Preview 2014 - Air Force Falcons
Air Force QB Nate Romine
Air Force QB Nate Romine
Posted May 26, 2014

Preview 2014 - After a total dud of the 2013 season, can Air Force get back to a bowl? (Getty Images)

Air Force Falcons

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Troy Calhoun
8th year overall: 49-41
Ten Best Air Force Players
1. C Michael Husar, Sr.
2. FS Christian Spears, Sr.
3, LB Joey Nichol, Sr.
4. RB Broam Hart, Sr.
5. LB Dexter Walker, Jr.
6. LB Spencer Proctor, Sr.
7. QB Nate Romine, Soph.
8. WR Jalen Robinette, Soph.
9. DE Alex Hansen, Jr.
10. TE Garrett Griffin, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Nicholls State
Sep. 6 at Wyoming
Sep. 13 at Georgia State
Sep. 27 Boise State
Oct. 4 Navy
Oct. 11 at Utah State
Oct. 18 New Mexico
Nov. 1 at Army
Nov. 8 at UNLV
Nov. 15 Nevada
Nov. 22 at San Diego State
Nov. 28 C0lorado State

Every year it's really, really easy to assume the worst about Air Force football. There's no talent, there's lots of turnover, the schemes don't really fit considering the defensive personnel – there are plenty of easy excuses. And sure enough, every year, Air Force seems to find a way to get the job done with the flex-option offense cranking out big numbers and the D doing just enough to get by.

At least that's how it was in the Troy Calhoun era until last year.

The program hit a lean stretch in the mid-2000s with three straight winning seasons before coming back roaring, but 2013 was something different. The Falcons didn't just struggle in a bad year, they couldn't get anything to work.

The running game was fine, as always, but it wasn't devastating and it wasn't the difference-maker it normally was when everything was humming under Calhoun. The real problem, though, was a miserable defense that wasn't even close.

The program will always have a problem when it comes to size and bulk on the front six or seven – depending on the alignment – but usually, the running game is able to milk the clock, the defense is able to stay just fresh enough to survive, and guts and feistiness tend to be just enough to get the job done. But the parts of the puzzle didn't seem to mesh.

There weren't enough long, sustained drives, and it didn't help when starting quarterback Jaleel Awini was given the boot four games into the season. The defense couldn't get off the field, giving up third down play after third down play, and the result was a world of ugly in the worst season since going 2-9-1 in 1980. Since then, there wasn't even a season with fewer than four wins.

So was last year a blip, or was it an indication that there needs to be a big change? Is this a time to adapt or die, or does the team just need to do what Air Force does, but better?

Step one will be to get more out of the ground game to help out the D, but that could be a slight issue early on with a rebuilding offensive front. The backfield should be solid with QB Nate Romine appearing to be ready to do more, and with the usual stable of quick backs who can come up with a big burst. Are the pieces there to go on long, time-crunching drives? They had better be.

The defense that was carved up several different ways should be better – it can't be any worse – and has the linebacking corps in place to be stronger and more aggressive. As always, though, size matters, and there isn't any meaning a steady rotation has to come together quickly, and most importantly, the defense has to spend most of the game watching from the sidelines.

Give it one more year of the status quo. The offense is going to run the ball, the defense isn't going to get to the quarterback, and if everything is back to normal, Air Force will win six games and go bowling. If not, there could be a philosophical change to one of the country's steadiest mid-level programs.

What to watch for on offense: Running game, running game, running game. When that's what you do, you have to do it at the highest of levels on a consistent basis, and that didn't happen last year. Surprise of surprises, two of the best days last year on the ground – 409 yards against Colgate and 343 against Army – resulted in wins, and the 375 yards and five scores against the Nevada defense were almost enough to pull it out in a 45-42 shootout. It wasn't just the lack of yards overall, it was the inability to get into good positions to keep the chains moving and convert on easy third down chances. In the working synergy of Air Force football, the offense HAS to give itself a shot with manageable plays, and it didn't do that. Over the last three seasons, Air Force is 4-15 when it runs for fewer than 300 yards, and 0-8 last year.

