The last time the Air Force Falcons matched up with the California Golden Bears in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl it was an epic offensive battle. Cal was featuring a future NFL prospect in DeSean Jackson and the Falcons featured a balanced offensive attack. The Falcons would jump out to a quick lead, see their quarterback Shaun Carney get hurt, and watch Jackson and the Bears sprint back for a 42-36 victory over Air Force. This time, the Falcons again feature a balanced offensive attack, the Bears come in with a top NFL prospect in quarterback Jared Goff and the game is set up to feature a ton of offense.
The Cal offense is advertised as a pass happy air raid type offense. And while Goff and the passing game is averaging 368.8 passing yards per game, there is a dangerous rushing attack that the Falcons will have to deal with. The Bears are averaging 155.7 yards a game on the ground, and have four different rushers that have gained over 300 yards on the ground. The top rusher is Khalfan Muhammad, but he shares carries with Vic Enwere, Tre Watson and Daniel Lasco. Those four rushers make it difficult for opponents to just ignore the rushing game of Cal.
And when you examine the Cal passing attack, the balance it has with its receivers is even more impressive than the rushing attack of the Bears. Six different receivers have at least 35 catches, which means Goff throws it to the open man and does not play favorites with his targets. Kenny Lawler leads the team in receptions and touchdown receptions with 10, Bryce Treggs leads in yardage with 813 yards and Darius Powe, Stephen Anderson, Trevor Davis and Maurice Harris all can find the opening and catch the ball. That level of offensive balance will be the biggest test Air Force has faced all year.
What do the Falcons do against this high powered offense? The coaching staff will probably have to go against their tendency to stop the run at all cost and put more people into coverage. Will the Falcons test the will of the Cal offensive coaches to continue call running plays by going to a nickel defense? The Falcons secondary is led by Weston Steelhamer and Roland Ladipo, but the two Mountain West all-conference players are going to need help from fellow starters Jesse Washington and Brodie Hicks? The pass rush led by Alex Hansen is also going to have to get home and pressure Goff into quick passes that the Falcons can knockdown or intercept. Goff does have 13 interceptions on the year, can the Falcons add to that total?
Air Force Offense
The best way to attack the Cal offense might be by the Air Force offense. The Falcons need to keep the ball, score on long drives and have somewhere close to a 2:1 time of possession advantage. This Air Force team is capable of that, led by the nation's third leading rushing attack that averages 322.1 yards per game. The Falcons have had great balance in their rushing attack, with six players having had at least 100 yards in a game. Karson Roberts has grown into his role as facilitator of the offense as a quarterback. The backfield has had to overcome the loss of their fullbacks by inserting Jacobi Owens into the fullback position. Owens rushed for over 1,000 yards again this season after doing the same in his sophomore year. When Owens went to fullback, the Falcons turned to sophomore tailback Timothy McVey and he has responded with some big games late. He had a five touchdown game against New Mexico and followed it up with three touchdowns in the Mountain West title game versus San Diego State. McVey and Owens will be asked to carry the load versus the Bears.
The Falcons also have weapons in the passing game. Jalen Robinette is a big play receiver, averaging over 20 yards per reception. His big plays are complemented by seniors Garrett Brown, the team's leading receiver, and tight end Garrett Griffin. Both Brown and Griffin have big play ability in them when the Falcons go to their play action passing attack. Throw in sophomore Tyler Williams and the Falcons have the ability to challenge the California defense and it leader, linebacker Hardy Nickerson. Nickerson is a big play linebacker who has over 100 tackles on the year. If the Falcons are able to make Nickerson have to honestly play the pass instead of focusing on the run, the Falcons offense can have a big day and match the Bears point for point.
This is the second match-up for Air Force versus a Power five opponent in 2015. The Falcons committed a ton of turnovers and mistakes in its loss at Michigan State. But, the Falcons were able to take away the running game from the Spartans on the day. It will be a different game plan come Tuesday in Fort Worth, where the Falcons will have to take away one of the nation's best passing attacks. California ran out to a 5-1 start on the season before limping to the finish in the unbelievably tough Pac 12. If Air Force can play a perfectly clean game offensively, they can score against Cal. It is then up to the defense to force some turnovers and help the Falcons offense get some extra opportunities. This is where a big game by Steelhammer would play huge for Air Force. The junior safety is a big time ball hawk, and he will come up with two interceptions to help the Falcons to a 42-40 victory over Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl.