Once again, the level of difficulty facing the Falcons ratchets up as they face the Wyoming Cowboys this Saturday at Falcon Stadium. The Cowboys are coming off an impressive victory over an undefeated Fresno State team that was ranked #24 coming into the game.
Based on recent history, fans should expect a close defensive battle. Oddsmakers don’t quite see it that way. Draft Kings currently has the Falcons as a 10 point favorite with an Over/Under of 44 points, implying a score of 27-17 in favor of the Falcons. Most analytics pundits agree. ESPN’s SP+ forecasts an 11 point Air Force advantage with a score of 28-17. To understand why the Falcons are considered the likely winner of this game, look to HOW each of these teams has been able to win this year.
AIR FORCE FALCONS GAME PLAN
On offense, everything the Falcons do centers around controlling the game by executing effective plays. Statistically this year, they are among the best, if not the best, at doing this, as shown in the statistics below:
What team is controlling the ball offensively more than any team in #CollegeFootball this 2023 #CFB season? The @AF_Football Falcons! Absolutely love this design. We see you working here @Kotelnicki and @CoachChadwell! pic.twitter.com/pGGra2ig4I— SportSource Analytics (@SportSourceA) October 9, 2023
Big plays come about usually because this scheme puts pressure on the defense to come up with disruptive plays to stop the momentum and get off the field, which exposes them to a running back getting around the edge of a stacked line or a receiver blowing by a distracted defensive back, and not by an extraordinarily athletic play (notwithstanding John Lee Eldridge’s highlight run against San Jose State).
Skeptics might point to mediocre opponents as a reason for the Falcon’s success in this area, but they have made the last three opponents look BAD due to their inability to stop this attack, and each of those teams and coaches have been in a MW championship game within the last three years. The last of the three games was the most lopsided, as QB Zac Larrier demonstrated full command of his running, passing, and game management skills. Not bad for a guy playing only his fifth game as a starting FBS quarterback.
On defense, the Falcons concentrate on stopping the run, keeping receivers from getting behind the defenders, and disrupting the pass plays with a strong pass rush. There have been times this year when the defense has struggled with stops as happened early in the SJSU and SDSU games, but Defensive Coordinator Brian Knorr has been able to make adjustments to stop opponents in their tracks. A big goal for Knorr’s defense has been excellence on third down attempts, and the Falcons have responded with a stop rate on third down of 70.9%, 13th best in FBS. Brent Briggeman has a good article at the Colorado Springs Gazette on this topic; you can find it here.
WYOMING COWBOYS RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Wyoming under Coach Bohl has always emphasized a strong, physical defense as the foundation of his team. Although statistically, you won’t find the Cowboys at the top of any defensive category, what they have done this year is to make plays when they have needed to. The win against Texas Tech came about when the defense stopped the Red Raiders on a two point conversion in the second overtime. The win against Appalachian State came about from blocking a field goal attempt and returning it 63 yards for a touchdown. After that touchdown, the defense intercepted a pass at their own 6 yard line with 6 seconds left to seal the victory. Against Fresno State, the Cowboys intercepted a pass at midfield to seal the victory while the Bulldogs were rallying from a 24-10 deficit in the fourth quarter. These results are indicative of a mentally tough team that never gives up.
The Cowboys are not known as an offensively proficient team, but have made a lot of improvements this year. Andrew Peasley has improved his accuracy from 52.4% last year to 59% this year, making the short game passing attack much more effective at moving the ball downfield. Peasley is also excellent at avoiding pressure and making things happen with his legs. Pair that up with RB Harrison Waylee, who is a prototypical Cowboy running back combination of speed, quickness, and power, and getting to the endzone has been much easier for the Cowboys this year.
PROGNOSIS AND PREDICTION
The Cowboys have been a thorn in the side of the Falcons for years. With their success this year against strong competition, it appears this team is better than the team that beat the Falcons last year. QB Andrew Peasley has already led two different teams to victory over the Falcons. However, several factors are pushing me to think that the Falcons can earn a significant victory over the Cowboys this weekend.
First, the Falcons are mostly healthy this year compared to last year when most of the team was suffering from the flu. Coming off of a bye week has allowed injuries to heal and word is that Payton Zdroik will be available to play. Wyoming, on the other hand, is facing the possibility of not having star running back Waylee available for the game. He is the only Cowboy running back with gains of over 30 yards this year.
Second, consistently running an efficient offense is much more likely to lead to a win than relying on big plays at the right time.
Third, all five of Wyoming’s wins have come at home this year, and the only loss is on the road. Laramie is a tough environment for any team. I’m sure many Cowboy fans will make the three hour drive to Falcon Stadium, but familiar surroundings will help ease any jitters for the Falcons.
I’ve consistently underestimated the Falcon offense in each of my previews, so I’ll try to make up for it. Falcons win, 35-20.