SBNation has an excellent new(-ish) blog that is focused solely on the athletics at the three major services academies (Suck it, Coast Guard sports!). It is called Against All Enemies, and Scott Lopez was available to answer my questions about the Air Force Falcons.
T-Mill: It’s triple-option football! It has been a very, very long time since Purdue has faced the triple-option. Can you tell our readers why it is so hard to defend?
Scott: It really comes down to two things in my mind. First, you have the pace of the game. Air Force had the second longest time of possession in the FBS last year with over 34 minutes a game in 2019. There’s a sort of two-fold aspect to the pace in that drives are eating up enormous amounts of time on the clock, but at the same time, Air Force likes to get the plays off quickly to keep thedefense tired.
Also, this may sound obvious, but it’s just hard to prepare for. When Air Force beat CU in 2019, the Buffs were coming off of a close win over Nebraska and went immediately into conference play after playing the Falcons. How much time do you dedicate to preparing for an option team when you only have to face it one time in a season? I think teams have a hard time striking that balance and seems like Power 5 teams are happy escaping with a win against service academies.
T-Mill: Last season was a great year for Air Force, but under Troy Calhoun there have been a lot of highs and lows. How does this year look?
Scott: It’s a mixed bag and it really depends on how you measure success. I have said and I will always say that I would be much happier with a two-win season than a two-loss season every single year as long as Air Force beats Army and Navy. Last season was great to end up being the undisputed champions of Colorado with wins over CU and Colorado State, as well as winning the Cheez-It Bowl over Washington State, but the loss to Navy stung a lot.
Another interesting thing is how Air Force’s scheduling for 2020. For years, they had a system where they play a weaker opponent in week 1 (usually FCS), have a bye week in week 2, then they would play a power 5 opponent (or at least a non-conference opponent in a solid recruiting area with high visibility). I think the idea was that Power 5 teams would be caught on their heels having to play a rested Air Force team without much film that would show what they were up against. While this strategy may have helped some in the win over CU and keeping games close against Michigan or Oklahoma in the past, it took some of the emphasis off of achievable goals for the rest of the season.
For example, last season, Air Force had to play Boise State six days after the game against Colorado. Air Force lost, and despite a 7-1 conference record, that meant they would no longer control their destiny in the conference. This season, Air Force gets to put their best foot forward by playing Boise State in week two. This may be good news for Purdue who gets some additional early season film, but I think it speaks to the idea that Air Force is confident in pursuing a first-ever Mountain West Championship.
T-Mill: Having an experienced, smart quarterback is huge for the triple option. How good is Donald Hammond III?
Scott: I could not be more confident having DJ Hammond under center at Air Force. When he first got starts as the quarterback in his Sophomore year, there was a rotation of three quarterbacks. I think the coaches believed that using a carousel of players would confuse opponents, but in reality, it led to an identity and leadership problem. I would attribute a great amount of 2019’s offensive success to the leadership role that DJ Hammond fulfilled.
Now, as a senior, one would hope that the natural progression of having another year of experience and time to develop further would happen. In an option system, so much of the success has to do with the quarterback meshing with his running backs and with Kade Remsberg returning, I think it will be a hallmark season.
T-Mill: The defense was surprisingly stout last season. Who returns from that defense and what is the overall outlook there?
Scott: Admittedly, there are some big losses. Mo Fifita, Zane Lewis, and Kyle Johnson stand out as big time players that will be sorely missed. Also, our defensive backs coach, Chip Vaughn, moved on to the New York Jets, but it was really just a matter of time because he’s a phenomenal coach.
However, Tre Bugg, Lakota Wills, and Demonte Meeks are critical playmakers we’re excited about returning. We may not see as much explosive, disruptive play at the line, but you never know. It’s all about who is going to step up. For example, Tre Bugg put on 10 pounds in the 2019 off-season without losing any speed. That may not sound like a lot, but at a service academy, that’s hard to do – and he ended up with a number one SC Top 10 play. Overall, the defense will mostly be inexperienced, but there will be some very experienced seniors to round it out and take a leadership role.
T-Mill: How much of a factor will Air Force’s “Grind it out and crush the clock” style be?
Scott: That concept will almost certainly be the case against Purdue, but Air Force will likely try to strike quickly at times as well. We’re not quite as bad as Army when it comes to running out the clock and I’m hoping Air Force has expanded the playbook since last season.
At times, grinding the clock seemed deliberate, but I think we legitimately did not have confidence in a hurry-up offense for the last two seasons. It really is more about controlling the pace of the game than just burning the play clock for the Falcons.
T-Mill: How well has Air Force performed of late against major conference foes?
Scott: I almost think this question was asked as a parting shot against Air Force. The truth is that last year, Troy Calhoun said last year that he didn’t think the Mountain West was a great fit for Air Force. I can only speak for myself when I say that I agree. There was some mystery surrounding the comment and what exactly he meant, but I think Air Force has had a little bit of an identity crisis over the last decade in terms of where they fit in the Mountain West.
After Army and Navy (not in our conference), one team really sticks out as the one we want to beat and that’s Boise State. Depending on what generation of Falcon football each fan came up in individually, you may hear that Wyoming or Colorado State are big conference rivals, but we’re really past that. It’s becoming abundantly clear that the path to winning the Mountain Division of the Mountain West goes through Boise State and since 2016, it’s been all Broncos.