Lobo Points of Interest: Falcon Flight

With the "Drama Games" behind them, the Lobos resume MWC play with a trip to Air Force. Anthony-AKA-LetTheFurFly breaks the game down like no other.

Hey, it's still football season! You need proof? Here's the 2014 preview of the Air Force Falcons on Lobo Points of Interest. We have the drop on the games to come and the mid-season form that comes with real football weather.

Shame on you if you're thinking it, but It would be nice to play football on a beach all season. Hey! Angry sports aren't made for nice weather! Sometimes you just don't get what you want!

Count your cheerleader blessings and mourn scarf season as much as you want. Me, I'd rather see my breath, drink something hot and watch the weather be a player as the game stretches on into ugly.

In Colorado Springs' case, lots of air, possible ugly and lots of chill put some mountain in the MWC. Albuquerque moves its team north and onto the fed for Saturday's 1:30 MST (CBS sports network) game. My much, much less noble duty this week is to harken and point out the wrinkles that the Falcons have added to their fresh starch, along with everything we already know about traditional Service Academy football.

Here's a big change: winning. AFA returned 16 from it's porous and government shutdown rattled team in 2013...a team that went without a conference win for the first time (ever!) and sulked to a firing squad's worth of injury in roster and W-L record.....but AFA has spurted to wins against FCS, Sun Belt, rival teams and a miraculous seven turnover rout of regional power Boise State. 4-2 is quite good considering and nearly shows up to this game 5-1 if not for a slop Wyoming touchdown EXTREMELY late on a long drive.

Veteran Lobo fans have a lot of expectation stapled to the Service Academy name and truth be told, the games are usually close, regardless. As far as what we already know, Air Force's multi-OC'ed coaching staff still pulls out a number of things to surprise. When you think Air Force you know:

  • They're going to run the triple option
  • They will match any size disadvantage with extra tenacity
  • They're going to run the triple option, get over it
  • Cut blocking will lead to their big plays
  • They don't discourage easily and keep playing, even late
  • And they might even consider running the triple option

But with that prologue in place the story really begins. There are players on the Air Force roster that many aren't used to seeing and although last year was a slow year for the Falcons, highlighting, circling and sticking a post-it note full of arrows on these players is a good idea. We'll get to both sides of the ball in the next two posts, but let's get a current look at the boys in blue.

Troy Calhoun has got a lot of grief hasn't he? Even from my view you can see it pile up for him in his eight year as Air Force coach. If you wanted to call him pigeon-holed for his current position you could, but it would be hard to imagine him in any other place given his experience and with AFA's unique college football structure. The former AFA QB has maintained a 6-of-8 bowl game streak so far regardless (the year isn't over yet in year 8 of course) and earned plenty of front range ammunition from a tight knit group of football teams.

You know how easy it is to go there with the Calhoun crap right? That itchy, competitive, smack firing trigger finger is a little bit more taut against Air Force. That should say enough by itself...but it also shows just how impressive an eight-year coaching stint is in this day and age. The history is pretty thick at this point and that's a good thing. We're option rivals now but they've been in the neighborhood forever. Baby, that field is already plowed.

(HowdyDoodieHowdyDoodieHowdyDoodie.....there. I said it long enough to get it out of my system. There will be something new to replace it just as quickly, and Calhoun might damn near retire at the academy at this point. It's funny to think a doll name could be Dave Christensen's legacy but I digress)

Calhoun has taken some fairly odd preseason stories and questionable season expectations (one story as a football committee chairman on the NCAA substitution rule and a second on a national blog regarding isolating injured players from the rest of the team until they're healthy)....and turned a lot of it inside out with some wins.

Funny how that works.  

Oh, and don't forget investigation into Cadet conduct in 2010 and 2011....bubbling into the present day report results this week. Even stepping back from a distance, that's an odd number of pre-season paper pushes isn't it? For any squad? Maybe not the kind of pile you want but even opponents stop and notice the stack. Even now there's a lot of writing going on in-and-around the Academy compared to last year. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not good...just weird and eventful. That's definitely new.  

Continuing the unique trend of the only MWC multi-OC lead offense, the Falcons continue to run dual coaches calling the plays. Mike Thiessen and Clay Hendrix are in it for the long haul and are both passing their eight year on the staff as Calhoun hires. Thiessen is a former AFA player (WR coach) and Hendrix has a lot of experience at Furman (FCS; O-line coach). Hey, it's the US government: there's going to be bureaucracy even here.

Defense gets one guy though: Steve Russ, a former player and 13th year coach with a specialty in DB's. Russ did a lot of his work at Wake Forest before coming back to his Alma Mater and has led AFA's 3-4 defense the last three years. Air Force has a lot recruiting in-roads in the south (Georgia and surrounding because of Georgia Tech) and the Carolina connection must assist in that regard.  

Lots of guys that understand how the Academy operates have come back to coach. A lot of the coaches emulate Calhoun in that sense. There's lots of "formers" on this team and how could they not be invited back? With this breed of football team? That's automatic. Being an Air Force coach is a lifestyle job inside a lifestyle job.

