Nevada's attack will test the Falcons in the passing game

Air Force's James Jones IV leaps in an unsuccessful attempt to block an extra point during the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., Oct. 7, 2017.


By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: October 20, 2017

RENO, Nev. (Tribune News Service) – It’s Air Force vs. Air Raid.

It’s also a venture into the unknown.

Though the season is halfway complete, Friday will mark the first time the Falcons will face a team that throws more than it runs.

And throw it, Nevada does.

The Wolf Pack threw for 508 yards last week in a 44-42 loss at Colorado State. In the previous week, first-year coach Jay Norvell’s self-described “Air Raid” offense completed 26-of-34 attempts with four touchdowns in a 35-21 victory over Hawaii.

It took this offense a while to adjust to Norvell’s system and settle upon junior Ty Gangi as the quarterback, but now that it has it will present a challenge unlike Air Force has seen.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Falcons senior cornerback Marquis Griffin said. “We’ve got a big task ahead of us. I’m looking forward to it.”

This will not only be new for Air Force as a unit, but for many individuals within that collective. Even Griffin, the lone senior in the secondary, played only a part-time role last year. Elsewhere in the secondary there is sophomore cornerback Jeremy Fejedelem (one career start), sophomore free safety James Jones IV (three starts) and junior strong safety Kyle Floyd (six starts).

The Falcons (2-4, 1-2 Mountain West) rank No. 1 nationally in passing defense, but that’s largely because this squad has seen only the run-first attacks from the likes of San Diego State, New Mexico, Navy and UNLV; offenses that have passed between eight and 23 times per game this season.

The Wolf Pack have passed 124 times in the past three games.

“That is going to be a massive challenge,” Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said when asked about the task awaiting his young secondary.

But this change also presents opportunities. Air Force has intercepted just two passes this season in part because it has seen so few balls in the air. Those chances will likely now be on the table. It also hasn’t fully unleashed its blitz packages that are designed to aid the pass defense by making quarterbacks uncomfortable.

“It’s definitely fun whenever your number is called,” senior linebacker Jack Flor said. “It’s one of those plays on defense when you know exactly what you’re going to do before the ball is snapped, which is nice sometimes. I enjoy it.”

The Wolf Pack (1-6, 1-2) dropped their first five games this season, including a contest with FCS foe Idaho State (UNLV also has a loss to an FCS team this season, yet built a 27-0 lead when it came to Falcon Stadium this past week). Since then they defeated Hawaii 35-21 and led 42-31 deep into the second half at Colorado State before falling.

Sophomore running backs Jaxson Kincaide and Kelton Moore are each averaging 5.4 yards per carry or better while catching 11 passes each. True freshman receiver McLane Minnix hauled in 150 yards against the Rams and senior receiver Wyatt Demps has caught 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

“I feel like their record doesn’t reflect the talent they have,” Griffin said.

Defensively, however, Nevada has held only Hawaii under 30 points and it ranks 74th against the run – a dangerous proposition against an Air Force team that has the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack, ranks fourth in passing efficiency and ranks 28th at 36.0 points per game.

Will this be another Air Force/Nevada shootout like the first three meetings in the series, which saw 79, 87 and 83 points scored? Or will this contest go against the assumptions and produce an entirely different kind of game.

It’s tough to say, after all, at this point such a matchup is uncharted territory.

A whole new world

Nevada will mark the first Air Force opponent for Air Force this season that throws more often than it runs.

Team Pass (att/yds) Run (att/yds)
VMI 27.1/130.7 29.1/86.9
Michigan 27.3/191.3 42.5/185.0
San Diego St. 22.4/175.0 43.6/203.7
New Mexico 20.8/170.3 44.2/240.5
Navy 8.0/81.8 64.2/397.5
UNLV 21.3/171.0 43.2/265.7
Nevada    37.4/263.6 31.7/128.6

©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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Defensive linemen Santo Coppola (97), Mosese Fifita (99) and Kyler Ehm (98) await the start of the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., Oct. 7, 2017.

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