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Aztecs travel to Colorado Springs to take on Air Force and their vaunted ground game

No team is better defined as a running team than the Air Force Academy. The Aztecs might do well to take a page out of their playbook.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Air Force at San Jose State Photo by Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Air Force grounds and pounds, rinses and repeats on their way to demoralizing their opponents. It is described as death by a thousand cuts. The Aztecs will need to find ways to sustain drives and convert on the few opportunities they will have.

The Aztecs finally exhibited signs of life and possibility in last week's close 34-31 loss against Boise State. All three components of the team: offense, defense, and special teams produced. Unfortunately, two untimely turnovers led to a fourteen-point swing and the eventual Broncos victory. Of course, quarterback Jaylen Mayden feels bad about the turnovers. He has been thrust into the unenviable position of having to do everything for a team that is light on playmakers. When one is forced to do too much, bad things happen. Perhaps this moment might be the impetus for others to step up, carry the load, and allow Mayden the opportunity to be a quarterback and team player instead of the only player who can be counted on.

Offense moved out of the ICU; showing signs of life

The Aztecs offense finally showed some spark. Mayden made every effort to carry the team both on the ground and through the air. Unfortunately, he tried to do too much and that is when that pigskin becomes unpredictable. His game against Boise State was statistically sound: 16/22 passing for 241 yards and a score and 16 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown rushing, but with those two lost fumbles. On the year he has passed for 942 yards and rushed for 278 yards. He is the leader of the Aztec rushing attack. That certainly is not what the coaches had hoped for or expected. Coach Hoke is quoted as saying, “We are seeing improvement every week. We have to coach better and play better.” A running back has not yet stepped up as the leading ground gainer. Jaylon Armstead has rushed for 230 yards and Kenan Christon has rushed for 170 more. One of these ball carriers will need to have a superior game to take pressure off of Mayden. Breakout freshman receiver Bayllin Brooks is listed in the two deep. Expect him to get some throws as he looks to be a bright spot both now and in the future. Also listed returning is WR Mekhi Shaw from a week off with injury. Special teams shone last week with Kenon Christan returning the opening kickoff 71 yards and Dez Malone returning a punt 36 yards. The Aztecs accounted for 164 return yards. This has been an area lacking and provided a spark of excitement and possibility. 439 total yards of offense and 32 minutes of possession achieved against Boise State might be enough to beat Air Force as it will keep their offense off the field. Of final note is Tight End Jay Rudolph and CB Dallas Branch have both left the team and entered the transfer portal. Both have expressed a desire for more playing time. The transfer portal giveth and taketh away. You just don’t want to lose too many key players.

The Falcons continue their consistent success in the MWC

The Aztecs are 2-3 on the year and 0-1 in conference play and would like to emulate the early success of the Falcons. They have started 4-0 on the year and are 2-0 in conference play. They have beaten Utah State 39-21 and San Jose State 45-20 and have given up the least amount of points with 51. The Falcons are making noise as the top team in the conference. A win against the Aztecs should propel them into the rankings. Coach Hoke says of Air Force, “I like playing them ... because it exposes your fundamentals.” Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun is in his 17th season at the helm of the Falcons, crafting a 125-78 record at the Academy. Air Force has a current nine-game winning streak dating back to last year. The Falcons path through the season takes them against Wyoming at home and road games at Navy, Colorado State and Boise State. They avoid Fresno State in the regular season. Fresno State, at this time, currently has a 13 game winning streak, second only to Georgia. It’s likely those two could meet in the conference championship game on December 2. Scheduling aside, the Falcons continue to reload with talented players that can fill in the system. Gone are stars Haaziq Daniels and Brad Roberts and replaced by speedster QB Zac Larrier, FB Emmanuel Michel, RB John Lee Eldridge III, and RB Owen Burk. Larrier doesn’t pass much, being only 8/12 for 221 yards and a score. Who needs to pass when he has accounted for 259 yards on the ground. Michel has added 322 yards, Eldridge with 254, and Burk with 222. The uniqueness of the triple option is the quarterback has three choices to make: hand off to the fullback up the middle, fake and sprint to the outside and either, keep the ball and turn up the field, or pitch to the trailing back. Against the Spartans last week, Larrier ran the offense to perfection, accounting for 400 yards on the ground. Those are unheard-of stats and the Aztecs will need to be well aware and prepared. They will need to be able to stop the fullback dive play. If this can be done, then it forces the plays outside where the backers and safeties can crash early and often. If Michel can find room to run up the middle, he is a physical back, capable of taking on the corners down the field it will be a long evening. Watch for how these plays develop and how many plays the Falcons have in each drive.

