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Air Force Falls to #20 Boise State on Friday Night

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Battling a QB1 injury and a tough Broncos team, Air Force just couldn’t get the win in Boise.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

It’s nearly impossible for me to maintain any sort of objectivity after watching the Falcons fall to Boise State on the blue turf, so I’m not really even going to try. This loss stings. If we think way back to a month ago, the analysts saw a recovering Air Force team and wrote them off as an 7-5 squad at best. Sure, they were improved, but no one saw them as being a part of the Mountain West conversation with what looked like Boise State and Fresno State leading the conference by a wide margin.

Since then, Air Force has exceeded expectations, both in record and from the eyeball test. As of Thursday, ESPN’s FPI matchup predictor had Air Force finishing their season at 11-1, and honestly, I don’t think this loss to a legitimate Boise State team should change that outlook.

As it stands, the Falcons are now 0-1 in conference play. There’s no way to spin it - a loss to a division rival is not a good thing and could hurt the team down the road for conference standings and bowl implications, making any sort of statement on Mountain West standings at this point would be imprudent. After all, Air Force now technically sits dead last in the Mountain Division as they and Boise State are the only two teams to have played a conference game. Although the Falcons may not totally control their fate in that regard, this is far from being an unrecoverable situation, and I don’t think they’ll be behind New Mexico and Colorado State for long.

Let’s break down what happened:

Timid play-calling and unpreparedness for injury

Air Force maintained possession for 34:12. They stayed on offense for longer than they did in the other two games against Colorado and Colgate. That’s great, but even before DJ Hammond went down with an injury to his ankle, it was clear that Air Force wanted to control the pace and keep the game as close as they could to have a shot at winning it in the end. On their first two drives, Air Force followed the run - run - run - first down, run - run - pass - punt progression. Birdow took a majority of the carries on fullback draws instead of giving a Kade Remsberg a chance to open up the field and try to work the perimeters. It’s certainly not a bad thing that these two drives which resulted in a punt took 8:17 off the clock and were pretty successful against a lethal Boise defense - and I mean seriously lethal. NT Sonatane Lui had 16 tackles, S Khafari Buffalo had 11 tackles, LB Riley Whimpey had 10 tackles, and LB Ezekiel Noa also had 10. Air Force and Boise State went into the half with a 10-10 score, and to an extent, it felt like the Falcons were taking a page from Army’s book, that is, controlling the pace and saving their scoring drives without forcing anything. It worked well, until DJ Hammond came off the field with a hurt ankle in the second half, and returned while obviously not being at full strength.

The second half was where the play-calling was really puzzling. Isaiah Sanders filled in seamlessly, as if he were the starter all along. His first play of the second half was a 19 yard pass to Geraud Sanders. After that, however, it just looked like he was running Donald Hammond’s game plan despite having a totally different skill set. He was perfect in his two passes for 30 yards, but the runs designed for Hammond’s style simply didn’t suit him.

When Hammond ultimately returned, it was clear that he wasn’t the same player we saw in the first half and against Colorado and Colgate. He completed a pass in the first drive, but Air Force leaned heavily on Taven Birdow, which was obvious to the Broncos defense that Hammond’s running abilities would be limited. While the game still seemed to be in reach with 7:17 left in the fourth quarter, things would take a turn for the worse when a pass into double coverage resulted in an interception by Boise State’s Kekaula Kaniho. The excellent field position set the Broncos up for a 5-play, 27 yard touchdown drive. Air Force marched 75 yard down the field on the next drive, but after eating up two minutes, a 30-19 score would prove to be insurmountable.

Overall, the play-calling wasn’t detrimental. It’s fair to say that if DJ Hammond stayed healthy for the entire game, it may have been a different story. It just seemed like the coaching staff wasn’t well-prepared for a scenario where Isaiah Sanders has to be called in. The Falcons are in a unique situation because Sanders truly is a weapon, but it cannot be expected that he will thrive in a system built around Hammond’s quick throwing motion and hard-nosed running style. Sanders fares well in a more traditional triple option system and although we’re splitting hairs in discussing variants of the option, it’s clear that Hammond thrives in a modified option, which is what the offense is now geared towards this season. If this situation ever arises again where Hammond has to come out and Sanders goes in, and it likely will, they need to be prepared to shift to his playing style and I believe they can ultimately pull out a convincing win over good teams.

