How do you limit Air Force’s vaunted triple-option attack?
LARAMIE -- Ever wonder what a defensive coordinator goes through during Air Force week?
Entering his third season on the sideline in Laramie, Jay Sawvel has only gone head to head with the Falcons once. That was last October in Colorado Springs. That was a 24-14 Wyoming loss.
Air Force averaged 328.2 yards per game on the ground in 2021. The Cowboys held them to just 211 on 64 attempts. That's an average of just 3.3 per carry. Brad Roberts accounted for 140 of those on 33 carries. The Falcons' fullback also found the end zone in the win.
Where the home team did most of its damage, to the surprise of everyone, was through the air. Haaziq Daniels completed 7-of-10 balls for 110 yards and a touchdown, most of that damage coming in the second half.
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Want some perspective on that?
Through two games this fall, the Air Force quarterback has connected on just 4-of-11 throws for 117 yards and a score.
It's not like Troy Calhoun needs him to throw.
In easy wins over Northern Iowa and in-state rival, Colorado, the Falcons have slashed and gashed their way to more than 508 yards per game on the ground. Roberts is fifth-leading rusher in the nation with 288 yards to his credit on just 35 carries. The senior already has four rushing touchdowns on his stat line, too.
Sounds easy to defend, right?
Here's what Sawvel had to say about Wyoming's Week-3 opponent:
Q: How about a broad one for starters? What is the most important thing your defense needs to do to beat Air Force?
A: You have to be assignment sound and extremely physical at the same time. It's easier said than done, but you have to be those two things at the same time. That's the challenge, right? It's one thing to do a lot of stuff, to get lined up to all the things that they do. It's another thing then to be able to match the speed of it once they start running it. You have to play physical to keep, you know, the line of scrimmage in a certain way. And then you also have to tackle very well. So it's assignment sound.
Q: So how can you be proactive instead of reactive but not be too aggressive to where you get burned?
A: Yeah, I mean, that's the challenge that you run into is that there's a balance between, if you take your chances -- there's not just a one foolproof defensive way to play them -- so what happens is, if you do take a chance on something you do, you expose yourself to the risk of something else. So, it's when you do risk something, there's going to be a potential reward. When you do risk something, there's a potential loss. So you have to be careful with it. And that's a challenge in calling it against them. That's a challenge of getting lined up and playing against them.
Q: This might be a stupid question but are blitzes completely out of the picture against them?
A: They become more difficult. I think what happens, when you watch a lot of people play, is that you have to be careful doing too much. Because what happens is, like they do a lot of stuff. So if they do eight things and you do two things, OK, then you have to fit 16 things up. If they do eight things and you do eight things, yes, you've got to fit 64 things up. So, there's a multiplication to it. That's the challenge with it a little bit, right? You have to pick your spots as to what has value and what doesn't. And if it doesn't have that much value, you can't do it.
Q: So, after all this that we've already talked about, how hard is it to not overthink this thing and just let your guys be athletes and make plays?
A: Well, it's like said, there's a fine line to it, right? Because you have a very well-structured, well thought-out offense with good players, that, you know, you can't just sit there like iron deer the whole time and let them know exactly what you're doing on every single play. Because they're good enough then to take advantage of that and beat you, too. So, it's a delicate balance. A lot of it has to do with how we play. In last year's game, we got to a couple fourth-down situations that they converted on. On the third downs, we were in position to get these plays stopped before it got to 4th-and-1, 4th-and-1 and a half. But, as the game went on, we played the run fairly well. Problem was we didn't cover them at safety. It was just a bad deal. That was a challenge ... Let's look at this way, you don't want Air Force to throw for more yards than Jake Haener did the next week. You don't want that to happen. So, I thought how we played there at that position last year against the pass was pathetic. We'll be better than that.
Q: It's easy to say, yeah, Air Force runs the triple option. Coach (Craig Bohl) said they run the triple option on steroids. So, have you seen any new wrinkles out of them?
A: There's always a new wrinkle. You know, they do such a good job with it. What happens is they probe and test and poke around. When they find something they like, they stay with it. Now, if you are in a position like maybe some people and they find something they really like, that scab won't close until the game is over. You know, they're just going to keep picking at it and picking at it and picking at it. That's the danger with this type of team. You've got to be sound in a lot of ways in terms of how you play, what you're asking your players to do and the adjustments you make. There's a lot of challenges to it.
