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Bye Week Stand Down: Here’s how Air Force football can improve after its loss to FAU

The Air Force Falcons are entering a bye week before starting conference play. With the right mindset, this week can set the tone for the rest of the season.

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Air Force Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Air Force Falcons are now entering an off week after finishing up a short two-game stretch against Stony Brook and Florida Atlantic University with a lot of lessons learned. We’ve seen Air Force’s ability to expose a weaker opponent in the first game, but we’ve also seen how Air Force is able to stand up to a strong offensive opponent at FAU.

Now with a week off before opening conference play against Utah State, the Falcons have a lot of decisions to make in order to optimize the deep talent they have on both sides of the ball. Here are some thoughts on where the team stands two games in, and what they will need to do in order to solidify their status in the Mountain West Conference and Commander-in-Chief’s race the rest of the season.

Continue Exploring New Found Offensive Strengths

The Falcons took a calculated risk last Saturday by allowing junior quarterback Isaiah Sanders to throw the ball and it paid off. By completing 8 of 13 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown with five receivers achieving double digit yardages, it is evident that Air Force has every reason to consider implementing a more robust passing package into its standard offensive set. As receivers like Marcus Bennett, Ronald Cleveland, and Geraud Sanders get more comfortable catching passes in clutch situations, the passing game will no longer be a last-ditch effort to stun strong defenses, but it will be a weapon to compete with the top contenders of the Mountain West.

The challenge Air Force will face is balancing the quarterback situation. If Air Force wants to create a battle for the starting spot between the senior Aarion Worthman and Sanders, that battle needs to happen this week. Drawing out the conversation as to who will be starting can potentially have negative effects if Coaches Mike Theissen and Troy Calhoun fail to allow one of the quarterbacks to settle into a leadership role.

Conversely, if Air Force decides to go with a two quarterback system, that should be established this week as well and the Falcons should stick to it. It would certainly be unorthodox, but if the coaches lay out their goals and expectations early, it’s a completely reasonable move. The Falcons can even draw from what their service academy counterparts at Navy are doing with last year’s starter Zach Abey now playing wide receiver but remaining the QB in short yardage situations, and their new man at the helm Malcolm Perry starting at quarterback for the majority of the snaps.

It’s clear that the Falcons see themselves as a team offense. That is, one guy doesn’t need to carry the entire team on its back, which makes sense given that Air Force plays a brand of hard hitting football that could put a lot of physical strain on their personnel if players are worked too hard. That being said, allowing backfield players to get comfortable and find a rhythm on the field is just as important to success during conference play.

Establish a consistent running back cycle

In a similar sense to the quarterback situation, the Falcons have no shortage of capable backs to carry the ball. Although the game against FAU proved a measure of success in the passing game, the Falcons cannot abandon their bread and butter, the triple option. Cole Fagan continued to show his ability to hammer the run up the middle, racking up 80 yards on 16 carries. Nolan Erikson also ran for 44 yards on 8 carries with a goal line touchdown. It would seem that this is a fine duo to carry the Falcons run game, but we can’t forget about Taven Birdow and Joseph Saucier, who both received limited carries against FAU, but are capable runners in their own right.

Although the run game was effective against Stony Brook and FAU, one of the glaring problems that needs to be addressed is third down conversions. Air Force only converted 2 out of their 11 third downs, calling into question the play calling more than the ability of run game, but we have to wonder if the answer to converting on third down lies with the running backs.

There is a sense that the decision of how many carries to give each running back is made chaotically. It was unclear if the plan was to rotate running backs based on a set number of plays, drives, or based on the situation. If the Falcons coaching staff want to increase the third down efficiency percentage, there needs to be players who can carry the ball for 6 or 7 yards in clutch situations. Defenses are often well-prepared for the quarterback draw and the Falcons’ line is usually unsuited to push the defensive line enough to allow a fullback to gain that kind of yardage.

If the Falcons can find a consistent rotation, even if it doesn’t trip up defenses, it will likely benefit them on third downs by having a go-to runner.

Make Small Tweaks on Defense

One of the most impressive game notes from the trip to play FAU was the score in relation to FAU quarterback Chris Robison’s passing statistics. He threw for 471 yards, completing 33 of his 41 passes. Coupled with Devin Singletary at running back, the FAU offense was primed to put up huge points on the scoreboard.

Yet Air Force managed to stop FAU fairly effectively. It may not have been evident as FAU marched down the field to score with two and a half minutes left in the first half in a deadly hurry-up offensive set, but the Falcons were able to stop FAU in their own right. Two first quarter drives were held to field goals and the Owls were only able to convert 7 of their 13 third downs.

33 points is a manageable score to hold most teams to for Air Force. After all, the Falcons were able to take the game down to the wire with a scoring opportunity to close out the game.

If changes need to be made, it needs to be made at the line, pressuring the quarterback, and preventing quarterbacks from gaining yards after busted plays. Garrett Kauppila has established himself as a strong leader on defense, collecting 9 tackles in the last game.

Entering conference play, management is going to be key. Realizing that every team won’t be completely shut out is important, but getting the ball back into the offense’s hands is critical. The defense needs to step up and force a fumble every now and then, but continuing to prevent the long ball and stop offenses from gaining momentum should be a focus in the off week.

Air Force has shown that the rebuilding era may be over for at least a few years. I have consistently said that the depth of Air Force’s roster can be a major strength if it is coached correctly. If the team can make the most of this off week, they can certainly start racking up conference wins before Navy comes to play in Falcon Stadium. In addition to work and preparation, hopefully the Falcons can rest up and get ready to hit the ground running.