Air Force (1-0) at Wyoming (1-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 6, 10:15 p.m. (ET).
FACTS & STATS: Site: War Memorial Stadium (30,514) -- Laramie, Wyoming. Television: ESPNU. Home Record: Air Force 1-0, Wyoming 1-0. Away Record: Air Force 0-0, Wyoming 0-0. Neutral Record: Air Force 0-0, Wyoming 0-0. Conference Record: Air Force 0-0, Wyoming 0-0. Series Record: Air Force leads, 27-22-3.
GAME NOTES: The Mountain West Conference schedule kicks into gear this weekend, as the Air Force Falcons pay a visit to the Wyoming Cowboys at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.
The Falcons are coming off a very disappointing 2013 campaign in which they won a total of just two games, with only one of those coming against another program from the Football Bowl Subdivision (Army). The squad came up empty in all eight MWC outings as well, not exactly the sort of season the Academy was planning after making it to the Armed Forces Bowl at the conclusion of the 2012 campaign.
On a more positive note, Air Force kicked off 2014 with a resounding 44-16 triumph against visiting Nicholls State last weekend, giving head coach Troy Calhoun his 50th career victory.
As for the Cowboys, a squad that also took a step back a season ago with a record of 5-7 (3-5 in league action), it too began this new campaign on the right foot, although the 17-12 win against Montana at home wasn't nearly as convincing as that of the Falcons.
Air Force may have a 27-22-3 advantage in the all-time series, but it was the Cowboys who beat up on the Academy last season, 56-23. The road team has won four straight in the series, while six of the last nine matchups have been decided by one possession.
After finishing 12th in the nation in rushing last season with an average of 262.7 ypg, the Falcons made sure that they began with an offensive ground attack that would not soon be forgotten when they faced Nicholls State. Jacobi Owens feasted on the Colonels as he ran for a game-high 233 yards on 23 carries, easily outpacing the entire Nicholls State squad which tallied a mere 63 net yards on 30 attempts.
While Owens may have failed to find his way into the end zone, he was the catalyst for several of his teammates and their scoring runs, a total of six in all. Devin Rushing gained 55 yards and posted a pair of TDs on seven carries, helping to offset a mediocre passing attack (even by Air Force standards) that saw Kale Pearson complete half of his six pass attempts for a mere 19 yards.
Last season, the Falcons began to open up their offense and challenged opposing secondaries by throwing for 104.9 ypg, which was still 121st in the national rankings.
Against the Colonels, Air Force was guilty of being a bit too lenient with the pass defense as the visitors converted 18-of-31 passes for 200 yards and a score, although the hosts did manage to come up with five total sacks nonetheless. Defensive back Weston Steelhammer had just two tackles in the meeting, yet both were sacks, while Alex Hansen also made an impact with a blocked kick.
Defense was a major issue for the Falcons last season as the team ranked 119th in the country in yards allowed on the ground (250.6 ypg), and when paired with a pass efficiency defense that was next-to-last in the FBS with a rating of 170.67, it was clear that very little went right for the Academy a year ago. But again, Steelhammer has gotten off to a fast start with his action in the Nicholls backfield, now needing just 0.5 sacks the rest of the way to match David Harris who led the Falcons all of last season in that department.
More than anything for the Cowboys in their win last week, it was the run defense that made it happen as they limited Montana to a mere 42 rushing yards, the fewest by a Wyoming opponent since 2008. For first-year head coach Craig Bohl, it was an ideal beginning to his tenure in Laramie.
Montana was held to just 253 yards of total offense, converted 6-of-17 on third down and maintained possession for barely 25 minutes. Another positive for the Cowboys saw them flagged just one time for five yards, a far cry from the 5.5 infractions a season ago that resulted in more than 49 yards per game in lost field position.
On offense, Shaun Wick recorded a game-high 134 yards and a score on 22 carries, while D.J. May came up four yards short of making it two Wyoming running backs in triple digits.
Quarterback Colby Kirkegaard had his issues however, as he completed only 13- of-21 passes for 92 yards, was intercepted once and sacked six times. Receiver Dominic Rufran, an all-conference performer who was thought to be a candidate for player of the year honors in the MWC, accounted for just 25 yards on four catches.
Last season, Rufran was responsible for 75 receptions, leading to 960 yards, but that's when he had Brett Smith delivering the ball. The change in quarterback will not only hamper Rufran, it will also make the job of Wick (979 rushing yards) that much more difficult.
Clearly the Wyoming offense will have some struggles this season, but it is the defense that needed the most improvement after giving up a hefty 482.0 ypg (111th in the country) and 36.7 ppg (109th) last year.
With revenge as a motivating factor, as well as the current trend of the visiting team coming out on top in this rivalry, the Falcons have a good shot at claiming a victory this weekend. As long as Air Force can dictate the tempo and maintain possession of the ball for lengthy drives, a win is not out of the question for the Academy.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Air Force 21, Wyoming 17
09/03 10:53:28 ET