3 keys to beating the Falcons
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl knows everything there is to know about the option-football business.
When your roots consist of glory years at Nebraska under Tom Osborne and coaching stints with Fred Goldsmith at Rice and Duke, you have to know as much about that offense as Bubba knows about shrimp.
"It's one of those things beyond being a triple-option offense," Wyoming's eighth-year head coach said. "There's power within their offense. They'll run the off-tackle power and the inside zone. There's counter sweeps, there's all kinds of things. So beyond the quote, 'triple option,' there's triple option, two-way option -- all these things -- and it really presents a challenge.
"You know what, we need to be really disciplined and physical at the point of attack. We need to establish the line of scrimmage, we need to tackle well and we need to defend the pass well. It's a lot on our plate."
Not many programs still feature the triple-option attack. No one runs it to perfection like Troy Calhoun's Falcons.
So, what do the Cowboys need to do to walk out of Colorado Springs 1-0 in Mountain West Conference play? Here's a few ideas:
No. 1 Hold them to 250 or less
Air Force has lost 20 games since the beginning of the 2017 season. In 15 of those outings, the Falcons failed to eclipse the 250-yard mark on the ground.
Air Force has won 28 games since the beginning of the 2017 season. In 24 of those outings, the Falcons rushed for more than 250.
It sure wouldn't hurt the visitors one bit to keep the cadets under that number.
Of course, stopping -- better yet, limiting -- the Falcons potent option attack is easier said than done.
The Falcons lead the FBS in rushing, averaging 367 yards per game. They've scored 22 touchdowns on the ground, which is also tops in the country. You can tack on nearly 5.5 yards per carry, too.
As usual, this isn't a one-man operation.
Running back Brad Roberts has a team-high 540 yards on 117 carries. He's scored five touchdowns. Air Force signal caller, Haaziq Daniels, has 71 carries, 419 rushing yards and eight scores through five games. Four other ball carriers -- Micah Davis, Emmanuel Michel, Omar Fattah and DeAndrea Hughes -- have all eclipsed at least 125 yards on the ground. That foursome has accounted for seven more touchdowns.
"The ball gets spread around," Bohl said. "They always seem to have a quarterback. I don't know how coach Calhoun does it."
If Wyoming hopes to hold the Falcons under the 250-yard mark, it's going to take a big day from a pair of captains -- defensive end Garrett Crall and middle linebacker Chad Muma.
In 2019, the last meeting between these two Front Range rivals, Crall and Muma accounted for 18 tackles in a 20-6 loss at the Academy. That November day, the Cowboys defense held the Falcons to just 162 rushing yards on 56 carries. That's an average of just 2.9 yards per tote.
That's about as good as it gets.
Wyoming will also likely need a double-digit tackle day from safety Esaias Gandy. It will all start on the defensive interior where Ravontae Holt and Cole Godbout will be tasked with stuffing the fullback dive.
"It's a really, really challenging offense to prepare for," Bohl said. "They know what they're doing."
It's not a big secret what the Falcons plan to do. Stopping it is another story. If the Cowboys can limit the damage on the ground, you have to like their chances.
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No. 2 Make them throw it
It's not often Air Force attempts 12 or more passes in a game.
In fact, the Falcons have done that just 13 times over their previous 36 outings, dating back to 2018. During that span, no matter who was under center, the record was 3-10. Two of those wins came in the first two weeks of the 2019 season. One was a blowout victory over Colgate. The other, a 30-23 overtime win over Colorado.
If Wyoming can accomplish the No. 1 key, which they did in 2019, Daniels is likely to make a mistake or two through the air. The Falcons quarterback has completed just 15-of-33 passes this season for 384 yards, to go along with a touchdown and an interception. He has also been sacked four times.
In that 2019 contest in Colorado Springs, it was the element of surprise that caught the Cowboys napping. Donald Hammond III, who completed 6-of-7 passes for 143 yards, hit Benjamin Waters on a 75-yard scoring strike over the middle to put the game out of reach late.
"They have answers for everything that you do," Bohl said, adding that his team practiced without a ball last week to work on the discipline it takes to stop the option. "... Certainly, one thing you need is great pursuit to the football, but you cannot guess. Whenever you think that you've got them stopped, all of a sudden they come up with a play action pass and it's a big, big gain. So, they have the ability to throw."
They do, but the Falcons can't rely on it.
If Wyoming can build a lead and manage the clock with its own power rushing attack, Bohl's boys could turn the tables on the Falcons and beat them at their own game. Air Force's offense features plenty of nuances. Digging out of holes -- especially late in games -- isn't one of its strong suits.
The Cowboys need to make Air Force throw when they don't want to.
That likely leads to good things.
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No. 3 Stay on the field
Air Force is second in the nation in average time of possession. The Falcons offense is on the field for more than 37 minutes per game.
That means the clock is ticking, the game is getting shortened.
That's a recipe for disaster for the visitors.
Wyoming, if you can believe it, is converting on half of its third-down attempts -- 28 of 56 -- through four games. That number needs to improve Saturday. So does the Cowboys' third-down defense, which is currently ranked No. 103 in the nation, allowing a conversion rate of .439.
Second down stops will be key for the Cowboys Saturday.
"Obviously they run the football well, so we have to prevent third-and-short," outside linebacker Easton Gibbs said. "I mean, that's where they want to live. We want to get the ball back to our offense as much as possible."
If you've ever watched Air Force football, you know it's nearly always four-down territory, no matter where the ball lies. Calhoun has already attempted 15 plays on fourth down in just five games. His offense has converted 12 of those, third most in college football behind Army and Ole Miss.
So, what can the Cowboys do to combat that?
Stay on the field.
Doing what they did in the second half against UConn certainly won't hurt, either.
Wyoming ran 35 plays in the final 30 minutes against the Huskies. Twenty-five of those were rushing attempts, courtesy of Sean Chambers, Xazavian Valladay and Titus Swen. The Cowboys rolled up 93 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. More importantly, they chewed up more than 15 minutes of the game clock.
Wyoming is No. 17 in the nation in third-down conversion rate. The team picked up five crucial ones in the second half of that 24-22 victory in East Hartford.
"Offensively, we're just going to go out there and do what we've normally been doing," UW wide receiver Isaiah Neyor said. "So, going out there and executing, just putting points on the board and coming together as a whole -- as a team -- and just getting the victory."
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