When matched up against one of the nation’s “academy” teams, opponents know they will be facing a tough challenge against a squad that will bring outstanding effort and mental discipline to every game.
Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck, who will pit his Broncos against the Air Force Academy Saturday (5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl game, described the Falcons as “physically … and mentally tough.” He’s counting on an opponent with “heart and … a ton of energy.”
The Broncos, who are one of the country’s best “rebound” stories on the heels of struggling to 1-11 in 2013, will be facing another “rebounding” program in Air Force.
MAC Report Online looks at those three games. First, however, a few overall notes should be passed on.
► Like most academy teams, the Falcons are run-heavy. They typically run a triple option offense with a double wing formation. Air Force ranks 10th in the country in rushing yards per game (272.2) and are first in rushing attempts (732).
► Unlike Army (last, 62.3 ypg) and Navy (next to last, 86.8 ypg), Air Force ranks 118th in passing (151.3 ypg). That’s certainly at the lower end of the spectrum, but the Falcons are capable of throwing the football more than enough to keep defenses honest. The AFA’s 15 passing touchdowns are tied for 88th in the nation. Overall, the Falcons ranked 52nd nationally in total offensive yards per game (424 ypg).
► One of Fleck’s biggest concerns has been an inability to totally simulate the Falcons attack in preparations. Nobody runs an option like teams that have done it for years, and the Broncos did not have anybody on the regular season schedule that used that kind of an offense. Cut-blocking along the line helps to balance out the size disadvantage military academy teams face on an almost weekly basis. It’s particularly tough on a defense physically as successful option teams more often tend to march the ball down the field on long drives rather than score quickly on long plays.
►Sophomore running back Jacobi Jones (5-11, 190) led the Falcons in rushing with 1,054 yards on the campaign, but he went down with an injury late in the year and Devin Rusing (5-10, 180) hs moved into the tailback spot on the two-deep. He has just 64 carries in 12 games, but is averaging 5.2 per rush with two TDs. Fullback D.J. Johnson has 61 carries for 247 yards (4.0 ypc) and seven touchdowns.
► One of the biggest questions heading into the bowl game is the availability and effectiveness of senior quarterback Kale Pearson (5-9, 175). He was injured (ankle) and did not play in the finale against rival Colorado State. Nonetheless, Air Force – without both its starting quarterback and leading rusher – pulled off a 27-24 victory to end the No. 21 Rams’ nine-game winning streak.
Pearson has 157 rushes for 646 yards and six touchdowns to his credit. He has also completed 96 of 162 passes (59.2%) with 14 TDs and 3 interceptions.
► Garret Brown (5-9, 175, Jr.) has six TDs to lead AFA receivers. Sophomore Jalen Robinette (6-3, 220) has the most catches with 41 for 763 yards and 4 TDs.
► Air Forces ranks 53rd nationally in points scored (30.9 ppg) and 43rd in points allowed (24.2 ppg.)
► Jordan Pierce is the Falcon’s top tackler. He has 107 total stops, including 52 unassisted and 16.5 TFL, 2 INT and 5 sacks.
► West Steelhammer recorded six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. His fourth quarter drive-ending interception and a key tackles in the final minute helped preserve the Falcons’ upset of Colorado State.
► Kicker Will Conant converted 18-of-20 field goal opportunities and all 42 of his PAT attempts. His 39-yard field goal as time expired provided the difference in the 27-24 upset win over Colorado State. Conant’s longest field goal this season was 50 yards (twice).
► The Falcons won five of their last six games. In their only loss, a 30-14 setback at San Diego State, the AFA uncharacteristically committed four turnovers. The Aztecs, who ultimately reigned as West Division champs, limited Air Force to 140 yards on the ground and passed for 326 yards against the Falcons.
THREE FALCON SAMPLES
►Sept 27 – Despite being outgained 467-335 in total offensive yards, Air Force upsets (now No. 20) Boise State – a two-touchdown favorite entering the contest.
The AFA took advantage of seven Bronco turnovers, including five interceptions, while committing two of their own. The Falcons had a 28-0 lead in the fourth quarter before two late BSU TDs by backup quarterback Ryan Finley. Quarterback Kale Pearson carried 20 times for 127 yards, while Jacobi Owens totaled 108 yards on 24 totes.
► Oct. 30 -- Air Force defeats defending Commander-in-Chief trophy holder Navy. With a 23-6 win later in the season against Army, the Falcons earned possession of the treasured hardware.
Air Force took advantage of two Midshipmen turnovers in the first half and had two more turnovers wiped out by penalties. It was tied, 14-all, at intermission.
The Falcons moved in front with 13 straight points, including six on a 3-yard Pearson to Griffin TD pass.
Navy pulled within three points with 2:14 left in the game on a 40-yard pass play, but the Falcons recovered an onside kick and scored five plays later on a 13-yard Pearson-to-Brown aerial to secure the victory.
► Air Force prevailed in an offensive shootout as the two teams combined for 969 yards. The contest was tied five times before overtime. Shayne Davern scored on a 3-yard run and Conant added the PAT to put the Falcons in front a final time. Nevada threw three incompletions and lost two yards on a run while failing to score.
Pearson (109 yards, 1 TD) and Davern (97 yards, 2 TDs) led the Falcons rushing. Pearson completed 11-of-15 passes for 129 yards and 3 TDs. Two went to Jalen Robinette.