San Diego State (2-3, 0-1 MWC) vs. Air Force Academy Falcons (4-0, 2-0 MWC)
Location: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, CO. (Capacity 46,692, elevation 6,671 feet above sea level) Ready the oxygen.

Date/Time: Saturday, September 30 @ 5:00 PM PST

Betting Line: Air Force is a 10-point favorite heading into the game. The over/under is 43.5 points according to Draft Kings. The score has a projection of 27-17 Air Force. There is a straight-up 80.2% chance of an outright Falcon victory. Bettors are placing 69% of bets for the Aztecs to beat the spread and 75% of bets are for the over.

TV: CBS Sports Network

RADIO: San Diego Sports 760

History: This is the 39th meeting between the Aztecs and Falcons. Air Force won last year's contest to close out the regular season, 13-3. Air Force leads the total history 20-18. The Aztecs have had good success beating Air Force, going 9 wins out of the last 10 games, including four in a row on the road. The Aztecs and Falcons have played each other nearly every year since 1980, including a game in Tokyo in 1981, a 21-6 loss for the Aztecs.

Keys to the Game

  1. When the Falcons have the ball, can the Aztecs make drive-stopping plays? The Aztecs struggled against Boise State with tackling. Coach Hoke opined, “We missed too many tackles, not wrapping, not following through with your feet.” They will need to be much better as the triple option does require wrapping up ball carriers. The focus will be stopping option one, the fullback dive. Emmanuel Michel has shown he can hit the hole and get into the second level. The Falcons will mix up plays both left and right, pitch and quarterback keeper. Larrier is a speedster and can break big plays. Eldridge showed breakaway speed and had one of the most amazing runs last week against SJSU. On a 4th and 3 play from the Spartan 34, he took a pitch and looked to be stopped short of the first down. He broke that arm tackle, got the first down, broke three more tackles, and drug a defender ten yards into the endzone. The one thing viewers of Air Force games notice is that the entire offensive line is downfield blocking. Since they rarely pass, blockers can move downfield without fear of incurring a penalty. This helps runners gain those additional yards with the hogs already engaging second and third-level defenders. The Falcons have lost only two fumbles on the year. Trying to force a few fumbles would be nice. If the Aztec defense can put Air Force in passing situations, they may have a strong chance to control the game.
  2. Can the offense establish momentum and control the time of possession? The Aztecs are going to have to find additional weapons besides Mayden. He cannot carry the team against one of the nation's top defenses. The game plan should center around as few third and long situations as possible. The Aztecs were fairly successful last week against Boise with 7/13 3rd down conversions. They gained 22 first downs. Several strategic game plans might be considered. First down should see short to medium pass plays, getting the Falcons linebackers and defensive backs moving back with the snap of the ball. Then they can drop in some delayed runs or QB draws to open up the middle to open up the field. If the Aztecs can keep the Falcons guessing, they have a chance to pull off the upset. If they play predictably, Air Force will stuff the line and cause disruption in the backfield. Being too conservative does not serve the Aztecs well against the Falcons. I don’t expect the Aztecs to get any interceptions, as there should not be too many passes, but jamming the receivers at the line, shaking off their blocks, and hitting the ball carriers before long gains will contain the outside threats. This is a classic power defense against a traditionally good defense. Which will bend and which will break.

Analysis/Prediction: At the start of the season, I was too optimistic about the Aztecs chances to have an outstanding season. My early prediction was an Aztec win, 21-17, en route to a 9-3 season. I do think the Aztecs will be able to rebound, as their talent levels are better than most other conference opponents. Air Force has too much ability as a team and with a system, to falter at this time. With a 4-0 start and coming off of a strong victory against San Jose State, I’m looking for the Falcons to continue the trend with a 28-20 victory. The Aztecs will cover and the over will be achieved. On the other side of the coin, will the Aztecs be able to build upon their momentum and sneak a victory against Air Force? If they eliminate turnovers and shore up their tackling, the Aztecs just might squeak out a win Saturday night. The weather looks to be in the mid-60s, a perfect setting for football. After the Air Force game, the Aztecs face four winnable games against Hawaii, Nevada, Utah State and Colorado State. I’ve got a trap game possibility the next week against San Jose State followed by a season finale against Fresno State. A 6-6 season looks extremely doable and a possible 7-5 season is within striking distance. Take care of business on Saturday and the Aztecs will move into the top tier of MWC teams. Lose and they’re back in the middle of the pack. If a relegation conference format is in the cards for possibly next season, the Aztecs must be careful or they may find themselves staying in the Mountain West Conference.