Air Force tries to break BYU losing streak

Air Force and BYU have barely gotten a chance to know their teams, and already they are set to play in a huge conference matchup Saturday at the Academy.

There is plenty new about both teams, and that could make game planning a challenge considering there is just one game to scout. The Falcons have an entirely new offensive line and five new starters on defense.

BYU will continue to rotate quarterbacks Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps, who helped the Cougars win the opener against Washington.

“This is still the formative stages of who we are,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “You have to project a little bit more as to who you think you’re going to be and where you currently are and that makes it a difficult test.”

The Cougars have owned the series recently, winning six straight games. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has never beaten them. When asked to explain the dominance, he said, “They have a good team.”

Air Force has had better results when the teams play early in the season. The last time they opened conference play against each other, Air Force won 32-12 back in 2000.

The Falcons always provide a difficult challenge to prepare for because of their offensive style. BYU provides similar challenges, especially since it is difficult to prepare for two different quarterbacks with two different styles.

Nelson and Heaps rotated series against Washington, and it seemed to work well. Mendenhall says he has no plans to change the way he uses his players. Each threw for 131 yards in the win. Heaps went 13-of-23, while Nelson went 11-of-17 and threw two touchdown passes. He also finished second on the team with 45 yards rushing on eight carries.

Calhoun called Heaps a slam-dunk first-round NFL pick. Heaps, the freshman, has a stronger arm and more potential, but Nelson is a scrambler with more playing experience. “There’s a wrinkle here or there that each guy does bring when they’re in the game,” Calhoun said.

Mendenhall watched the game tape of his quarterbacks and thought they each did well for their first game out. He said Nelson made good decisions, showed grit and leadership and had some great runs. Mendenhall thought Heaps handled the run game well and threw effectively, but believes his young quarterback can get better at reading the defenses.

He said he was “surprised and gratified” both made such good choices. Neither turned the ball over. Some credit goes to the offensive line and the way they were able to protect both quarterbacks. Washington had zero sacks.

“When young quarterbacks maybe do have a chance to survey the field, it lends to their confidence and helps make them more secure,” Mendenhall said of the good line play. “Really one of the most important strengths and key determinants was the play of our offensive line and how they protected our quarterbacks.”

As for Air Force, the team got off to a slow start last week against Northwestern State but ended up rolling up 616 yards of total offense. BYU will be facing a vastly different team this week than it did in Washington and will have to try and focus on stopping the run. Jared Tew and Asher Clark make up one of the best running tandems in the Mountain West and quarterback Tim Jefferson can run, too. Air Force had 437 yards on the ground against Northwestern State.

But the Falcons might be without one of their best players on defense. Cornerback Reggie Rembert was carted off the field with a neck injury and is considered a long-shot to play. With or without him, the recent history against BYU has not been good for Air Force.

Maybe an early season game can help change those results.

“I don’t think we’ve played well enough,” Air Force offensive coordinator Clay Hendrix said. “We could probably give our kids a little better plan. We’ve been a relatively young group for a couple years. Now we’ve got a mature group, we’re a little older, we’re at home, relatively healthy. So we’ll see.”