Navy Opponent Preview: Air Force

Navy’s fourth game of the 2015 season sees the Mids competing in the first round of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy with the visit of Air Force to Annapolis. As always a win is vital in this game if Navy wants the annual clash with Army at the end of the season to hold more importance than just Academy bragging rights.

2014 Record: 10-3 (5-3 in the Mountain West Conference) – Beat Western Michigan 38-24 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Series Record: Navy trails 19-28 in a series which dates back to a first meeting in 1960, which Navy won 35-3. The series has been dominated by long winning periods with Air Force winning 19-of-21 from 1982-2002 and Navy winning 9-of-12 from 2003 until the present day.

Last Meeting: Last season Air Force held off a late Navy rally to take the game 30-21 and in doing so taking the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy out of the Mids hands. Air Force used a surprising passing attack to beat the Mids, with Kale Pearson passing for three touchdowns on the day including the game sealer to Garrett Brown with just 35 seconds remaining.

Head Coach: Troy Calhoun is entering his ninth season as the Falcons head coach with a 59-44 (.573) win/loss record. This is Calhoun’s first head coaching job after spending time as an offensive coordinator in college (Ohio/Wake Forest) and the NFL (Houston Texans). Calhoun, and Air Force grad, has had only one losing regular season (2-10 in 2013) with the Falcons.

Spring News: Air Force is another of the growing list of schools that has really toned down spring ball from where it was a decade ago. The Falcons had to deal with a bunch of nagging injuries this spring, which turned a planned spring game into nothing more than a light scrimmage with no starters participating. This though proved to be useful as it allowed a number of game situation reps for players who do not normally get that experience. This is something coach Calhoun hopes will provide dividends down the road.

Projected Strengths: Air Force returns practically all the skill position players which saw the team go from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-3 last fall. This will give new (old) quarterback Nate Romine plenty of weapons at his disposal as he works his way back into the offense. The running game will be everything you expect, but it is the passing game which is turning heads as Air Force has added more of a passing threat to its playbook than the other heavy option teams recently. The reason for this is a trio of pass catchers who would look at home in BCS passing attacks, let alone a run first university. Jalen Robinette, Garrett Brown and tight end Garrett Griffin are all dominant threats downfield.

The biggest reason for the huge jump in performance last year was coaching, and specifically coaching on the defensive side of the ball. Calhoun learned from his mistakes in 2013 and hired a new, veteran defensive coaching staff which worked wonders with the same players who had fallen apart the previous year. The good news for the Falcons is that this band has stayed together and there is little reason to think that they won’t be able to coach up the new crop of players to a similar level eventually.

Projected Weaknesses: The Air Force defense was a sack machine in 2014, bursting out of nowhere to become one of the better defensive units in the country. The problem is that the Falcons lose the bulk of that sack production, especially from the defensive line and linebacker spots. With Jordan Pierce, Troy Timmerman and Spencer Proctor (and their 15.5 sacks) all having graduated, the pressure will be on senior Alex Hansen to pick up the Air Force pass rush. For the defense to be effective again he will have to double his 3.5 sacks from a year ago.

Like the defensive front seven, the Air Force secondary has also lost playmakers from a year ago. Last year the Falcons relied on two active safeties and two steady corners to take advantage of teams having to pass when faced with their tough run defense. Three of those starters, however, have graduated, and while the reserves are athletic and rangy they will still have to take on much larger roles than they did a year ago. The one holdover is the stunningly named Weston Steelhammer who proved to be a ballhawk extraordinaire in 2014.

Prediction: This game is going to be all about offense. Air Force has skill position players who are at a historical level for the school. There will be many games this year where that group scores 35+ points. The counter to that is that with all the turnover on defense the Falcons may need to be close to 40 points a game to win, especially against an offense as dominating and smooth as Navy’s. There is a revenge factor in this one too and you have to believe Keenan Reynolds will will the Mids to victory and take them a step closer to the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy during his senior season.

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