BYU will open up Mountain West Conference play this week as it heads to Colorado Springs to face Air Force. Air Force has become the perennial 4th place team in the MWC, finishing behind TCU, BYU, and Utah, but usually ahead of everyone else.
Air Force brings with it a unique challenge, as their offense is primarily based on the run. Last year they had the nation’s third best run offense with 283.5 yards per game; while their passing was ranked 117th, with an average of fewer than 90 yards per game. The contrast between Air Force and the rest of the teams BYU will face this season is great, and Coach Mendenhall said this game immediately stood out to him as a tough one when he first saw the schedule for this year – the game comes in between BCS AQ foes Washington and Florida State.
What we learned about Air Force in Week 1
Usually by the second week of the season, you can at least have some idea about how well your upcoming opponent is playing based on their performance the week before. Air Force did play in week 1, but they played Northwestern State of the Southland Conference. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of either Northwestern State OR their conference, so I looked them up. Turns out that it’s an FCS school that didn’t win a game last season. 0-11. So, the fact that Air Force beat them 65-21 really tells us nothing. The only thing I can tell you is that Baylor and Houston both put up similar numbers against Northwestern State last year.
What we learned about BYU in Week 1
We learned that the two quarterback system is working for now. I would expect to see Nelson and Heaps continue to alternate even reps, so long as one or the other doesn’t start to make huge mistakes. We also learned that JJ Di Luigi is more than willing to step up and fill the role that Harvey Unga left vacant. Di Luigi led the Cougars in both receiving yards and rushing yards last week. We learned that BYU’s young front seven are capable players, and were able to contain Jake Locker quite effectively. An lastly, special teams helped win the game last week. BYU punter Riley Stephenson was named MWC Special Teams player of the week for having 3 punts and 3 kickoffs behind the 20 yard line. Two more kickoffs were touchbacks.
Keys to the game
BYU will have to stop the run. This will be a significant test for their young front seven defenders. Last year BYU beat Air Force 38-21 was able to hold them to just 212 rushing yards, well below their average for the season. Air Force does not return any starters from their offensive line, though the OL isn’t necessarily young. The battle between the Cougars D-line and the Falcons O-line will be a key factor in determining the outcome of the game. The team with greater conditioning will win the battle in the trenches, as Air Force will continue to run, and run, and run. Whichever side fatigues first will end up giving way.
Ball control. In the contest last year, BYU and Air Force combined for 7 turnovers. Of the 4 turnovers by Air Force, BYU was able to convert 3 of them into touchdowns.
Air Force will have to find a way to stop both Nelson and Heaps. While it can be argued that it’s equally hard for the offense to switch quarterbacks each series, it also takes a mental toll on the defense. They always have to be aware of which QB is in, and switch gears every time they get on the field. With Heaps they may have to dodge the bullets he’s throwing around, and with Nelson, they have to keep an eye on his arm and his legs as he will run for it when he sees a hole. Even if they can stop one quarterback, the other one will be out for the next series anyway. This will be an interesting test for a defense that really hasn’t had one yet. As with BYU, Air Force is returning a great secondary, but they lost a lot of other defensive starters this year.
Special Teams. Sometimes they’re not really a factor; sometimes they win games. Special teams were huge against Washington last week. Against a tough conference opponent, they may just make the difference in this game too.
BYU has won the last six games against the Falcons, but make no mistake, the Falcons are looking for a way to break into the top three in the conference, and they see this as a rivalry game. Bronco will no doubt have the team entirely focused on Air Force, but it would be easy to get caught looking ahead to Florida State next week. I think BYU wins a closer one than last year. The call, from my season preview: BYU 28, Air Force 14.