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Wolf Pack Week 12 opponent preview and prediction: Air Force Falcons

NCAA Football: Air Force at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In a must-win game for both programs, the Nevada Wolf Pack host the Air Force Falcons on Friday, Nov. 19 at Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

Both teams are alive in their respective divisional races, though it’s arguably more out-of-reach for Nevada than Air Force. With its heartbreaking 23-21 loss to San Diego State last weekend, Nevada needs to win-out while it needs San Diego State and Fresno State to both lose their final two games in order to win the West Division — a seemingly unlikely cause.

The hill isn’t much easier for Air Force, either.

It remains one game back of the Utah State Aggies for the Mountain Division, though the Aggies possess the head-to-head tiebreaker with its 49-45 win over the Falcons on Sept. 18. They would also need Utah State to drop its final two contests while simultaneously winning out, beginning with Nevada on Friday and UNLV the following weekend.

The Wolf Pack, 4-2 in Mountain West play (7-3 overall), have dropped their two conference games by a combined four points. Air Force — with the exact same record — have lost its two conference matches by one score as well.

Though it’s going to require a ton of help, can the Pack keep their West division hopes alive on Senior night? Let’s dive into the matchup and find out!

Matchup: Nevada (7-3, 4-2) vs. Air Force (7-3, 4-2)

When: Friday, Nov. 19 at 6:00 p.m. PT

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Spread: Air Force -1

Money line: Air Force -115, Nevada -105

Last Meeting: Nevada won 28-25 (Sept. 28, 2018)

Matchup History: Air Force leads 3-2

When Air Force is on offense:

The Falcons are the nation’s top rushing team (310.3 ypg) due to their unique triple-option attack — doing so after replacing all five of their starting offensive lineman from a year ago entering 2021. With that, they’re second in the nation in time-of-possession per game (36:10) — behind Army, another fellow service academy who utilizes the clock-chewing triple option — with the ninth-fewest turnovers (8).

Air Force throws the ball a similar percentage compared to their service academy counterparts — which, in short, is very low. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels has completed 47.2 percent of his passes for 909 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Daniels is also second in the team in rushing with 643 yards and nine additional touchdowns. He places in the top-10 in the Mountain West in yards per carry (4.87), rushing yards per game (64.3) and passing yards per game (90.9). Daniels is the only player in the FBS to currently hold program records for the longest run and pass (94-yard run; 92-yard pass) — both were set this year.

The team’s rushing leader is fullback Brad Roberts, who’s recorded 1,064 rushing yards (on 235 carries) and 10 touchdowns — both team highs. Roberts has six games with 100-plus rushing yards and four games with multiple touchdowns.

Micah Davis and DeAndre Hughes — both receivers — are No. 3 and No. 4 in the team in rushing, respectively. Davis has tallied 360 rushing yards with four scores while Hughes has notched 32 carries for 250 yards and a touchdown.

Nevada’s surrendered the 48th-most rushing yards (136.2 ypg) in the nation, also ranking T-45 in rushing touchdowns allowed (13) and No. 72 in opponents rush yards per carry (4.1).

Those figures are skewed by numbers on both ends of the spectrum, however. The Pack have had five games where it’s surrendered over 5.5 yards per carry and three more games where they’ve surrendered less than one yard per attempt. Four teams — San Diego State, Fresno State, Kansas State and Hawai’i — have rushed for over 180 yards against Nevada, a benchmark that Air Force has exceeded in all but two of its games this season.

The Pack defensive line is led by Tristan Nichols, the conference’s sack leader (9.5), Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond.

Nichols has tallied 19 tackles, 10.5 for loss with two forced fumbles and one pass breakup. Peterson’s recorded 28 tackles with nine tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two pass breakups plus one fumble recovery for a touchdown. Hammond’s added five sacks as well, along with 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 23 combined tackles.

The Wolf Pack’s top playmaker has been starting linebacker Daiyan Henley, who’s recorded four interceptions (!) — tied for the nation’s most among linebackers — and two touchdowns (one pick-six, one fumble recovery), along with a team-high 82 tackles and three tackles-for-loss.

