, third most in the Mountain West this year. If the Falcons can pressure and contain Decker taking away the big play possibilities outside with the superior Rebel receivers, the Falcons can control the chances UNLV will have in the air.

Turnover Margin and Third Down Defense

The ability to force turnovers and get the opposition's offense off the field has been the key factor in the Falcon turnaround from last season. The Falcons have forced 14 turnovers so far this season, including at least one in five straight games. The Falcons are 4-1 in those five games. UNLV has struggled in the turnover ratio having lost eight more turnovers than they have created. The Falcons also have a significant advantage in defensive third down percentage. Falcons opponents only convert on 32.1% of their third down opportunities, which helps the Falcons get the ball back to their balanced and dangerous offense. In last week's game against Army, the Falcons were dominant on third down, only allowing one third down conversion in 12 attempts and forcing six three-and-out possessions. This is the area of defense the Falcons have really improved, which has helped them rank third in the Mountain West in scoring defense giving up 22.1 points per game. The Falcons have improved their scoring defense by a remarkable 17.9 point per game from 2013. That improvement is far and away the best turnaround in the nation.

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