Coming into the season, the optimism about Air Force returning almost all of its skill position players and a top-notch secondary was always tempered with one thing: all five starters on the offensive line needed to be replaced.
Through two games Air Force has an astounding 846 rushing yards. Two teams in the FBS division (Duke and Miami, Ohio) didn't have that all of last season. The 400-plus yards against Northwestern State could be dismissed, but when Air Force took a bigger BYU team to task and gained 424 rushing yards against the Cougars, it was time to dole out some credit.
"Everyone said this part would be a question, and we were told that since spring ball," left tackle Jason Kons said. "(Offensive line coach Clay) Hendrix would always say 'You guys are a group everyone's looking at, you guys are the group in question, let's go prove them wrong.'"
Still, coach Troy Calhoun isn't ready to anoint the offensive line a finished product.
"They're learning and growing," Calhoun said. "We have to keep developing."
The linemen face another huge challenge against Oklahoma. They'll have a size disadvantage, because Air Force doesn't have a very big line, as usual. They might be a little more athletic than last year's group. The Falcons also work together pretty well. The coaches did a smart thing in the offseason, leaving all five starters together on the line. They didn't yank players in and out of the lineup to foster competition, but let that unit get some cohesiveness throughout offseason practices.
Being together, even dating back to last year when most of the linemen took reps together on the second team, has helped cut down mental mistakes. There was only one major mental error in the opener, and Kons couldn't remember any against BYU. He said that comes from the practice time together last year.
"The twos are in there repping just as much, if not more, than the ones," Kons said. "We all kind of knew what to do."
--The Falcons are coming off a huge win against BYU, but they won't have a break before a very tough date at Oklahoma. Although the Falcons are underdogs, they want the challenge.
"We're the Air Force and we're going to be smaller than some people and not as fast as some people, but going against a big school like that and showing how we play says a lot to the country, and to us," safety Jon Davis said.
--Air Force's best chance to win will be to win the turnover battle, and the Falcons have the secondary that could do that. The Falcons' secondary is one of the strengths of the team. It intercepted Houston's Case Keenum six times in a bowl win last year, and brought back three starters. The group showed its talent last week, holding BYU to 88 passing yards.
"We're back," cornerback Reggie Rembert said.
--The Falcons should give Oklahoma some trouble with their option offense. Oklahoma doesn't see the triple option very often, so it will take a full and long week of preparation to prepare for it.
"It isn't just the triple option," Sooners coach Bob Stoops told the Tulsa World. "It's all of the different run game they have, with three backs back there. It's back to the wishbone, really. They're very creative and very disciplined and good at what they do."
SERIES HISTORY: Oklahoma leads Air Force 1-0 (last meeting, 2001, 44-3 Oklahoma).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Air Force continues to improve in the passing game, with Tim Jefferson emerging as a good option thrower as well as a talented runner. The Falcons' offense is off to a great start in part because of speedy receivers Mikel Hunter and Jonathan Warzeka, who play the versatile "Z" receiver position that often lines up on the wing and can run a passing route or a reverse. Hunter scored on a reception and a run against BYU.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Air Force's defense has gotten off to two slow starts, then pitched two second-half shutouts. The coaching staff has done a solid job making adjustments in game against Northwestern State and BYU. The next challenge is getting the defense to play four very good quarters.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a quality win, yet I think our guys know it's a single one. It's one game." -- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun on not dwelling on a win against BYU.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Air Force at Oklahoma, Sept. 18 -- Air Force (2-0 overall, 1-0 Mountain West) can't match the talent, size or speed of Oklahoma (2-0 overall), but the Falcons made a big statement by beating a very talented BYU team. Oklahoma is riding a 32-game home winning streak, so the Falcons know they have a tough task, but they hope to pull an upset and get some recognition nationally.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons have to run the ball very well, control the clock and limit the Sooners' opportunities to hit big plays. Picking up significant yards on first down and not facing long situations will be important. The Falcons have to play very well in situational football, getting off the field on third downs and in special teams, for two examples.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Asher Clark -- With fullback Jared Tew questionable with a hand injury, Clark needs to run as well as he did last week, when he gained more than 100 yards against BYU. But Clark is dealing with his own ailment, an injured ankle. But if Clark can play, expect to see him play with the same confidence and toughness that impressed the coaches last week.
CB Reggie Rembert -- Rembert is coming off a good game, getting a key interception against BYU. He and fellow cornerback Anthony Wright have a huge challenge against Oklahoma's talented receivers, but the Air Force duo thinks it is pretty good as well.
DT Ryan Gardner -- A lot was made of Gardner taking over at nose guard for Ben Garland, and Gardner has played well. He'll need to hold his ground against a big Oklahoma line that has struggled to run the ball early in the year.
--Starting FB Jared Tew doesn't have a broken bone in his hand, but there is significant swelling. If he plays this week, it would probably be with a splint to protect the area.
--Backup RB Darius Jones could have to take on a larger role if starter Asher Clark is limited at all with an ankle injury. Jones is inexperienced but has good speed and quickness and could hit a big play.
--Starting LB Patrick Hennessey returned to the starting lineup after missing the first game of the season. Hennessey is healthy after having shoulder surgery last year, and can make an impact off the edge for the Air Force defense.