Let's look at defense first, then some offense.

The Falcon defense looks in the mirror on Lobo Points of Interest.

The Falcons run as efficient a defense as they can recruit, so the 3-4 is what the doctor orders. It's similar to the UNM D in appearance only but still isn't the same animal. They're slowly filling in larger pieces into areas (such as strong safety and at times, linebacker) but they're still containing as much as they can with the players they have.

Mentioned previously, there's a lot of returning starters from 2013's rep year and being the youngest roster in the country recently has many of these guys in more than just a cameo appearance in someone else's highlights. You can harp on size (and against some resource 5 schools match ups you can harp yourself blue in the face) but without a true nose guard AFA managed plenty good penetration on Boise State...so tapping the brakes should be advised.

Their roster has produced 18 sacks from three types of position and have at least one from ten different players. Many of them are unassisted too. Mr. Strong Safety, (Steelhammer) leads the team with three.

Again, what they can't make up for stature they'll dish out what they learned in basic training. Military Cadets will military on whatever field of battle you put them on. 

I've captured a look against run heavy Navy for the example this week.


The strong safety has crept forward out of the back field for Navy's compacted flexbone look. Even the weak side corner is distracted off his man for run read! As Air Force crowds the box and bets on the hash with more field on it, the OLB (strong side) is subtly falling back into a zone to cover the SS's vacated chunk of the field.

We're not as compact as this Navy form, but there's enough compression left in the pistol (something that Air Force uses themselves I've noticed) that the extra cheat up is warranted. There's a lot of players playing underneath and probably will continue to Saturday.

Of the games I've seen from Air Force, I've notice them dialing up a smidgen more aggression in their play call. It stands out when most of the defense is still read and react. They have to think about controlling as much of the field as they can and can't take too many risks. Air Force doesn't want to be isolated with one guy, saving an entire field from a touchdown. Football is a game of match ups and they lose that fight more often than most football teams do anyway.

As close as they are in the example above and as often as they know run is coming, they're still bound and tethered to their chunk of field because of match ups. They rely on their smarts and tackle mechanics to make up for any bully football that comes their way.

Air Force has recruiting disadvantages that come with the territory of being a Cadet first and a football player second. What should absolutely be pointed out however is the speckling of MWC-esqe defenders wandering into their roster.  

Here's their defense personnel by unit:

Secondary has good sized corners and safeties ranging from 5-10 to 6-1. A special note: Aside from the aptly comic book named Weston Steelhammer (6-2; 200), two of Air Force's regular starting (and biggest) DB's are out this Saturday. This unit pulled five interceptions from Boise (Weston pulled three himself, garnering national awards and an improbable performance to match this season) but haven't really threatened aside from that game.

Spears garnered MWC defensive POW honors against Navy with a clutch, rip-away INT in the end zone. A very nice play that swung points in an eventual tight game.

Steelhammer is only a sophomore but sticks out as a guy that's ahead of schedule and a young leader on a field looking for more chiefs. Just keep the ginger jokes to yourself. This kid is a good weapon that could play on a lot of MWC rosters.

Linebackers top out at 240 but are generally sub-230lbs and below. Some are even closer to 215. Senior Joey Nichol and Senior Jordan Pierce are likely out, removing more seniority from the field and their leading tackler in Pierce's case. Air Force has to fight us with lighter players on the edges and use younger size for this game. They're fast enough to keep up but will it be enough?

D-line uses a variety of defensive end sized lineman that range from 240-270lbs. Without a true tackle, they count on using their hands and speed to get the gap they need. Again, that doesn't mean they don't have help in the middle from the inside linebackers: the Falcons have used linebacker cross blitzes to use dead gap space from three wide rushing lineman. They stir around the pot to get what they need.

The D-line might be the only piece of this team unaffected by injury as well.

Now lets spend some time catching up with yet another AFA evolution with a new (to us) QB.

So explaining the triple option shouldn't be a problem right? UNM sees it all the time in practice don't we? There's so much we know about AFA that we couldn't possibly face much more from their offense...?

Yes. This is absolutely true. Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Sweet. Time for some shut eye.
 
Wait what do you mean? There's nothing more to it?

Nope, you've learned all that I can teach. That's it....

Although, next semester I'll be giving a quick instructional on how to pep up deflated cocktail parties, what BBQ sauce complements morose binge eating and proper venting techniques that are 100% renter insurance friendly.

Hey! You should sign up. I have a good feeling you'll do some good things.

*sigh* This is going to be another long one isn't it?

Game or article?

Both.

Article, yes. Game...we'll have to find out.

It just isn't going to get easier. Air Force's offense drives home just how much sits with the QB in your system. This season has centered around Senior Kale Pearson So much so that we can reasonably tell the styles  coming down the pipe when he's under center.

