The Falcons are facing a season-defining game this Saturday in Boise, Idaho against the Broncos. After starting the season on a tear, Air Force has lost the last three games and yet still find themselves on the cusp of a trip to the Mountain West championship game. A win would make an appearance in that game highly likely, a loss would mean a promising season that didn’t reach the standard of the last few years.
The Falcons are coming off a close loss to a very good UNLV team. In the first half, after a long TD pass to Ricky White on the second play of the game, it felt like the Falcon team from the first half of the season was back. However, right at the end of the first half, UNLV QB Jayden Maiava ripped off a 34 yard scramble that gave the Rebels some life and five plays later, they were in the endzone to make the score a manageable 24-14 lead for the Falcons.
The second half was all Rebels as they made the best of their opportunities. The Rebel’s final score exemplified their opportunism. On third down on their own 36 yard line, Bo Richter beat his blocker and went in low for the sack against Maiava. Unfortunately, Maiave was lowering his head to run and Richter’s helmet contacted Maiava’s. As announcer Randy Cross said, “there was nothing Richter could do to avoid the contact.” Targeting was called and the Rebels got a first down while the Falcons lost Richter for the rest of the game and the first half of the game against the Broncos. The Falcons again stopped the Rebels on the next set of downs, but on fourth and 12, punter Marshall Nicholls faked the punt and passed to Kris Williams for a first down. Eventually the Rebels had to settle for a field goal, but it was a big one, putting the Rebel up by 4 points, meaning the Falcons needed a TD to get the win.
The Falcons were unable to convert their opportunity while time was running out. They were able to drive to the Rebel eight yard line, within easy field goal range, but needed the touchdown. Sophomore John Busha’s fourth down pass in the end zone was just out of Caleb Rillos’ reach, giving UNLV the victory.
The two primary issues that the Falcons need to repair for the big game against Boise are first to tighten up the defense against the big plays and second to become more effective on the rare passes required to keep the defense honest.
The big plays were something the Falcons were good at avoiding early in the year, but the last three games have featured runs of 62, 40, and 34 yards by the opposing quarterbacks. The game against UNLV also featured pass completions of 84 and 78 yards.
In the last three games, Falcon quarterbacks are 14 for 39 passing for a 36% completion rate. Over the first 8 games, the quarterbacks completed 28 of 40 passes for a 70 % completion rate. Most teams run the ball to open up the passing game, for the Falcons, they need to pass the ball occasionally to open up the run. They also need to be able to convert some long third down plays.
The situation against UNLV was bad enough that Coach Calhoun brought in fourth string quarterback John Busha at the end of the game and he was able to get a first down pass before misfiring on the shot at the touchdown. In practice this week, Calhoun opened up the competition for QB against Boise. My guess is that he wants to get more work in for the backups so they would be more ready to come in if passing is needed, but that Jensen Jones will start against the Broncos.
The injury situation for Air Force is still not good. Emmanuel Michel, Jerome Galliard, and Dane Kinnamon are questionable, Larrier and Jared Roznos are out, and of course Bo Richter will not be available for the first half. Caden Blum, who changed from the tight end position to the defensive line last year and has played extremely well the last few weeks in part-time duty, appears to be Calhoun’s choice to replace Richter.
Scouting the Broncos
The Broncos have had another rocky season, coming into the game with a record of 6-5. But just like last year, they appear to be righting the ship just in time to play against the Falcons. Prior to the last game against Utah State, the Broncos fired head coach Andy Avalos and installed defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson as interim head coach. The players have responded well to his leadership, and they came away a commanding 45-10 victory over Utah State in their last game.
Avalos had been employing a two quarterback system with Maddux Madsen and Taylen Green, but Danielson used just Green last week. Green has been inconsistent as a passer, completing 53% of his passes, but is a dangerous runner. The Broncos stuck primarily to the run game against the Aggies and amassed 352 yards on the ground. George Holani and Ashton Jeanty share the duty as primary runner and Holani picked up 195 yards on only 15 carries. Jeanty has been impressive the entire season when healthy and is second in FBS in all-purpose yards with 1425 yards. For good measure, the Broncos have a freshman, Jambres Dubar, who can fill the RB role without any dropoff in performance.
The Broncos leading receiver, Eric McCalister, has left the team for the transfer portal, leaving RB Jeanty as the leading target. Billy Bowens, Stefan Cobbs, and Prince Strachan are all capable wide receivers.
The Bronco defense has been vulnerable to the pass this year, allowing an average of 266 yards per game. The run defense is stout, holding opponents to 120 yards per game, and the Broncos do an excellent job creating havoc behind the line of scrimmage. The team has made 69 TFLs and 31 sacks on the year.
Prognosis and Prediction
This game is setting up similarly to last years match between these two teams. Both teams emphasize the running game and both teams have excellent defenses against the run. That game ended in a 19-14 victory for the Broncos. The Falcons fell short of the win at the Boise 21 yard line with 1:25 left in the game on an incomplete pass from Haaziq Daniels to David Cormier. That’s a result eerily similar to what happened at the end of the UNLV game, and it emphasizes the importance of being able to throw the ball when necessary.
The Falcons were able to stay in that game by bottling up Ashton Jeanty and Taylen Green and holding the longest run to 15 yards. That will be a key in this game - Boise has a lot of speed and quickness carrying the ball. If the Falcons can bottle up the run game, Green has shown some weakness in his passing game that the defenders can hopefully turn into 3rd or 4th down stops or interceptions. The Bronco’s 2nd quarterback, Maddux Madsen, has shown more command of the passing game and could pose more of a problem if the Broncos need a change.
DraftKings currently has the Broncos favored by 7 point with an over/under of 46 points for an implied score of about 27-20. I think the Falcons can keep it a little closer than that, but my prediction is the Broncos will likely prevail by a score of 28-24.
The game can be watched on FS1 at 2PM MT on Friday, November 24.