2012 Air Force Analysis: A Statistical Review

Last week's statistical review showed how (and why) the value of passing statistics can easily be inflated. This week, one of Air Force's more impressive and substantial passing achievements is highlighted, in order to show the difference between a meaningful stat and a hollow one.

For a triple-option team – and all three service academies have bought into that type of offense – accumulated completions and passing yards simply aren't the best measurements of success. The essence of a good triple-option passing attack can be found in the following statement: "When you throw the ball, make it count." That's a succinct way of expressing the goal of a triple-option offense when it resorts to the forward pass.

Last week, we showed how Air Force's single-game season highs in completions and yardage did not translate into a positive result. This week, it's very much worth spotlighting what was – when adjusted for the caliber of opponent – the Falcons' best offensive performance of 2012.

Yes, Air Force ran wild against FCS member Idaho State, but the 48-31 win over Nevada on Oct. 26 marked the high point for the Falcons last autumn. Why did everything come together for Troy Calhoun's crew against the Wolf Pack? Yes, Air Force was both relentless and proficient on the ground in that contest. The Falcons' offensive line flexed its muscles to a degree that was not matched for the remainder of the season (in November and then in the Armed Forces Bowl against Rice). However, one other component of the Falcons' max-out performance was the way in which they passed the ball: sparingly, but effectively, and with a maximum of potency.

Air Force posted a season-high 19.9 yards per pass attempt (and 23.3 yards per completion) against Nevada – that's a demonstration of potency; these weren't cheap bubble-screen or quick-hitch completions for five yards per throw. The Falcons threw the ball only seven times, but they completed six passes (for 139 yards) to bolster their efficiency. Precisely because of the presence of genuine verticality in Air Force's passing attack, Nevada's defense – especially its linebackers – were placed on a pendulum and forced to doubt their level of commitment to run support.

This brief statistical examination underscores a particular point about triple-option passing attacks: The point of a passing game within this style of offense is not to offer "balance for the sake of balance." It's much more targeted and ambitious than that. The point of a triple-option passing game is to take maximum advantage of a stuffed tackle box and the defense's overall attempt to provide as much run support as possible. Getting a handful of really big plays – as opposed to racking up 12 or 15 completions of very modest lengths – is the aim of a triple-option passing game. Five or six completions in a game – if translating to 25 yards per completion and two or three touchdowns – should pry open the running game and plant a smile on the head coach's face. What Air Force did against Nevada is what the Falcons' offense should try to achieve in every game. Six completions in seven attempts for 139 yards with no interceptions – that's a paltry stat line for East Carolina, Arizona State, or Baylor. For Air Force, it's just what the doctor ordered. No wonder the Falcons flourished against Nevada.

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