Lack of big plays

What I am suggesting is really patently ridiculous. That is, Air Force needs to force big turnovers once or twice a game and capitalize to put points on the board. How do you even game plan for that? It would be insane to rely on a strategy where a recovered fumble, an interception, or a huge break-away touchdown run are factored in for most teams, but with the quality of Air Force’s running backs and defense, I think it’s a somewhat realistic expectation.

I wouldn’t necessarily say this is something to improve upon, it’s more so just a statement of fact. Big plays are what break up the monotonous grind of run-based football, but this game was just lacking. It’s certainly due to to Boise State’s tight play, but we can point to the biggest plays of Air Force’s game as the catalysts which led to scoring. A 31 yard pass to Geraud Sanders was for a touchdown and the longest run of the night, a 20 yarder from Timothy Jackson, led to a field goal. Even conversely, Air Force’s lone turnover, a fourth quarter interception, resulted in a Boise State touchdown.

Limiting mistakes and capitalizing on the opponent’s mistakes is a hallmark of a team that likes to control the pace of the game. If you rely on taking the clock down with four and five minute drives, you better come away with some points or else you’ll be in a hole if the opposition can get on the board.

Positives

I can’t say enough that this loss stings. It absolutely does - and I’m not placating by saying that there were a lot of positives. If there weren’t, I would end the article here and just say we’ll keep an eye out for the rest of the season. All in all, Air Force played a great game, but when you’re playing a top 20 team, and the best team outside of the power five conferences, everything has to be working congruently to come away with a win.

The defense played great. They let up three touchdowns and a field goal on straight up drives and the final touchdown came as a result of an interception which started Boise State in the red zone. Jeremy Fejedelem, Lakota Wills, Demonte Meeks, Garrett Kauppila, Zane Lewis, Kyle Johnson, Tre Bugg, Jordan Jackson, and more all had plays that can be characterized as ‘huge.’ The simple fact is that Hank Bachmeier is a legitimately great quarterback and his targets of Thomas, Hightower, and Bates all have NFL-quality talent. I absolutely would not be surprised if this is the most points Air Force gives up for the rest of the season and the scoreboard is more of an indication of how good this Boise Team really is.

Air Force’s offense had to deal with the adversity we already established as Hammond was out. The coaching staff had a tough decision to make when he was healthy enough to go back in, but the offense played the hand they were dealt. Taven Birdow never wavered in the second half, even when Boise State had figured out that he would get the majority of the carries. He ran hard and fought for yardage. I’ll reiterate what I said after the first game about the running back rotation as well. Taven Birdow/ Kade Remsberg and Timothy Jackson/ Josh Stoner are both quality combinations that can keep Air Force rolling.

Air Force kicker Jake Koehnke is a player I haven’t given nearly enough credit to this season. He’s gotten the short end of the stick with two of his PATs being blocked this season, but he is what I would call a scrappy kicker. He nailed a 47 yarder against Colorado which helped the Falcons get to overtime and made both field goals against Boise State, a 30 yarder and 31 yarder. With Fresno State, Hawaii, and Army left on the schedule, his leg will likely become critical in at least one of these matchups.

I went through several stages of thoughts in this game. At the half, I considered the implications of what a win would mean. I got excited at the thought of a national ranking, being the best group of five team in the FBS, and taking an early jump on the Mountain West. The loss really brought me back down to earth, and maybe this is sour grapes, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t a bad thing to temper our expectations. Certainly a win is never a bad thing, but plunging ourselves into the national spotlight after two losing seasons, before the CiC race even begins could have adverse affects. At 2-1, the Falcons are still in a great spot. Now they have a relatively easy game against a 1-1 San Jose State team who will come to Colorado Springs on a short week after playing Arkansas today, then the real fun begins as we look ahead to Navy.