Air Force employs fast and furious approach in practice to simulate Utah State's style

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: September 21, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — As soon as the whistle blows on Air Force’s practice field, the next offensive scout team steps to the line.

When that next play is over, the other group is ready to go again.

It has been like this on repeat for Air Force’s defense as it has faced two scout teams operating in constant hurry-up mode in preparation for the breakneck speed of Utah State’s up-tempo offense.

“Truthfully, our practice field is faster tempo than someone could possibly create on a Saturday,” safety Garrett Kauppila said.

The Aggies have used that quick-snap approach to put up a pile of points. They fell 38-31 at No. 11 Michigan State in their opener, then returned home to score 133 combined points in blowouts of New Mexico State (a bowl team from a year ago) and FCS foe Tennessee Tech.

In just three games, coach Matt Wells’ team has had touchdown runs of 68, 65, 51 and 15 yards and passing scores of 36 and 14 yards. The big plays have bled into other areas, resulting in scores of 75 and 40 yards on interception returns, 59 yards on a punt return and 100 yards on a kick return.

Eleven Aggies have a run or catch to their credit that has covered 20 or more yards, while quarterback Jordan Love has completed 66 percent of his passes for 238 yards per game.

“They have a great offense, they really do,” Air Force safety Jeremy Fejedelem said. “A lot of it is they catch teams on their heels. You’ll watch films and see that a lot of their plays are big plays, like 60-plus yards, because teams just aren’t lined up.”

So that’s where Air Force has placed its focus, getting lined up as quickly as possible. It helps that the Falcons faced a similarly frantic pace at Florida Atlantic in their most recent game, a 33-27 loss on Sept. 8. Now they’ve had an extra week to prepare for an Aggies team that put up a balanced 521 yards of offense (284 passing, 237 rushing) in a 38-35 Air Force victory at Falcon Stadium in last year’s finale.

“They stress you with their tempo,” Air Force defensive backs coach (and presumed defensive coordinator) John Rudzinski said. “They stress you with the different formations they present, and also just talent-wise, across the board.”

If Air Force coach Troy Calhoun truly wanted to stop up-tempo offenses, he could have made an effort when pace of play was debated while he sat as chairman of the college football rules committee. But he sees nothing wrong with the approach that others called into question, saying it increased the risk of injury for defenses.

“I think it’s fantastic for the sport to be able to go at any pace,” Calhoun said. “It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to use it. … I think the diversity it brings to the game is fantastic.”

He said that with the caveat that defenses be allowed to substitute whenever the offense does, which is the current rule. Air Force used subs regularly against Florida Atlantic, with defenders often leaving the field at a rather leisurely pace to allow the players on the field to catch their breath.

Fejedelem said that still didn’t help much, as he had never been as tired on a football field.

Particularly troublesome was when a receiver would make an Air Force defensive back give chase down the field on a deep route, then peel off to the sidelines between plays while a fresh receiver took his place. Meanwhile, the defender barely has time to return to his position before the next snap — let alone fully regroup.

This makes depth a key, particularly at cornerback. Air Force expects to play Robert Bullard, Tre’ Bugg, Zane Lewis, Dailen Sutton and perhaps Elisha Palm at the two spots.

It also puts added emphasis on communication and preparation.

“There is time,” Kauppila said of diagnosing alignment and responsibility before the snap. “It just has to happen efficiently. You have to trust your eyes and what you see.

“I think the biggest thing is, as the game speeds up, to slow down your mind.”

If that sounds difficult, that’s exactly why Air Force has made every effort to simulate this style in practice.

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