One of these teams is 3-1. One of them is 2-3. Probably not the ones you would have expected back in August.
Well maybe you would’ve since you’d have known by looking at the schedule that Air Force would only have played 4 games by this point, but you get the idea. Compared to where most people figured Navy and Air Force would be right now, we have a bit of role reversal. Navy, the 9-win team in 2013 with a lot of returning experience, is the one licking its wounds. Air Force, on the other hand, is off to a great start. It’s not really that much of a surprise that Air Force is 3-1, though. We all knew they’d beat Nicholls State and Georgia State; we just thought the third win would come against Wyoming instead of Boise State.
That’s because it’s hard to imagine Boise losing to a team that’s coming off of the worst season in its history. Air Force was 2-10 a year ago, going winless in the Mountain West, finishing last in the conference in offense, and giving up 40 points per game on defense. The Falcons were just 91st in the nation in total offense, which is even worse than it sounds when you consider that they played in a conference where 8 of its 12 members ranked 95th or lower in total defense. Of course, one of those defenses was Air Force’s. It had been 33 years since the last time Air Force won only 2 games, and that was early in Ken Hatfield’s tenure when he inherited a program that had endured 5-straight losing seasons. Troy Calhoun is overseeing a period of steady decline since his 9-4 high water mark in 2010.
How could things have gone south so quickly? You could argue that Air Force just endured a string of bad luck last year. With a season-ending injury to Kale Pearson and the suspension of his backup, Jaleel Awini, Air Force found itself having to juggle between its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks virtually all season. Air Force isn’t the only team that would have a tough time handling that scenario. It wouldn’t just affect the offense, either; any defense that’s constantly on the field because of a struggling offense is bound to give up some points. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though, and judging by the turnover in the Air Force coaching staff this past offseason, I don’t think Troy Calhoun thought so, either.
There might be more to it than even that. I wonder just how much Air Force’s off-field issues have really affected this team. The Air Force Academy has never exactly been forthcoming when it comes to bad news in its athletic department. While we’ve heard of two or three players being dismissed from the football program, it wasn’t until the most recent round of articles in the Gazette that we learned just how many were involved in the Academy’s latest troubles. It’s quite a few, and that’s on top of the players that just left the school/program by their own choosing. I’ve also heard talk of significant attrition at the prep school, although that’s only anecdotal at this point. Still, the program has lost a lot of players. It’s possible that Air Force is playing guys that, when they first came to Colorado Springs, weren’t the players that Air Force’s coaches were planning on starting. This is admittedly all speculation, but when a team goes from being a regular winner to 2-10 so quickly, you have to think that there’s more to it than just the quarterback.
That makes this an important season for Troy Calhoun. With Air Force trending down for a few seasons now, at some point you have to believe that Calhoun is coaching for his job. He isn’t going to be fired after this year no matter how Air Force’s season goes; Air Force AD Hans Mueh is retiring and won’t want to go through that whole mess on the way out the door. His successor, on the other hand, might have an itchier trigger finger if 2015 is another down year. New ADs like to hire their own guys. With recent scandals painting Calhoun and his program in a less than favorable light, another losing season would make it a pretty easy decision to let Calhoun go. Win this year, and it becomes a tougher decision to make.
Fortunately for Calhoun, if the problem really did boil down to losing his quarterback last season, that problem would appear to be solved. Kale Pearson is healthy again after tearing his ACL in the Falcons’ 2013 opener against Colgate. Pearson’s speed was considered to be his greatest asset, so there might have been some concern that he’d lose a step or two coming off a serious knee injury. Not anymore. If Pearson is any slower now, you sure can’t tell after running for 127 yards against Boise State. He’s also developed a bit of a passing game, something that was not considered his strong suit. Pearson threw for 226 yards against Wyoming, then followed that up with a 12-15, 224-yard performance at Georgia State. It’s added a dimension to the Air Force offense that we aren’t used to seeing.
Still, I’m not entirely sold on the whole idea of Air Force’s offense being back on track. The Falcons’ biggest problem on offense that year was their inability to run the triple option. It’s not that surprising, considering how young their quarterbacks were. It can take time to learn the right reads. Air Force would run plays that their QBs could handle, but without the ability to run the triple, they had a hard time matching the defense adjustment for adjustment. Air Force lost 10 games last year, but they were within 1 score or winning at halftime in half of them. Once defenses figured out what the Falcons were doing, though, it all fell apart. Air Force was outscored 214-90 in the second half of their 10 losses, including 21-0 against Navy.
That was last year, but I don’t think that things have changed as much as it appears on the surface. Air Force is 3-1, so obviously that’s different. Watching Air Force’s games, though, they still don’t appear to be running very much triple. They barely ran any against Wyoming. They appeared to run more against Georgia State, but that defense is about as challenging as Air Force’s scout team. Against Boise they ran it a little bit, but most of the option plays were of the zone read variety out of the shotgun. Even when Air Force did run the triple, the Broncos were using the cross charge every time. There was barely a read to make since Pearson knew what was coming. Besides, if Air Force was running the triple, you’d figure that the fullback would be a bigger part of the offense. Instead, their leading FB is Broam Hart, averaging only 23.2 yards per game. I get the feeling that Air Force has thrown the ball so much because they have to; they need to add something to make up for not running the triple. That, or maybe this is finally the offense that Troy Calhoun said he wanted to run back when he first arrived. I doubt it, though.
To me, that’s the story of the game. Is Air Force able to run the triple? We’ll know the answer early on, and that will tell us how the game is going to go. Air Force’s defense has always liked to bring a lot of pressure against the Navy offense, running perimeter stunts and firing the corners. The Mids have had mixed results handling that kind of pressure so far this season. If Air Force isn’t able to run the triple, then the Mids should be able to pull away in the second half as long as they keep things close in the first. The offense, even with Pearson’s passing, just isn’t as good without it. If Air Force does run the triple… Well buckle up, because game on. It’ll be another in a long line of close games between these two teams.
This would be an important game even without Commander-in-Chief’s trophy implications. There’s a huge difference between 2-4 and 3-3. Navy was 3-3 after 6 games last year, and ended up winning 9. A win here could serve as a springboard for the rest of the season. At 2-4, the margin for error becomes awfully small for putting together a winning season and getting to the Poinsettia Bowl. I do feel that Navy is the better team here, but Air Force has no reason to believe that. In the end, nobody cares who the better team is. They care about who wins, and the two aren’t always synonymous. “Better” is a matter of debate, but winning is earned.