Q: You mentioned to me yesterday that Cole Godbout and Jordan Bertagnole are so important to this and so are Isaac White and Wyett Ekeler. What do they need to do? Why are those positions -- defensive tackle and safety -- so important?
A: Well, it's really the whole thing. If you look at the two D-tackles, the safeties, the linebackers, you have to be really good up the middle on them. They have an excellent fullback and their trap game, their zone-dive game, the inside veers and things like that. So, they have an excellent fullback and that's where it all starts. I mean, I didn't even need to know the score of the Colorado game when I found out that the fullback had 170 some yards. I'm like, well, they won. So it starts with that, how you play up the middle. The two D-tackles, the backers and the two safeties, that's where all this starts, but it takes everybody. If you can simplify it and boil it down to certain things, it takes everybody to be successful with what they do. It's so hard to single out one specific thing.
Q: Do you like this game? Is this an earn-your-paycheck type of situation for a defensive coordinator or a nightmare?
A: I tell you what, it's a great challenge. You want to be careful whenever you say it's an earn-your-paycheck game because if it doesn't go well, they're going to take your paycheck away. These are great challenge games. I tell you, you know, I admire them. I think they have such a great system, they're not just randomly plucking plays. It's such a great system. They have just chapters of the book. It's funny because we'll watch these teams play them that do multiple things and I'm like, they don't realize that they just flipped to another chapter and start dialing up plays that you don't want to see. Within the game, it's a challenge. They look to the sideline quite a bit in certain situations. So the challenge is there, like, OK, they may be making an adjustment. What are you going to do with it? So, this is a big-time deal.
Q: I don't know if panic is the right word for it, but when they stop everything and look over there, are you thinking, 'oh sh-t, do I have the right play?'
A: There's a little list of things that you kind of look at and go, OK, that may be this, it may be that. So, you've got to look at it but you have to be careful, because they have enough plays out of these formations. It's not like they just run one or two things, they have enough plays out of this that you all of a sudden go, OK, this is going to happen. Well, if it doesn't then did you just leave yourself exposed to something else? I thought the first half of that game last year was a lot of fun, just from the nuances and the whole mechanics of the game. Along with that, though, you can feel like you have the right call in there, but we've got to play. I mean, that's the bottom line, too. We've got to outplay them and we've got to make sure we don't screw up situationally. And you know, that's the biggest thing.
Q: You have to be disciplined to beat this team. You guys are so young and youth and discipline don't always go hand in hand. Is that a concern?
A: I will say this, we've got it at certain positions. We have far better eye control and somewhat discipline than what we had with players that played last year in some positions. Now, how does that translate? Chad Muma made a bunch of plays last year. He's not here. Garrett Crall was a really good player against Air Force and games like this. He's not here ... We'll do periods of stuff in practice, just take the ball out. You know, it's like, OK, you're the defensive end. You're a brand-new guy. By the way, the fullback is coming at you, you better tackle the fullback. Don't be worried about whether the quarterback held it or not. Guys want to just run and chase the ball at times. No, no, no -- you better take care of what you have to take care of.
Q: No offense to Northern Colorado whatsoever, but I assume you guys have already been looking at Air Force for a minute?
A: We've done the game-plan stuff for them in the summer. Yesterday's practice, we actually had scripted in July. Today's practice we had scripted in July. So, we've been kind of ready in terms of the anticipation of a short week. We went and recovered everything that we've got to run against, all the different things of what they do, what we have to do communication wise here and what we have to do with alignments and stuff like that. We didn't need to do that and then all of a sudden card-up practices and stuff like that. So, we've had to practice stuff and make little tweaks here and there. But we knew what was coming, you know, and I think it helped a lot. We had a short week last year when we played Boise State. When you go from a Saturday game to Friday night game, obviously, it's a way different animal. But we knew what to expect as far as putting the calendar to it. I told guys in the summer, I'm like, we're going to get these first two practices done now so that way when we get to it, we can concentrate on any adjustments that we need to make or what we need to.
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