Lawson Hall has added 68 tackles with 4.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack — as well as one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Nevada might be without safety JoJuan Claiborne, who injured his knee in Saturday’s loss against the Aztecs. He’s fourth on the team in tackles with 49, three pass breakups and one interception.

The Pack will needed added production from hard hitting safeties Jordan Lee and Tyson Williams, along with AJ King.

Lee’s third in tackles with 58, five coming for loss with three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. King’s tallied 33 tackles with two tackles-for-loss, one sack and a team-high seven pass breakups. Williams has recorded 30 tackles in eight games, adding three tackles-for-loss, one sack, four pass breakups and two interceptions.

When Nevada is on offense:

Contrary to Air Force’s “living in the trenches” style surrounding its offense, Nevada boasts one of the nation’s best passing attacks — led by junior signal caller Carson Strong, a candidate for Mountain West offensive player of the year for the second consecutive year.

The Pack rank No. 4 in the FBS in passing offense (373.7 ypg), T-6 in completion percentage (70.3), T-9 in passing touchdowns (9) and No. 28 in pass efficiency rating (153.1).

On the season, Strong’s completed 70.5 percent of his attempts for 3,547 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In the Wolf Pack’s loss to San Diego, Strong completed 34-of-48 for 350 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers, the fourth time he’s thrown for at least 350 yards and three touchdowns without any turnovers in his career.

Toa Taua’s recorded 558 yards on 5.1 yards per carry with four touchdowns. Devonte Lee, oftentimes used in short down-and-distance situations, has registered 69 carries for 191 yards and three scores.

Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner, both of whom were invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl this week, are Strong’s top two targets.

Doubs leads the team with 64 catches, 853 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns; Turner, who missed last week due to a concussion, is second with 55 catches for 618 yards and eight touchdowns. After a last-minute call to hold him out last week, Turner’s expected to be back for Friday, barring anything catastrophic.

Melquan Stovall is fourth in receptions with 51 for 583 yards and one touchdown. Tory Horton’s added 40 receptions for 441 yards and three touchdowns.

The Falcons couple their exhausting triple-option attack with one of the best defenses in the conference — a byproduct of having one of the most lopsided time-of-possession figures in the country.

They rank atop the Mountain West in total defense (287.5 ypg) while ranking in the top-3 in scoring defense (17.6 ppg), passing defense (184.2) and rushing defense (100.3 ypg). It has held 12 of its last 13 opponents to 21 or fewer points.

Air Force will play a 3-4 base defense, with Christopher Herrera and Jordan Jackson leading the three-man front. Herrera’s recorded 34 tackles — seventh-most on the team — with five tackles-for-loss and one sack. Jackson’s added 30 tackles with 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks and one pass breakup.

Vince Sanford, the team’s second-leading tackler (44) who’s fifth in the Mountain West in tackles-for-loss (12.5) and sixth in sacks (6.5), has been the Falcons’ best pass rusher on the EDGE. Demonte Meeks has been the best inside backer, totaling 36 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

Starting strong safety Taylor Trey is the team’s top tackler with 48 in just seven games, adding one sack, three pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble. Cornerback

Tre Bugg III is third on the team in tackles with 43, including seven pass breakups and two interceptions. Free safety Corvan Taylor’s tallied 43 tackles as well and four pass breakups, in addition to team highs in interceptions (3) and fumble recoveries (2).

Prediction:

The triple-option is always tricky to predict, especially on a short week. The last times these two teams matched up in 2018, Nevada held the Falcons to 3.1 yards per carry on 51 carries. That’s not say those numbers will repeat — because they (likely) won’t. Air Force has had one (!) game this season where it’s been held to fewer than three yards per attempt — against Navy — who knows how to defend the triple option since they also run it — on Sept. 11. Nevada’s going to have its hands full against a fearless Falcon program. Nevada, who’s forced 18 turnovers in win this season (compared to just one in three losses), will likely need to force multiple takeaways to steal a couple of possessions on Friday. The Falcons will do everything to keep Nevada’s boisterous offense off the field — so it’s going to have to find a way to get Strong and Co. on the field for as many opportunities possible. Nevada 24, Air Force 21 (Season record: 6-4)