Wolf Pack looks to stop ground game of Air Force
Special to the Sun
The Air Force Falcons take the mystery out of college football.
“They do what they do regardless of who they are playing,” Nevada coach Jay Norvell said this week. “They pound you, pound you, pound you.”
“They want to run the ball the whole game,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Patrick Choudja said. “It’s not fun.”
The Wolf Pack, which will host the run-based Falcons on Friday night, Oct. 20, (6:30 p.m.) during Homecoming at Mackay Stadium, has seemingly never had any fun against triple option wishbone offenses. Air Force has averaged 45 points and 393 rushing yards a game in three meetings (2012, 2013, 2014) against the Pack. The Wolf Pack, now 1-6 overall and 1-2 in the Mountain West, also played two triple-option teams last year and allowed an average of 31 points and 378 rushing yards against Cal Poly and New Mexico.
“We know what to expect because we played those teams last year,” Choudja said. “But it’s nothing compared to Air Force.”
Air Force leads the Mountain West and is sixth in the nation, averaging 306.7 rushing yards a game. The Falcons have five players with 176 or more rushing yards this season, led by quarterback Arion Worthman with 550. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Worthman, who took over the offense late last year, has scored 10 touchdowns on the ground this year and has also completed 36-of-72 passes for 798 yards and eight more scores.
“They want to lull you to sleep (with the run) and then hit you over the top (with the pass),” Pack safety Asauni Rufus said.
Worthman won all five of his starts last year as the Falcons won their final six games to finish 10-3. Air Force is just 2-4 overall (1-2 in the Mountain West) this year but will come to Mackay Stadium off an improbable comeback victory (34-30) over UNLV last week after trailing 27-0. Worthman had 166 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the ground against the Rebels.
“You just have a lot of respect for a guy (Worthman) who takes punishment like he does and keeps coming at you,” Norvell said. “He’s a very tough guy.”
Worthman also has plenty of help in the Falcons’ backfield. Tim McVey has 380 yards and five touchdowns, Ronald Cleveland has 226 yards and two scores, Nolan Eriksen has 176 yards and a touchdown and Parker Wilson has chipped in with 192 yards (no scores). McVey has averaged 7.7 yards on each of his 199 career rushing attempts while Cleveland has averaged 8.8 yards on 44 career runs. McVey also has averaged 27.5 yards on each of his 21 career pass receptions.
“Their scheme is totally opposite of what we faced last week,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack allowed 384 passing yards and 224 rushing yards in a 44-42 loss at Colorado State. “The wishbone gives you a lot of challenges. You try to force them to do what they don’t like to do and that’s drop back and throw. You want to get them in third and long. But not a lot of teams have been able to do that.”
The Falcons, Norvell said, are patient on offense.
“They just figure they are going to get four yards every time they run the ball and try to get in a 3rd-and-2,” Norvell said. “And they are very happy with that.”
The Falcons have rushed for 200 or more yards in every game but four since the start of the 2015 season. One of those four games was earlier this year when Michigan held the Falcons to 188 yards on the ground in a 29-13 Wolverines win in Ann Arbor. “They are very tough physically and very tough mentally and they don’t beat themselves,” Norvell said. “It’s important you have staying power.”
The Falcons can also hurt opposing defenses through the air. Air Force has completed 23-of-33 passes for 346 yards and six touchdowns in three games (two Air Force victories) against the Pack. The Wolf Pack is last in the Mountain West, allowing 326 passing yards a game this season.
“When we do throw it, we have to throw it well,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “That’s a key part of what we do.”
Calhoun, who has a record of 79-57 as Falcons head coach since taking over the program in 2007, has been impressed by what he has seen of the Wolf Pack offense lately. Pack quarterback Ty Gangi has passed for 1,435 yards and 14 touchdowns this year despite not playing in two games. Gangi, who has thrown for four touchdowns in each of the Pack’s last two games (a 35-21 win over Hawaii and the loss at Colorado State), has established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West.
“Offensively they’ve clearly hit a stride when you look at the last two games,” Calhoun said. “They are extremely dynamic. He (Gangi) throws the ball on time and it goes to the right place. Their production the last two weeks (77 points, 1,074 yards) has been dramatic. This is going to be a massive challenge for us.”
The Wolf Pack offense has had a lot of success against the Falcons defense in the past. Quarterback Cody Fajardo passed for 875 yards and six touchdowns and also ran for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the three games against Air Force. Don Jackson had 121 rushing yards against Air Force in 2014, Stefphon Jefferson had 93 in 2012 and Kendall Brock gained 88 in 2013.
Air Force has also allowed an average of 45 points a game the last three weeks to New Mexico, Navy and UNLV. After shutting out VMI (62-0) in the season opener, the Falcons have allowed 28 or more points in every game. High-scoring games, though, are nothing new to this brief rivalry. The Wolf Pack and Falcons have combined to score 249 points and pile up 3,001 yards in the three games against each other. The Pack has scored at least 31 points and gained at least 380 yards in all three of the games while Air Force has never scored fewer than 42 points or gained less than 453 against the Pack.
“It’s all about who is going to be mentally tougher,” said Choudja, who had two tackles the last time the Pack met the Falcons in 2014.
“When you play against that offense, it is so detail oriented,” Rufus said. “Ten guys could (do the right thing) but if one guy messes up it can be seven points.”
The Wolf Pack needs to win its final five games of the season to become bowl eligible.
“We can still go to the Mountain West championship game,” Choudja said. “We can still go to a bowl game. We still practice like those things are attainable, still lift weights like it and still watch film like it.”