In their first Mountain West showdown of the season, the Nevada Wolf Pack will travel over 1,000 miles east to take on the Air Force Falcons.
The Pack are coming off a long road bout with the Iowa Hawkeyes, in which they got shutout, 27-0. The Falcons, one of the best teams in the Mountain West, are coming off their first loss of the season — falling at the hands of the Wyoming Cowboys, 17-14.
Last season, Nevada and Air Force were involved in a three-overtime showdown that ended in a 41-39 Falcon victory — one of Nevada’s three conference losses where they lost by two points.
Can Nevada pull off the upset victory on a short week, or will Air Force — who’s 23-6 over their last three seasons — knife the Pack with their lethal triple-option attack? Let’s dive into the preview below!
Week 4: Nevada (2-2) vs. Air Force (2-1)
When: Friday, Sept. 23 at 5:00 p.m. PT
Where: Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Air Force -24
Series History: Air Force leads 4-2
Last Meeting: Air Force won 41-39 (3OT) in 2021
When Air Force is on offense:
Defending the triple option is one of the toughest tasks in college football. Doing so on a short week on the road in higher altitude is even tougher — and that’s the circumstance the Pack will have to overcome after a seven-hour contest last Saturday.
Air Force’s option attack is led by fullback Brad Roberts, a first team All-Mountain West honoree a year ago, tailback John Lee Eldridge III and quarterback Haaziq Daniels.
Roberts was the Academy’s first All-Mountain West honoree since Chad Hall in 2007, rushing for over 1,300 yards with seven 100-yard rushing performances. Through three games in 2022, Roberts, a senior, has tallied 342 yards (on 7.1 ypc) with four rushing scores. Eldridge has recorded 277 rushing yards with one touchdown — though he’s doing so on a ridiculous 9.6 yards per carry.
Daniels is the only other Falcon with triple-digit yardage with 142 and two touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. He’s completed 11 of his 25 attempts for 218 yards and three touchdowns — one apiece to Dane Kinamon, Cade Harris and David Cormier.
Defensively for Nevada, Dom Peterson has made his presence well-known on the Pack defensive line, culminating in 5.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks through three games. The 6-foot senior has totaled 12 total tackles, but has forced a fumble while recovering two.
Nevada has also gotten decent production from EDGE rushers Louie Cresto and Marcel Walker, as well as nose tackle James Hansen, who’s logged one sack and one forced fumble this season.
Nevada has shifted around its two top linebackers since the start of the season, but Naki Mateialona and Maurice Wilmer — who are No. 6 and 10 on the team in tackles, respectively — lead the group. Mateialona has totaled 14 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss in four games, while Wilmer’s added nine tackles with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The strength of the Pack defense is its secondary, led by Bentlee Sanders and Tyson Williams. Sanders leads the FBS in interceptions with four, in addition to 24 tackles, tied with Williams for the second-most on the team. Tyriq Mack, who primarily plays in the secondary but isn’t listed on the depgh chart, tops the team in tackles with 25 — 19 solo.
When Nevada is on offense:
The Wolf Pack has rotated between quarterbacks Nate Cox and former Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth for the entire summer up until now.
Both have practically split reps. Cox has completed 34-of-61 for 372 yards and two touchdowns; Illingworth has gone 32-of-51 for 234 yards with one interception. Cox is the more mobile of the two, while Illingworth has been more efficient, albeit slightly more conservative, behind center.
While it hasn’t been the most efficient, the Wolf Pack has leaned into their run game with Toa Taua and Devonte Lee. Taua has rushed for 277 yards on 3.6 yards per carry with three scores; Lee has recorded 173 rushing yards with team-highs in rushing touchdowns (4) and yards per attempt (4.3).
Wolf Pack slot speedster Jamaal Bell leads the team in catches (17) and receiving yards (116). Taua and former Arizona transfer BJ Casteel — who have totaled eight catches for 97 yards — are the only players who have caught a touchdown pass.
Even though they’re on the field less than the average team because of their clock-eating offense, Air Force’s defense has still performed adequately. They’ve surrendered less than 21 points in each of their firsst three games, ranking in the top-50 in turnovers forced (6) and in middle of the pack in yards per play allowed (5.4).
Its 3-4 base scheme begins with senior defensive end Christopher Herrera, who led all Falcon defensive linemen in tackles a year ago (44). He has five tackles with a fumble recovery so far this season, while sophomore nose tackle Payton Zdroik leads the defensive linemen with seven — plus a sack — thus far.
Similarly to Nevada, Air Force’s secondary quartet — consisting of corners Michael Mack and Eian Castonguay, with safeties Camby Goff and Trey Taylor — have been the strength of their defense thus far.
Taylor, Mack and Goff make up their top three tacklers with 18, 16 and 15, respectively. Goff has recorded two of the team’s three interceptions — Taylor has the other — with a team-most five pass breakups.
Linebacker Vince Sanford, who was a second-team All-Mountain West honoree in 2021 after posting 17 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks, has totaled 12 tackles with a tackle-for-loss through three games. He plays on the other side of Jayden Goodwin (14 tackles) and next to Alec Mock (14 tackles, 2 TFL) and TD Blackmon (12 tackles, 1 TFL).
Even though they lost last week to Wyoming, Air Force has still looked like the presumptive favorite to make it out of the Mountain Division. Of course anything can happen throughout the rest of the season, but Troy Calhoun has gotten his team to at least 10 wins in each of the last two full regular seasons. And this might be his best squad yet. Nevada’s going to have to obviously slow down the option on early downs, force multiple turnovers and, most importantly, generate consistently good offense to have a chance. The latter has been the most difficult for the Pack, who have yet to find a true footing offensively. That’s why it’s hard for me to envision Nevada outscoring Air Force on a short week and on the road against this option offense, so I’m going with the Falcons at home. Air Force 35, Nevada 13 (Season record: 3-1, ATS: 1-3)