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Air Force hopes simplified defensive approach changes results against Army

Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun leads the football team out of the tunnel prior to a game against the Nevada Wolfpack on Sept. 29, 2018 at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

BILL EVANS/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette | Published: November 1, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — When Brody Bagnall logged his first significant playing time for Air Force, the linebacker was confused.

And remember, Bagnall is a chemistry major at the academy. Not much confuses him. But that’s how he felt when he came on in relief and logged seven tackles against Army last season.

“I don’t think anybody really completely understood what they were doing in the scheme when we were playing these guys,” Bagnall said. “So we weren’t able to attack.”

Army ran for 392 yards against the Falcons last year. It never passed or punted. It simply lined up in the shotgun, ran slow developing plays and gouged a defense ill-equipped to stop it in a 21-0 shutout.

It wasn’t just Army. Navy ran for 471 against the 2017 Falcons and New Mexico went for 363. Each offense was different, but each included a focus on the ground game and operated out of the shotgun.

So, over the offseason Air Force sought an adjustment. Defensive coordinator Steve Russ left for the NFL and John Rudzinski took his spot.

Russ had talked often about simplifying the defense so players could play more aggressively. But to hear players tell it, that wasn’t fully put into practice until Rudzinski took over and the jobs within the defense were overhauled.

“That was a big focus with the service academies and New Mexico, trying to change up the game and make sure we can stop that rushing game,” defensive tackle Micah Capra said.

“We harped on it quite a bit, but not to say we lost focus on the other teams.

“We’re a lot more aggressive. That’s what coach Rud has really harped on, being a lot more aggressive, flying to ball, swarming to the ball, getting out to the pitch, doing your assignment, making sure each player knows exactly what to do on the play.”

So far, the results have spoken for themselves. Navy, San Diego State, Utah State and UNLV each ran for fewer yards this season than they did last year against Air Force, which ranks 16th in the nation in allowing 108.4 yards per game. Last year’s squad ranked 117th at 222.8 yards per game.

The Navy game in particular was drastically different. After allowing 48 points and 557 total yards last year, the Falcons limited the Midshipmen to seven points and 178 yards this year in a 35-7 blowout victory.

But then again, Navy (2-6) is experiencing a rare down year. Army (6-2) is not, and enters this game with the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense.

If ever there was a test of the changes Air Force implemented, this is it.

“We had a lot to think through,” safety Ross Connors said. “We had a lot we kind of had to see. This year it’s a lot more simplified, so you can just keep your eyes on your guy, on your assignment so you can play a lot faster. You’re thinking less and you’re just able to play and focus on your assignment.

Added Bagnall, who ranks second on the team with 58 tackles, “I think this year I actually know what I’m doing, and I think the defense feels the same way. Last year I didn’t really understand the scheme and I didn’t know where I was supposed to fit, but now, this year, whenever I see whatever my read is, I can go straight to where I know that play is going to be and try to make a play.”

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