For the second straight season, the Falcons finished with a 9-3 record with all losses within one score. The major difference in the record was that all three losses came to division rivals, which wiped out the Falcon’s MW championship hopes early. On the plus side of the ledger were the two wins over Navy and Army returning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to it’s rightful place at the Air Force Academy.
There were other similarities between last season and this season besides the final record. Along with the three losses by less than one score, each season featured two wins by less than one score. The Falcons averaged 330 rushing yards per game this year and 328 yards per game last year. Both seasons featured a come-from-behind loss to Utah State largely due to a big game by an Aggie receiver (Thompkins last year, Cobbs this year.), and two big turnovers by the Falcons. Each season had one loss to one of the top programs in the conference (Boise State this year, San Diego State last year). Each season featured four straight wins at the end of the season.
In my season preview found here, I had called for losses to Boise and San Diego State, and tossups with Utah State and Army, and a close win against Wyoming. The difference in the actual result and my prediction was the win against the Aztecs and the loss to the Cowboys. Army and Utah State were a split, which is what you would expect from two tossups. I think I was a little too pessimistic about the Falcon pass defense, and I thought that Haaziq Daniels would air it out more than he ended up doing. I think perhaps the loss of Kyle Patterson and Dane Kinnamon for most of the season (and the presence of Mr. Reliable, Brad Roberts) made Coach Calhoun less likely to call for the passing game. Another factor in the passing game was a less than stellar pass blocking performance by the offensive line. The Falcons were 129th in FBS in sack rate at 13.5%.
As expected, the rushing offense was excellent, but the two subpar performances against Wyoming and Boise State sealed the fate of the Falcons in conference. I think in the Wyoming game, the Falcons could have performed better without the flu bug weakening a lot of the offensive line, but the Cowboys usually do a good job stopping the rushing game. Boise State usually struggles defending the Falcon rush game, but their defense was stacked this year with many fourth, fifth, and sixth year players who have a lot of experience against the Falcons. Early fumblitis also put the Falcons on the wrong track.
Let’s take a look at how each position unit performed.
You can’t argue with success. Haaziq Daniels’ career record as starting quarterback is 21-9. He has been able to distribute the ball well and has made generally good decisions on option plays. He can hit the long pass when the safeties start to creep up to the line. He has speed and elusiveness when he runs the ball. He really hasn’t turned the ball over that often. Unfortunately when he has turned it over, it’s been at very inopportune times. This year he had the interception late against Utah State that killed a promising drive in Utah State territory.
Also, sometimes when he runs the ball he gets hesitant to turn the ball up the field. I’m not sure if the coaches instructed him to avoid full contact or if this is just his style. There were times when he could have made better yardage by turning up the field. Toward the end of the year, this tendency resulted in most teams daring Daniels to run the ball by concentrating tacklers on the running backs. Daniels averaged about 10 carries per game this year after carrying 13 times per game last year. I lean toward thinking that the coaches wanted to avoid injury to Daniels because they weren’t too confident in the bench behind him. Calhoun never really let any of the backups utilize the whole playbook.
I’ll give the QB room a B grade. I might have gone higher if I could have seen a backup come in and run the full offense.
Brad Roberts, MW Offensive Plyer of the year. As Calhoun said, he has transformed how the Falcons will look at fullbacks in the future.
John Lee Eldridge, 7.9 yards per carry, 701 yards.
Not a lot of falloff with the subs.
Overall, the passing attack was down from last year. The Falcons averaged 6.7 pass attempts per game in 2022, and 8.7 attempts in 2021. Yards per game were down from 95 yards per game to 68. The 68 yard average was the lowest since the early nineties.
The extended absences of Patterson and Kinnamon had a role in this. David Cormier was pretty effective when targeted, but only had 13 receptions. No one else had more than 6. There was just no one like a Brandon Lewis or Geraud Sanders that made a lot of big plays.
I will say that there weren’t very many dropped passes, so when the receivers got open, and Daniels was accurate, they were able to make the catch. Also, Eldridge’s eye-popping rush average was made possible by the receivers doing their job blocking on the edge.
It was a below average year for the throwing game, so I’ll give them a C-, even though a lot of the reduced production was because there was no reason to throw the ball in a lot of games.
Another year, another Joe Moore Award finalist. Isaac Cochran became only the fifth Falcon to become a Walter Camp All American. Every opponent’s prime objective was to stop the fullback dive, and only Wyoming and Boise State managed to keep Roberts from gaining over 100 yards.
If I’m nitpicking, I would have liked to see fewer penalties by the line. I would have thought with all the returning starters, there would be fewer false starts. Also, as I noted above, the sack rate was too high. Last year with pretty much the same personnel, the sack rate was 8.9%. With Nolan Laufenberg and Parker Ferguson in place in 2019 and 2020, the sack rate was 3.1% and 3.3%.
This season PK Matthew Dapore blossomed into his full potential. At the end of last year, he had settled nicely into his role, but was still not fully proven. He actually struggled somewhat in fall practice. In the second quarter of the opening game against Northern Iowa, Coach Calhoun elected to send Dapore out for field goals twice in situations where the Falcons would normally go for fourth down conversions. He nailed both of them and the confidence boost lasted the rest of the season. It was also evident that his leg strength had increased. He hit three field goals over 50 yards on the year.
As usual, kick return attempts were almost non existent. There was one muffed punt return.
The kick return squad did a good job on containing any return attempts.
Punts were a little inconsistent, but adequate.
With the departure of Jordan Jackson to the NFL, the disruptive production of the line fell off a little. The line generated 22 sacks and 64 TFLs this year, compared to 37.5 sacks and 72.5 TFLs last year. However, toward the end of the year, the DL was spending a lot more time in the backfield. I would attribute a lot of that to the development of nose guard Payton Zdroik. In the final game against San Diego State, he gave All-MW center Alama Uluave all he could handle despite a 45 pound disadvantage.
Rush defense totals were stellar as usual.
Some of the same remarks above about the defensive line apply to the linebackers as well. Vince Sanford was double teamed much of the year and his numbers showed it. TD Blackmon and Alec Mock were rocks in the middle. The spur linebacker position was staffed by Camby Goff or Jayden Goodwin depending on situation or the opposing teams strengths and weaknesses. It was really more like a third safety that lined up closer to the line of scrimmage. Both are sure tacklers with a knack for being around the ball.
I would consider the duo/trio of Trey Taylor and Camby Goff/Jayden Goodwin as the best set of safeties in the Mountain West. Cornerbacks Michael Mack and Eian Castonguay performed well in pass coverage and rarely missed a tackle. Sophomore Jamari Bellamy also performed well in reserve for Mack and Castonguay.
One more game remains - against Baylor in the Armed Forces Bowl on December 22 at 6:30 PM EST. The Bears should provide the biggest test of the year to the Falcons. They finished 6-6 in the Big 12 this year, and the Big 12 was very competitive with three top 20 teams. Come back next week for my preview.