Air Force has put together an impressive run to start the season, but its next four games will determine how it finishes.
The No. 23 Falcons (5-1) travel to San Diego State (3-2) to face a much improved Aztecs team still smarting from a disappointing loss to BYU. After this contest, the team travels to No. 4 TCU, then hosts No. 11 Utah and then travels to Army in an all-important game that could decide who wins the Commander-In-Chief Trophy.
Air Force already has a leg up in that competition, with its win over Navy earlier this season. But first, the Falcons are focused on the Aztecs. San Diego State is one of the most balanced teams on the Air Force schedule now that it has been able to establish a running game.
Although that ground attack struggled last week against BYU, Air Force is well aware of what Ronnie Hillman & Co. can do. Coach Troy Calhoun has placed a special emphasis on shoring up the run defense, which has struggled at times this season.
Last week against Colorado State, the Falcons gave up 285 yards on the ground. They also gave up over 200 yards to BYU, which is not typically known as a rushing team. Even Wyoming broke out of its rushing problems with 174 yards on the ground.
“We have to play more technically sound and be aggressive, and read our keys,” Air Force cornerback Reggie Rembert said. “If we stick with our scheme, then we’ll be fine. We had a lot of busts in the last game and even against Wyoming and that leads to big plays.”
San Diego State already has some playmakers at receiver in Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, making their matchup against Rembert and Anthony Wright one to watch. If the Aztecs can get their running game going again, they are dangerous in the play-action because Ryan Lindley is much improved and able to get the ball to Brown, Sampson or one of his other talented receivers.
Of course, the goal for San Diego State is also to stop the run. Air Force is running the triple option extremely efficiently this season behind Tim Jefferson, who also has become a threat to throw it when necessary.
BYU gouged San Diego State for 271 yards on the ground last week, but defensive coordinator Rocky Long said there is nothing that can be taken from those numbers because the run schemes are so different. He also pointed out that BYU carried the ball 62 times for a 4.4-yard average.
But what he does want to see is better tackling, which slipped against the Cougars. Coach Brady Hoke wants his team to be more physical at the point of attack, something that was also lacking against BYU.
“For you to execute as well as they do, which is probably impossible, but you have to execute good enough to keep them under control,” Long said. “Even the people who have kept the score close have given up unbelievable yards rushing. You just have to be assignment-sound and don’t give up big plays. That keeps the score in a position that gives your offense a chance to win.”
As for the road ahead, Air Force has traditionally been a “second-half team” under coach Troy Calhoun.
Air Force is 13-5 under Calhoun in the last six games of the past three seasons -- 4-2 in 2008 and 2009. and 5-1 in 2007. Before Calhoun arrived in 2007, the Falcons were 12-24 over the last six games of seasons going back to 2001.
The challenge awaits.