Navy (3-2) at Air Force (3-1)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, October 4th, 4:00 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: Falcon Stadium (46,692) -- Colorado Springs, Colorado. Television: Versus. Home Record: Navy 2-0, Air Force 1-1. Away Record: Navy 1-2, Air Force 1-0. Neutral Record: Navy 0-0, Air Force 1-0. Conference Record: Navy 0-0, Air Force 1-1. Series Record: Air Force leads, 25-15.
GAME NOTES: Competition for the annual Commander-in-Chief's Trophy gets underway this weekend in Colorado as the Air Force Falcons contend with the Navy Midshipmen. Pitting the three service academies against each other, the annual tournament usually centers around the Army/Navy matchup at the end of the season, but for now the focus is on the Falcons and the Middies. Last weekend, the Midshipmen geared up for a meeting against 16th-ranked Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and dismissed the Demon Deacons by a score of 24-17, marking the first win for the program over a ranked squad in almost a quarter century. The victory was also the second in a row for the Mids, the team having dealt Rutgers a 23-21 setback a week earlier. As for the Falcons, they enjoyed a bye last weekend after suffering their first setback of 2008. On September 20th, Air Force challenged fellow Mountain West Conference member and 20th-ranked Utah at home and was handed a 30-23 defeat, snapping the team's three-game win streak to open the campaign. Despite losing to the Middies last season, 31-20, Air Force still maintains a 25-15 advantage in the all-time series between the two service academies and will be traveling to New York to confront Army the first week of November. The Falcons are 14-5 at home versus Navy over the years and have taken the trophy in this round-robin tournament a total of 16 times.
Despite losing starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada in the second quarter when he went out with a left hamstring injury, the Navy offense stood firm and still managed to play well enough to come away with the seven-point win over Wake Forest. Eric Kettani posted a career-best 175 yards rushing and backup signal-caller Jarod Bryant recorded the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter for the squad. With Kaheaku-Enhada listed as questionable for this weekend's festivities, Bryant will probably be asked to shoulder much of the load for the Middies from a quarterback standpoint, yet everyone knows Navy avoids passing the ball at all costs. After five games the unit is averaging a meager 80.2 ypg through the air, which is 117th in the nation, while the running game takes center stage with a remarkable 335 ypg. Second only to Oklahoma State by less than six yards per game, the ground attack for the Midshipmen is spearheaded by Shun White and his 138.6 ypg (fourth nationally). But with three different players having already picked up at least 200 yards rushing this season, it is never easy to pick your poison against the Middies.
Against a team that entered the week as the nation's leader in turnover ratio with a +10, the Middies turned the tables on Wake Forest by forcing the home team into no less than six turnovers, including four interceptions. In stark contrast to the dominance of the Navy running attack, the Demon Deacons managed a mere 43 yards on 31 attempts as players like Jabaree Tuani produced a pair of tackles for loss, while also logging a forced fumble in the contest. For as much as the team runs the ball on Saturday's, Navy has one of the better run defenses in the country, allowing only 104 ypg. Unfortunately, when it comes to a pass defense, the squad doesn't get to practice against an accomplished group during the week so it tends to struggle come game time. At this point, Navy is 108th in the country at stopping aerial attacks by opponents, permitting just under 275 ypg. Tackles for loss continue to be a rare commodity for the group, with the Middies averaging only four per game to tie for 109th in the nation this week.
Just like Navy, the Falcons are well known for their affinity for throwing the ball. After the first four games this season, Air Force is sixth in the nation with an average of 281.8 ypg, which is easily the top average for any program in the Mountain West Conference these days. Several players have shouldered the majority of the load for the Falcons in that area, with Kyle Lumpkin generating a team-best 258 yards on 67 carries, yet he has not made it into the end zone on any one of those attempts. Kyle Halderman accounts for 243 yards and has averaged better than 10 yards per carry, but he's scored only once, which leaves quarterback Shea Smith as the top producer with five of the team's 10 rushing scores thus far. As has been the trend with Air Force football, the passing attack takes a distant backseat to that of the running game, with Smith averaging a paltry 57 ypg which leaves the academy dead last in all of college football in that department. Because Smith rarely drops back to pass, it should come as little surprise that the Falcons are tied for first in the nation with zero sacks allowed.
Not only are the Falcons one of the best in the country at protecting their quarterback, the defense for the program is the best at getting after the signal-caller for the other team. At this point in the campaign Air Force is averaging four sacks per outing, which is actually tied with Tulane for the top mark in the nation. Jake Paulson has been a beast in that area with an incredible seven sacks in four games, which means his 1.75 sacks per contest is easily best in the nation as well. But more than just Paulson, there are eight other players who have registered at least half a sack for the team so far this season, which means offenses cannot simply overload and protect against the senior defensive end. Also working in the Falcons' favor is the fact that they are currently first in the MWC and fifth in the country in turnover margin with a plus-1.75 per game. Chris Thomas and Ryan Kemp both have a pair of fumble recoveries, accounting for almost half the unit's nine fumble recoveries to date.
If Kaheaku-Enhada is unable to go for the Middies the home team might feel as though it has the advantage. But Air Force must remember not to underestimate the strength of the Navy rushing attack, one that will give the Falcons fits for 60 minutes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Navy 28, Air Force 20
10/01 10:23:54 ET