What to watch for on defense: Can the defense get behind the line at all? Generating a pass rush has never been part of the plan, and last year was no exception with just 14 sacks, but the lack of plays in the backfield turned out to be a major problem with just 42 tackles for loss compared to 64 in 2012 and 55 in 2011. The whole idea is to try to get everyone to swarm around the ball and not leave too many of the smallish defenders in one-on-one positions to try to make stops or get past blocks, but that also means that there aren't any big chances taken behind the line, and that turned out to be an absolute killer at times. No pressure means no help for the secondary, and it showed with just four interceptions on the year and none in the final five games. The Falcons had the second-worst pass efficiency defense last year for a reason.

The team will be far better if … the defense can come up with a third down stop and the offense can score early. It might sound like a broken record, but the Falcon defense has to get off the field. With a front line that averages around 260 pounds per man, and a linebacking corps built line defensive backs, this group just can't hold up against tough lines that pound away and control the clock. But it wasn't just that the D was wearing down late; it wasn't doing anything early, either. Air Force was dead last in the nation in third down defense allowing teams to convert a whopping 59% of the time, and that was a problem throughout games. The offense didn't help the cause, either, getting outscored 123-47 in the first quarters of games. For a team that doesn't throw the ball, bad first quarters are a death sentence.

The schedule: It's not that bad as long as Air Force goes back to being Air Force. When your toughest non-conference game is Navy, and it's at home, it's an easy slate, with Nicholls State to open up the season and Georgia State in Atlanta after kicking off Mountain West play at Wyoming on September 6th. There's no Fresno State to deal with, and Boise State, Nevada and Colorado State have to come to Colorado Springs. There's a run of three road games in four weeks over the first 21 days of November facing Army, UNLV and San Diego State on the road, wrapped around a home game against Nevada. Even so, if the team gets back on track and does the things it's supposed to, there isn't a game on the slate it can't win, or at least be far more competitive in.

Best offensive player: Senior C Michael Husar, Jr. – Out for most of his junior season with a knee injury, he came back to be the best and most consistent player on an offense that was rarely consistent and didn't do nearly enough at a high level. He's not that big, but he's strong, can move, and smart. He has to be more than just a leader and anchor up front; he has to help carry a line that needs four new starters and is really, REALLY light, trying out a 225-pound Sevrin Remmo at left tackle and a 240-pound Andrew Ruechel at right guard. 

Best defensive player: Senior FS Christian Spears. You can't blame him too much for the defense's problems last season. He only came up with two picks, but that's as many as the rest of the team generated combined. The last line of defense, he spent all of his time trying to clean up messes, leading the team with 92 stops and needing to be used as an extra linebacker, even if though he's built like a kicker. Very savvy and extremely quick, he knows what he's doing, but he needs help around him.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore DE Samual Byers, senior NG Troy Timmerman, and junior DE Alex Hansen. Hansen is the only returning starter to a front three that was ripped apart throughout last season, and while he's only 6-2 and 260 pounds, he's one of the team's biggest linemen, and he has to play like it. There won't be any pressure on the quarterback, and this group will get shoved around by anyone who wants to provide a push, but it has to be more than just a speed bump. Quickness is the key, and this front three has to use it get off the ball in a hurry and do something, anything, to improve the production after last year.

The season will be a success if … the Falcons get back to a bowl game. It's vital to show that last year was simply a perfect storm of bad play and poor production, and with this schedule, there's absolutely no excuse not to come up with at least six wins. Nicholls State and Georgia State are free spaces, and getting New Mexico at home can't be a problem. Win those three, and automatically the season is an improvement on 2013. Beat Army come up with at least one home win over Navy, Nevada or Colorado State, and come up with a road victory against a UNLV or Wyoming, and it's back to the post-season and all will be right with the world.

Key game: Sept. 6 at Wyoming. There was a time when the game against the Cowboys was the annual layup, going 6-1 in the series before getting pasted last season in a brutal 56-23 loss that showed that 2013 wasn't going to be the strongest of campaigns. It's the Mountain West opener this season, and sandwiched between the two gimmes against Nicholls State and Georgia State, Air Force could come up with more wins by September 13th than it generated all of last year. It would also prove that it's truly a different season and a different team, and with Boise State, Navy and Utah State coming up, it might be a key game to keep the record and the season from sliding before mid-October.

2013 Fun Stats:
- First Quarter Scoring: Opponents 123 – Air Force 47
- Time of Possession: Opponents 32:26 – Air Force 27:34
- Third Down Conversions: Opponents 96-of-163 (59%) – Air Force 76-of-172 (44%)

- 2014 Air Force Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players