Harvey Unga is the big question mark here. After being clearly hampered by a sprained ankle last week, Unga has kept off of it for most of this week. Should he be able to go he most likely won't be at full strength, which could hamper the Cougar rushing attack much like it did a week ago.
The Cougars will likely give backups J.J. Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya extended work, while Manase Tonga may be called on more to run the football. All of the backups, as well as Tonga, have proven to be serviceable, although there is a noticeable drop-off from them to Unga.
The Falcons give up 137.5 yards rushing per game while operating out of their base 3-4 defensive alignment, which is often considered more of a 3-3-5 with how they line up. Up front they're experienced yet traditionally undersized along the defensive line.
"They play very hard up front, that's what we've seen on film, but that's how Air Force always is," observed tight end Andrew George. "They're very assignment-sound and don't make mistakes. They'll be a tough challenge."
They'll be led behind the line by their two inside linebackers Justin Moore (5-10, 225 Sr.) and John Falgout (6-0, 225 Sr.). Both players lead the team in tackles and are the primary playmakers for a defense that is one of the tops in the nation in defending both the run and the pass.
Even if Unga is able to go, it's extremely doubtful that he'll be at his best or even close to it. That leaves a lot of questions in regards to how effective BYU will be in running the football. The saving grace here may prove to be reliable backups and an offensive line that has proven to get a good push up front against most opponents.
Look for the Cougars to be effective at running the football, although not dominating to the tune of above 100 yards.
BYU pass defense vs. Air Force
The BYU passing game had been going as consistent as could be under the direction of senior Max Hall before a big hiccup last week in the second half against New Mexico, which left a lot of people scratching their heads. Hall was under-throwing most targets and there were also some uncharacteristic drops from the wideouts.
"Yeah, we stalled for sure for whatever reason," noted George about last week's performance. "It's something that we looked at and I think we figured some stuff out this week and we have a good game plan against Air Force. We should be fine, but Air Force will definitely be a challenge and we'll have to be at our best."
The Falcons field one of the top pass defense units in the entire country, giving up a paltry 127.9 yards per game through the air this season. They'll field a lot of good, young talent in their secondary, where their starting cornerbacks have proven to be a big boost to the overall coverage.
"They're not doing a lot of things differently than what they've done in the past," observed George. "They're just executing at a higher level and that's the difference. They do a lot of similar things that our defense does with zone blitz, but they will run a lot more cover-two than we do with two deep safeties and they do mix it up some. The challenge will be recognizing what those coverages are and being consistent. If we're not, then they'll make you pay for it."
Look for Max Hall and company to rebound nicely after last week's subpar performance. There is too much experience and talent on offense to have a repeat performance of last week. While Air Force has been very effective in defending the pass, they've yet to face an offense with the passing arsenal that BYU presents.
Look for the Cougars to pass for well over 200 yards, even approaching 300 yards. Air Force has traditionally struggled to cover BYU's tight ends, so look for offensive coordinator Robert Anae to have a game plan to exploit this. Dennis Pitta should have one of his bigger outings of the season.
BYU run defense vs. Air Force
Quietly but consistently BYU has proven to be very good against the run this season, leading to a number-18 ranking nationally in defending the run. Since they laid an egg against Florida State in the run department, they've proven to be very stingy indeed.
"We just had a letdown against Florida State, but other than that we've been pretty good at defending the run," noted linebacker Matt Bauman. "Our guys are experienced and we mentally understand what we need to do better and can get where we need to more easily."
Air Force obviously knows how to the run the football and does it often with their triple-option attack. As always, the Cougars will be seeing a steady dose of the run whether it be from dive plays up the middle or quarterback options around the end.
The key position for the Falcons is at quarterback, where they'll field Tim Jefferson (6-0, 200), who doesn't run the ball nearly as often as most Air Force quarterbacks in only averaging 24 yards gained per game. They'll split running back duties between as many as five different players with fullback Jared Tew (6-0, 210 Jr.) and tailback Asher Clark (5-8, 185 So.) as their primary runners.
"They're really the same team we've faced every year that I've been here," noted Bauman. "They run at you the same and they're very effective at it. The key for us will be keeping our assignments, probably more so than in any other game we play this year. The key in defending Air Force is to stay with your assignments and not get out of them, and that's what we'll have to do again and hopefully we'll do it well."
One can gripe about certain things that BYU's defense isn't able to do, but one cannot gripe about their ability in defending the option attack that Air Force presents. BYU has a very good system to defend Air Force with their assignment-heavy defensive system, and look for them to be successful once again come Saturday in holding the Falcons below their season average of 279 yard rushing per game.
BYU pass defense vs. Air Force
BYU's pass defense is coming off some good outings in which it has been able to hold opposing offenses in check. Brian Logan particularly has stepped to the plate with some very good play from his field cornerback position.
Air Force won't attack an opposing defense by throwing the football, but they do use it effectively to keep a defense off balance while trying for a big play over the top of coverage if the occasion arises.
"They'll just run, run, run and run some more, get your safeties to be real aggressive, and then they'll burn you deep, so that's what we'll have to watch for," observed Bauman. ‘Passing obviously isn't their thing, but they can be very effective in doing it from what we've seen on film, so we'll definitely have to watch for that."
The Falcons average 81.8 yards per game through the air while only throwing about 11 passes per game. Their big-play guy in the receiving corps is Jared Fogler (6-5, 205 Jr.), who has accounted for five of the Falcon's seven passing touchdowns on the year and can present some headaches with his superior height.
Air Force might see a matchup opportunity with their tall receivers being matched up against Brian Logan and will try and exploit it. They always seem to manage to throw the ball more against BYU than against other opponents, although they'll rarely if ever go into a straight drop-back passing attack.
Prediction: BYU 27, Air Force 17