When speaking of certainties the saying goes that only death and taxes are for certain. When it comes to Air Force Falcons football, it’s almost always a certainty that the Falcons will have a high scoring, run oriented offense. The Falcons are consistently a Top 10 rushing team in the NCAA. You can count on the triple option and the quick sweep and Head Coach Troy Calhoun being a riverboat gambler. Air Force is going to score points and gain lots of yards.
But when the Falcons are very good, it is the defense that makes the biggest difference. The Falcons are never going to have that dominant defense like Alabama or LSU, but then again what teams are going to be that loaded defensively. But, the Falcons have been able to hold their own with their 3-4 defense because of good run defense thanks to bringing the safety down in the box, and by causing turnovers due to an aggressive blitzing attack and playmakers the likes of Weston Steelhammer.
The Falcons struggled defensively in 2017 giving up 32.4 points per game, and it was the rushing defense that betrayed them. Usually the Falcons focus on taking away the opponent’s rushing game, but they gave up 222.8 yards per game on the ground, which was 10th in the Mountain West and 117th overall in the NCAA. Air Force likes to be the team controlling the ground game, but 2017 saw teams ground out tough yards and keep the ball away from the loaded Falcons offense. Because of the success on the ground, the Falcons pass defense was never truly tested and could be the reason they only gave up 171.1 yards per game in the air. It was the best pass defense in the Mountain West and 10th best nationally, but teams never really needed to push the envelope in the air.
Making matters all the more interesting for this defense is the fact that there is a cloud over who exactly is the defensive coordinator. Steve Russ has been a rock in that position, but he became linebacker coach for the Carolina Panthers in January. Coach Calhoun has been mum on who will serve in that role, with local media guessing that maybe coach Brian Knorr’s return might indicate he is in that role. It is without debate that there is a coordinator in place, because there is no way that a coach like Calhoun who graduated from the Academy and served in the NFL as a coach under Gary Kubiak would leave such a valuable position vacant. But, much like the head coach himself, it is a mystery at this moment. For the Falcons to really succeed this year the new coordinator, whoever it is, need to insure that Air Force stop the ground game and force teams to pass the ball. If the Falcons can produce similar numbers in pass defense and stop the ground game, 2018 could be a great year for Air Force.
If the defense struggles, it will be up to the offense to put the team on their back and carry them back to a bowl game after missing a bowl for only the second time in Calhoun’s 11-year tenure with the team. The offense will be led by the talented senior quarterback Arion Worthman, who will look to cap off his Air Force career with more dual threat magic. Worthman was a top 10 rusher in the Mountain West as well as being one of the top scorers in the league. In the air, Worthman will look to playmakers like Marcus Bennett, Ronald Cleveland and Geraud Sanders to keep the defenses honest. The passing game will be important as the Falcons are looking to replace top running back and do-it-all threat Tim McVey. Air Force will look to backs like Malik Miller and Nolan Eriksen to replace McVey. The fullback is the heart of this offense and Air Force returns Parker Wilson and Cole Fagan to provide the power up the middle in this high octane offense.
There is a lot to like about this year’s’ team in Colorado Springs. The offense has an experienced gifted quarterback, an unusually high number of talented receivers and a system that produces year after year. It boils down to the defense in 2018. If they can return to a upper level run defense and show some of the same success versus the pass as last season, the team can compete in the Mountain division where teams like Wyoming, Colorado State and New Mexico seem vulnerable. When the Falcons kick off September 1st versus Stony Brook, the Falcons defense and the mystery man behind door number two serving as the defensive coordinator will have the eyes of Falcon faithful hoping for a return to tough nosed defense.