Matching Up Against AFA's Defense

Coming off of two consecutive losses, the Cougar offense looks to run and pass their way by a tough, effort-based Air Force defense that helped their team defeat conference foes Utah and TCU. Total Blue Sports caught up with some members of the Cougar offense to get the scouting report.

The fighting Falcons of Air Force are currently 3-0, and much of that can be attributed to a defense that may lack in size and speed, but overflows with heart and discipline. When the Cougar offense lines up on the ball, it will see a very familiar defense.

"They like to run a lot of their defense very similar to what we run over here at BYU," said running back Harvey Unga. "They like to mainly run the 3-4-4 defense like we do. It's good because it won't be something too surprising to us as an offense.

"We are very comfortable with how we run things, and facing a defense that we've practice those things on right from the start will make a big difference for us. Seeing a defense that we've been playing against from spring to summer to fall is going to be nice. The offensive linemen will have a good feel for what they'll be doing and know what scheme they'll be blocking, which makes it nice for us running backs."

"It's a great advantage for us," said junior receiver Michael Reed. "We ran that defense last year and we practiced against it, so it's going to benefit us a lot knowing where our reads are. It will also help us go up against teams like New Mexico, which runs this defense as well."

The Cougar offense is expecting to see primarily the 3-4-4 defense. However, there have been times where the Falcons will change up their defense. If they do change their defensive formations, the Cougar offense will be ready.

"Looking at Air Force this year, they seem like a totally new defense on film," said Reed. "They like to run the 3-4-4 defense, but we've seen then run a 4-2 with man coverage against TCU. If they ran that against TCU, we're expecting the same thing. This is a defense that flies around to the ball and makes plays. They look like a totally new defense out there.

"We're expecting a lot of things from Air Force. We really can't say we should expect it because last year they ran a totally different defensive scheme, so we're just kind of basing things off of this year while trying to be careful. We have ideas on what we think we should see."

BYU's offense will definitely have the advantage when they line up across the trenches from a defense they are all too familiar with. The Falcons like to rotate a two-deep roster of defensive ends in 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pound DE Ryan Kemp (#91); 6-foot-4-inch, 265-pound DE Josh Clayton (#97); and 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pounds DE Keith Williams (#79). In the middle at nose guard, the Falcons also rotate 6-foot-5-inch, 265-pound Jake Paulson (#95) and 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound Ben Garland (#93).

"Air Force seems to be unlike any other defense that we've gone up again personnel-wise," said center Tom Sorensen. "They're smaller, scrappier players. As far as their personnel goes, I don't know how well they match up in size and in physicality with our guys, but what they may lack in size and in strength they make up in intensity and in discipline. It will be a good game because they've played some good teams and have come out on top, so we know they're winners."

"These defensive linemen are probably [some] of the more sound defensive players we'll face," said R.J. Willing. "They do their assignments well. They like to play gap control and they play their hardest to stay and control those gaps."

Reed gave a rundown of Air Force's secondary.

"We think we'll see a lot of cover-four and man-coverage from their secondary," said Reed. "What we have to do as receivers is find those holes that open up in their coverage, if they do decide to go that way, and get open. Their cornerbacks aren't that tall, but they're very aggressive. They get into and out of their breaks really well, which means they're very well coached."

Manning the middle of Air Force's 3-4-4 defense will be a rotation of 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound freshman inside linebacker Ken Lamendola (#53); 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound junior Brandon Reeves (#48); 6-foot, 230-pound sophomore Jon Falgout (#45); 6-foot-1-inch, 235-pound senior Aaron Shanor (#51); and 5-foot-11-inch, 230-pound senior Austin Randle (#52). Rounding out the linebackers will be 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound junior Hunter Altman (#32) and 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound senior Drew Fowler (#33).

"They're good linebackers that are similar to the type of linebackers that we have here at BYU," said tight end Andrew George. "They play hard and are an aggressive group of linebackers. The good thing is, it's a defense that we are familiar with since we've faced it a lot here over spring and fall camp at BYU.

"They definitely are a combination-type of a linebacking group. They're kind of a combo of both speed and size. They may not be as fast as some of the linebackers that we've already faced this year, but they'll be just as tough and probably more disciplined. They're an effort-based defense and they're going to bring it to you every play right up until the end."

The strength of BYU's defense lies with the linebackers, something that Air Force has in common.

"I would say [Air Force is] going to use their linebackers much the same way as we do," George said. "I'm expecting them to bring similar blitz packages to what our defense runs, and so it will be something that we've seen and will be able to pick up on Saturday."

When facing a defense the prides itself on the strength of the linebackers, the challenge for the tight ends is finding open spaces within their routes. Although they have some experience facing the 3-4-4 defense in practice, the Cougar tight ends know this is going to be the more challenging part of their game.

"The challenging part about facing the 3-4-4 defense is that they know how to drop back into coverages a lot better, just because they only have the three down-linemen and it's a lot faster defense than a four down-linemen set," said George. "You just have to make sure you find the holes and know how to read [them] because they're moving all over the place."

Being an assignment-sound and disciplined defense was a concept better understood by the Cougar defense following a 55-point outing during the Tulsa game. Those defensive descriptions are also used by the Cougars to describe the nature of Air Force defense.

"They are a team that's three-and-‘o right now and are a defense that's very sound," Unga said. "They're very scrappy-type players and are very consistent. They're a team that makes up with what they may not have in some area by being assignment sound. They always have guys where they need to be at the right place at the right time.

"For the most part they're a very solid defense and are very well coached. They seem to be guys that flow to the ball very well. We've played some teams so far that are really fast and can get to the ball quickly, and this is the same kind of defense that we'll be heading up against this Saturday."

"If I were to look at their defense as a whole I would say they're a defense that relies on being greater as a whole than the sum of their parts," said Willing. "They may not be the most talented guys we'll face this year but I would say they're the most assignment sound and most disciplined guys we'll face all year."

"They fly to the ball very well from what I've seen on film, and are very disciplined as a secondary," said Reed. "We just have to beat them with our technique."

Cougars pay tribute to the men of Air Force

The Cougars of BYU want nothing more than to win their contest against Air Force, but one thing is for sure: these Cougars have expressed a lot of respect and gratitude for the players on that football team.

"They were recruited to the Air Force Academy for a reason," said Sorensen. "Honestly, I appreciate that these guys in the trenches are scrappier in how they play, because that's the kind of guys in our Air Force that I want to have fighting for this country. At the same time, we as an offense have to match their intensity and their discipline."

BYU inside linebacker Kelly Poppinga also expressed his respect and gratitude to the men he will face on the football field this up-and-coming Saturday. Below is an audio interview with Poppinga, in which he shares his thoughts on the men in the Air Force Academy.

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