Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels hands off to running back Brad Roberts against Army in Arlington, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Tim Heitman)
The Air Force Falcons have tremendous respect for the Nevada Wolf Pack.
“This is the most complete team we’ve played this season,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose Falcons will take on the Wolf Pack on Friday (6 p.m., Fox Sports One) in the final regular season game of the year at Mackay Stadium.
Air Force (7-3, 4-2) is still in the mix for the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title with Utah State (8-2, 5-1) and Boise State (6-4, 4-2). The Wolf Pack (7-3, 4-2) has still not been eliminated from the West Division race along with San Diego State (9-1, 5-1) and Fresno State (8-3, 5-2). Calhoun, though, said the Wolf Pack is worthy of playing for something more lofty than a mere Mountain West title.
“Looking at the film, if you said Nevada is 10-0 and there’s a discussion between them and Cincinnati (who actually is 10-0) about who is in the middle of who should play in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, that’s what you see when you watch the video (of Nevada).”
Nevada, despite Calhoun’s praise, is just a two-point favorite on Friday night despite a nine-game winning streak at Mackay Stadium dating back to the final game of the 2019 regular season. That narrow spread might be due to Air Force’s 4-0 record on the road this year.
“What has our attention is the quality of the opponent we’ll play this week,” Calhoun said.
“Every single team we play we have the mindset that they have the capability of beating us and we have the capability of beating them,” Air Force defensive lineman Chris Herrera said. “You can’t be too overconfident and you can’t be not confident enough.”
Air Force and Nevada have not met since 2018 when Nevada went to Colorado Springs and took home a 28-25 victory. Quarterback Ty Gangi tossed four touchdown passes that day for the Pack and the Wolf Pack defense held Air Force’s option offense to just 16 first downs and a time of possession of just under 29 minutes.
A lot has changed since 2018 but one thing that hasn’t changed is the offensive schemes that will be on display Friday night. The Pack still runs the pass-based Air Raid while Air Force hopes to control the game with its running attack.
“I don’t know how we got this but I saw in our (coaching) staff room that somebody left a playbook and it said ‘1999 Oklahoma Offense, Mike Leach,’” said Calhoun, referring to one of the founders and designers of the Pack’s Air Raid offense. “I just thought, ‘OK, someone dug this up I don’t know how or where.’ It made you laugh a little just because of the connection to what they do offensively.”
The Pack leads the Mountain West with 373.7 passing yards a game while Air Force leads the Mountain West (and the nation) with 311 rushing yards a game.
“It will be a real contrast in styles,” Nevada coach Jay Norvell said.
Running back Brad Roberts leads Air Force with 1,064 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 234 carries. That is just 10 fewer carries, 420 more yards and three more touchdowns than the entire Wolf Pack team combined has on the ground. Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels has picked up 643 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground and has hurt teams through the air, passing for 909 yards and five touchdowns. Nevada quarterback Carson Strong has passed for 3,547 yards and 28 touchdowns, which is 444 more yards and just three fewer touchdowns than the Air Force ground game has produced this year.
“He does a super job of identifying coverages and he knows where the ball needs to go instantly,” said Calhoun of Strong. “We’ve gone up against some really good ones (quarterbacks) in the past and there’s been nobody better than Strong.”
Air Force has allowed just 287.5 yards a game this year on defense, the best in the Mountain West. The Falcons are also second in the conference, allowing just 17.6 points a game. The Falcons are third in the league in pass defense, allowing just 184.2 yards a game and 10 touchdowns. Strong will take a streak of six consecutive games of 300 or more yards into Friday night. He has 13 straight games with 200 or more yards.
Air Force also has not faced either Strong or Fresno State’s Jake Haener, the top two quarterbacks in the Mountain West this year. Utah State quarterbacks Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley combined to throw for 448 yards and five touchdowns against the Falcons this year while Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier went for 259 yards and a touchdown.
“You are just honored, kind of, to get to play against people (like Strong) who will be playing at the next level (NFL),” Herrera said.
Strong, who might jump to the NFL after this season, could be playing the final game of his career at Mackay Stadium on Friday. The Pack will honor its 37 seniors on Senior Night on Friday, though many of those seniors could return next year because the COVID-19 pandemic gave them an extra year of eligibility last year.
“They are exceptionally old,” said Calhoun of the Pack. “I don’t think I’ve ever looked down a roster and seen more seniors or GR’s, meaning graduates, than this team has.”
Norvell and the Wolf Pack now just want to end this season on a positive note after losing to San Diego State 23-21 last Saturday and Fresno State 34-32 a month ago, putting their West Division title hopes in serious jeopardy.
“Saturday night (at San Diego State) was a disappointment, to say the least,” Norvell said. “But we’ve got to move on.
“Air Force is very, very well versed in what they do and how they play. They force you to play with a lot of detail and discipline. They’ve made a lot of people look bad over the years.”
One of those years was 2012 when Air Force ran for 461 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and controlled the clock for over 34 minutes in a 48-31 win over the Pack. That was nine years ago but Air Force still has the same coach and will run the same offense this Friday night.
“You learn a lot from losses,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack lost 45-42 to Air Force at Mackay Stadium in 2017, allowing an alarming 550 yards rushing and six touchdown on 91 seemingly never-ending carries.
“It was a nightmare,” Norvell said.
Time of possession, Norvell said, will be the key to both team’s success on Friday.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” he said. “If you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”