Brent Briggeman, Air Force football beat writer for The Gazette, joins us for our weekly Q&A to preview the Falcons ahead of Saturday’s MW matchup.
The Collegian: Offensively, the Air Force Falcons run the triple option and are one of the top rushing teams in the country, averaging 312.2 per contest. What makes the ground game so efficient, and how do you think the option attack will fare against Fresno State’s 3-4 defense?
Briggeman: Air Force doesn’t run a typical triple option, as for the past few years it has morphed into more of a zone-running game where the majority of the carries go the tailback. However, with the current personnel available (two stout fullbacks, a run-first quarterback thrust into action by an injury to the original starter), the triple option has come back into play. It’s effective because undersized linemen don’t have to hold blocks for long, and it isolates defenders. If a defender beats his block in the middle, that’s OK, don’t give it to the fullback. The defensive end crashes in on the quarterback, that’s OK, pitch it to the tailback. Generally, at least one option will be open. How will it fare this week? Depends on Fresno State’s ability to play assignment-sound football and not miss tackles.
The Collegian: What can we expect from the Falcons on Saturday from a defensive standpoint?
Briggeman: It’s a unit that, for five games, was pretty good against the run (save for about four big plays) and struggled against the pass. Last week, it struggled against pretty much everything at Colorado State. It’s a unit that’s more athletic than most Air Force defenses of the past and plays with an aggressive, blitzing style out of a 3-4 behind second-year defensive coordinator Steve Russ (he’s actually been around longer, but it’s his second year having the job to himself). Injuries have changed some of the personnel, as the team has had to go to two new inside linebackers, a new nose guard and a new cornerback over the past three weeks. That would hurt any team, and judging by last week’s performance, it has impacted this squad.
The Collegian: What is the team’s mindset entering its fourth conference matchup?
Briggeman: Tough to say. The team understands it needs a win desperately to stay in the hunt for a bowl game. There’s also lingering confidence from a 2-1 start to the season and a legitimately strong performance in most areas against Michigan State. This is a service academy, keep in mind, so the mentality tends to stay pretty steady.
The Collegian: The Falcons had their best season under head coach Troy Calhoun last year, finishing with a 10-3 record including a bowl win. What were the expectations coming into this season following the successful 2014 campaign?
Briggeman: They had their best season in terms of record last year, but I wouldn’t say that year was any better than the 9-4 teams of 2007 and 2010 that defeated opponents like Utah, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and BYU. Last year’s record was the result of a strong team and a weak schedule. There were really only two challenging road games (at San Diego State and Utah State) and the Falcons lost both by lopsided margins. Going into this year, the expectation was that the team might be deeper at many positions but would take a step back at quarterback, and that even a stronger squad might post a lesser record because a trip to Georgia State was replaced by one to Michigan State and home games against Navy, Colorado State and Boise State would instead be played on the road.
The Collegian: How would you characterize Calhoun’s coaching style?
Briggeman: He’s a brilliant offensive mind by all accounts, and his track record speaks for itself as he helped Wake Forest to an ACC title (in a league with Florida State). He worked for the Broncos and Texans, serving as Houston’s offensive coordinator, and he’s taken Air Force to bowl games in seven of eight years, missing only in an injury-ravaged 2013 season. In terms of style, he’s generally something of a gunslinger in that he’ll go for it frequently on fourth down. This year, he has been a bit more conservative, perhaps because turnover at quarterback and several other spots has left him hesitant to put his team in tough positions.
The Collegian: What had been Air Force’s strength this season?
Briggeman: The run defense, the play of fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson and the overall play late in games, as Air Force holds a 107-42 scoring advantage in the second half.
The Collegian: Who are the Falcons’ standout players on both offense and defense?
Briggeman: On offense, Davern and Johnson truly are special fullbacks, and Jalen Robinette is one of the more physically talented receivers the program has ever had. Garrett Brown has great hands and is solid on the edge in the running game, in the passing game and in the return game. Defensively, safety Weston Steelhammer has eight career interceptions and has a knack for making big plays. Defensive end Alex Hansen is a four-year starter.
The Collegian: In Week 3, the Falcons faced a Top-5 team in Michigan State. What did Air Force learn from playing a national title contender like the Spartans?
Briggeman: They learned that the run defense is solid, even against a large, physical team. They also learned that they have to play smart at all times. Seven personal fouls and two turnovers really took them out of that game. Also, I don’t know if this was something they learned or were simply reminded of, but the passing defense has some holes and isn’t going to work without constant pressure on the quarterback.
The Collegian: Air Force has dropped three of its last four games and stands at 3-3 overall. What must the team do in order to get back on track?
Briggeman: The offense has to operate more crisply. Several option pitches have ended up on the ground in recent weeks. It’s not a team that can afford negative-yardage plays, so that has to get better. Also, the passing game under Karson Roberts has been lacking. If they can’t keep defenses honest, the running game won’t be as effective. There have been other issues, like defending the pass and some special teams miscues, but I think the key for this team is a strong offense that eats the clock. That hasn’t been there consistently recently.
The Collegian: What is the gameday atmosphere like at a military academy like Air Force?
Briggeman: It’s a cool place to watch a game, right at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The Wings of Blue generally parachute into the stadium, as does the Air Force mascot, and there’s often a flyby from a loud jet or two. Then, 4,000 cadets march into the stadium. It’s unique and fun.
The Collegian: Prediction?
Briggeman: Sorry, I don’t go there. Air Force has been much better at home than on the road, posting nine straight wins in Falcon Stadium. I would expect a good game.