Last week, the Falcons faced a team that had beaten them in four straight contest, but were finally able to break out and beat the Broncos, 24-17. Now they face an even taller task in a matchup against San Diego State, who have beaten the Falcons in eight straight contests.
The matchup pits the Mountain West’s top two teams in rushing offense and in rushing defense. San Diego State’s rushing defense is the best in the Mountain West and best in the nation at 61.2 yards per game. Air Force’s rushing attack is best in the Mountain West and in the nation at 336.4 yards per game. Something will have to give.
San Diego State is led on offense by running back Greg Bell, who has rushed for 590 yards on the year, and leading receiver Daniel Bellinger, who has 12 catches for 197 yards. At quarterback, Brady Hoke has announced that Lucas Johnson will become the starter, after taking over for Jordan Brookshire in overtime last week to lead the Aztecs to a victory over San Jose State. On defense, DL Cameron Thomas is a big force, leading the team with 10.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks, and second in tackles with 29. The defensive backfield as a unit has produced 8 interceptions with 6 different backs with a pick. On special teams, Matt Araiza handles punting and placekicking. He leads college football with an average punt of almost 54 yards, and has 7 field goals including two over 50 yards.
The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network at 5pm MT.
Let’s take a look at major factors determining the outcome.
The Play in the Trenches
Since 2015, the Joe Moore award has been handed out to college football’s best offensive line. Just this last week, the committee that chooses the award handed out it’s mid-season honor roll of twenty offensive lines that will be followed to determine the award. The Mountain West had two teams on the list, Air Force and San Diego State. Air Force has made the mid-season list for the last three years. As mentioned above, these two teams are also the top two rushing defense teams in the MW, so the trenches will be engaged in high level warfare.
On defense, the Aztecs have a playmaking advantage over the Falcons. They have produced 51 TFLs and 20 sacks, along with 44 QB hurries. The Falcons have 30.5 TFLs, 17.5 sacks, and 21 QB hurries. One area that the Falcon O line has lagged is pass protection, so that’s a concern if the Falcons have to resort to the pass.
Hopefully the broadcast of the game will feature Aaron Taylor as the analyst. He is a CBS Sports Analyst who was an All-American offensive linemen for Notre Dame, and was one of the main drivers of creating the Joe Moore Award in honor of his line coach at Notre Dame. He has appeared on many Falcon televised games in the past, and his commentary can provide good insight into the line play. He tweeted earlier this week about the Falcon O line:
This is a teach tape worthy rep for both “AOC” (accelerate on contact) and “Finish. This block could be a bs drive, ps reach, or ps drive as is here. It all looks the same. This is how you know a unit is well coached. #Diesel pic.twitter.com/iWLIlZxtxn— Aaron Taylor (@AaronTaylorCFB) October 20, 2021
Errors, Turnovers, and Penalties
This is an area where the Falcons have excelled this year. They are tied with Eastern Michigan for fewest yards penalized per game at 33 yards. The Aztecs come into the game with 61.5 yards per game. The penalty factor was instrumental in the Falcon win over Boise State. The Falcons have lost only 2 fumbles this year and one interception. San Diego State has lost 5 fumbles and two interceptions.
The one area where the Falcons have had some problems is in the center-quarterback-running back exchange. The dropped snaps, quarterback-running back handoff, and errant pitches have not seriously hurt the Falcons yet, but improvement is needed.
The Aztecs have one of the best kickers in college football, Matt Ariza. Falcon kickers have been erratic, to say the least. I keep expecting the troubles to hurt the team, but so far it hasn’t affected any game results. This game could be the time it will. If each kicker has an average game this weekend, the Falcons will lose 15 yards per exchange of punts, given that they never return a punt. Combine that with Ariza’s ability to make long field goals and better accuracy at short range, and it could add up to a loss for the Falcons.
3rd/4th Down Conversions
This stat relates directly to sustaining drive, reaching the red zone, and converting opportunities into touchdowns. Here’s the breakdown for conversion percentages:
3rd down/NCAA rank 4th down/rank
Air Force 47.19%/19th 82.35%/4th
SDSU 34.52/103rd 50%/69th
Air Force has attempted 4th down conversions 17 times. SDSU has attempted only 4 times.
Air Force has made it into the red zone 26 times to SDSU’s 20 (in one fewer game).
Air Force has converted red zone trips into touchdowns 17 times to SDSU’s 14 times.
The advantage here goes to the Falcons.
There is currently a strange dichotomy in the way various pundits see this game’s outcome. Vegas has set the odds on the game currently at Air Force -3.5, down slightly from -4. The over/under is 40 points. Virtually all the analytics people have the Falcons as a favorite. ESPN’s SP+ has the Falcons as 1 point favorite, and ESPN’s FPI has the Falcons with a 55% chance of winning. @statowar on Twitter has the Falcons by 6 points, and a 67% chance of winning. However, browsing through lists of individual pundits predictions, I would say about 2⁄3 of them have San Diego State winning. It seems San Diego State wins the eye test, but Air Force wins the numbers test.
I think that the Falcons will be able to sustain more of their drives and finish more drives than SDSU by converting 3rd/4th down opportunities and by playing with the discipline to minimize mistakes. I’ll pick Air Force 21-17. Take Air Force -3.5 and take the under.