I'll qualify all this "change" hype at least a little bit: the triple option is still very much a base for the Falcons. That much will never, ever change. Pearson, however, is one AFA QB exception to the rule in a long line of run option operators. He actually looks level headed and sure footed at passing accurately...maybe even a little more comfortably than pitching and pulling the ball. Watching Pearson play (5'9"; 175) makes me wonder about his journey to the academy and how that peg entered Coach Calhoun's radar in the first place. It's a different fit for sure.

Pearson went out for the year in the first game of 2013 (ACL) while the Falcons used four different QB's during the 2013 season. Some of these QB's have since been dismissed from the Academy entirely or are now lying in wait with this variation to adjust to.

The Falcons have a blend of triple option, conventional running and play action pass in their latest version. The triple is diluted to the point where it's roughly one in three common plays with more combinations that come from Pearson's short to medium ranged tosses. Observed combinations:

  • Flexbone triple option; speed option
  • Straight head dive running with lead blockers
  • Play action out of option and dive/toss running
  • Zone read dive play action (pistol depth) to hitch WR (option)
  • Tempo work out of conventional triple option forms
  • Screen out of conventional run formations
  • Occasional home run "trickeration": double passes from receivers

Pearson seems to get more looks that resemble pro-style, older west coast offenses and the team falls back on triple option when it can find a way to mix it up. AFA is slowly creeping in some large possession receivers, tight ends for this style and the number of runs is keeping the QB roster more healthy in the meantime.

Pearson is banged up though. He's probable for Saturday and has practiced as early as Tuesday: he suffers from a sprain to the shoulder of his non-throwing arm. Six games and he's still kicking.

Kicking in the sense of not having any casts yet, I mean..

Take a look at a screen play that AFA used after straight ahead running to daylight a couple times.


After using a surprising amount of dives and pistol zone read, Air Force threw this out against Navy late in their game and after some conservative stops to their run game. They pretty much ran at will most of the 3rd quarter by using moderate tempo work and running after halftime...this after a first half of 100+ passing yards and a double throw for a touchdown. Rivalry game ho!

The RB goes in motion out of this "I" formation and a lighter, 6-4 receiving TE lines up in the slot above.

The ball is snapped and the screen develops:


The FB picks up the pass block while the bubble screen unfolds. There's two things already going good for Air Force at this point late in the game: they've already run a double pass out of this formation for a touchdown and they've run up and down the field the quarter previously to much success. Now they throw something else after 10+ reps played and a mountain of expectation in front of them.

Robinette (WR labeled above) is an overly sized prospect for the typical academy WR standards and is yet another piece that could play on a lot of different MWC squads: 6-3; 220; good speed for his size. The Falcons have surprising tall tight ends with several 6-4 guys ranging from 225-240. That's a very unusual set for the triple option theme underneath and Pearson's comfortable throwing motion makes the 2014 Falcons surprisingly balanced. Stat wise the passing numbers aren't going to turn too many heads (or ranks), but the blend that's cooking here makes AFA less predictable.

The trade off is a less prolific, simplified (perhaps less explosive) option running game, although AFA has left in fullbacks and tight ends to help with the dive. Protecting the QB (by having him distribute less) has worked for the flow, so long as he can connect the dots with his arm. The offense isn't too strenuous and doesn't demand a lot of tosses beyond the intermediate. Underneath options let the system breathe.

Let's look at personnel:

O-Line tops out at 285 and can dip to a surprising 240. Any other school and this might be place to raise an substantial eyebrow but AFA seems to get along okay with this group. It's not a golden ticket to the promise land. They've lost a couple lineman to injury although they're both developmental (looking) underclassmen. They were lost early in the season and will still be out by Saturday's game.

Tight ends/WR: Surprise, surprise....young Robinette is the leading receiver. He looks to be a four year starter immediately and is already halfway there as a true sophomore. For the number of 6-2 to 6-4 tight ends the falcons have, I'm surprised they only have Garrett Griffin (6-4; 225) register with receiving yards. There's a gaggle of lighter tight ends and a few blocking guys north of 230-240. Garrett Brown (5-9; 175) is the speed threat and has 5 TD's this season. Most of the receiving corps are upperclassmen.

Running backs are plentiful but J. Owens and D. Rushing carry the mail. The tandem of Owens and (QB) Pearson combine for a super majority of the rushing yards. There's some heavier fullback types on the roster (and one 245 guy still lost to injury) but most of the rushing is executed by balanced speed and balanced sized 175-180 type running backs. This slate is fairly well rounded and has to do a lot of roles in this offense overall; including pass block.

Other QB's on the roster all have some starts from last year's fray, but less injuries have calmed down the playing time they've seen this year. Nate Romine (Sophomore from last year's game) and others have starting experience but Pearson has taken most of the snaps. It's possible to see a comfort level shift in this offense if another QB is thrust into this game but the triple option backbone seems a likely security blanket in that situation.


So that should sum up the Falcons. I'll take any questions you might have.

Thanks for reading and Go Lobos!


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