Air Force Quarterback Haaziq Daniels against Wyoming on Sept. 17, 2022.
A look ahead to Friday night’s (5 p.m.) Mountain West football game between the Nevada Wolf Pack (2-2, 0-0) and Air Force Falcons (2-1, 0-1) at Falcon Stadium (near Colorado Springs, Colo.):
How to watch, listen: FS1, 94.5 FM.
The spread: Air Force by 24.
At stake for Nevada: The Pack’s first order of business on Friday is to avoid its first back-to-back shutouts since 1942 (a 0-0 tie against New Mexico and a 33-0 loss to Fresno State). Last week’s shutout loss (27-0) at Iowa was the first time the Pack had gone scoreless since losing 35-0 at Notre Dame to open the 2009 season. The Wolf Pack, which has lost two in a row, is also hoping to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2017.
At stake for Air Force: Air Force, which lost its sixth Mountain West opener in a row last week at Wyoming (17-14), does not want to fall to 0-2 in league play for the fourth time in the last six years.
Nevada last week: The Wolf Pack was beaten at Iowa 27-0 in a game that lasted seven hours due to three delays (of four hours combined) because of lightning. The Wolf Pack offense generated just 151 total yards and 10 first downs. The shutout was just Nevada’s fourth in the last 51 years.
Air Force last week: Air Force fell behind 10-0 at Wyoming only to rally for a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter before losing, 17-14. The Falcons rushed for 171 yards on 40 carries after leading the nation at 508 rushing yards a game.
The head coaches: Nevada’s Ken Wilson is 2-2 in his first season. Air Force’s Troy Calhoun is in his 16th season as the Falcons’ head coach. He is second in Mountain West history with 67 conference victories and 113 overall victories. Calhoun, who will turn 57 on Monday, is 19 months younger than the 58-year-old Wilson. This is, however, Wilson’s 25th year at Nevada as an assistant coach, administrator and head coach. This is Calhoun’s 24th year at Air Force as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Both Wilson and Calhoun were mentored by College Football Hall of Fame coaches (Wilson by Chris Ault and Calhoun by Fisher DeBerry).
The rivalry: Air Force leads 4-2, winning two-of-three both at home and on the road. Air Force upset Nevada last season at Mackay Stadium, 41-39 in three overtimes, outscoring the Pack’s explosive Air Raid offense. The Wolf Pack’s lone victory at Air Force was 28-25 in 2018. Troy Calhoun has been Air Force’s head coach in all games of this rivalry with Nevada. Wilson, though, will be the Nevada’s fourth head coach in the rivalry after Chris Ault (0-1 in 2012), Brian Polian (1-1 from 2012-14) and Jay Norvell (1-2 from 2017-21).
Running on the Pack: The Wolf Pack, like most teams, has struggled to contain Air Force’s run-heavy triple-option offense. Air Force has run the ball 423 times for 2,358 yards and 24 touchdowns on Nevada in the six games of the rivalry (averaging 71 carries, 393 yards and four touchdowns a game). The Falcons ran for 550 yards on 91 carries and six touchdowns in a 45-42 win at Reno in 2017 and 476 yards and five scores a year ago, also at Mackay Stadium. The Wolf Pack’s most successful outing against the Air Force ground game was in a 28-25 win at Air Force in 2018, holding the Falcons to just 154 yards and one touchdown on 51 carries. So it can be done, as Wyoming showed a week ago.
What the Wolf Pack needs to do to win: It all starts with containing the Air Force ground game. Air Force still leads the nation in rushing at 396 yards a game, despite what happened at Wyoming last week. Air Force’s goal will likely be to run for 350-plus yards and control the ball for 38-plus minutes. If that happens, the methodical Wolf Pack offense will struggle to put any points on the board. Pack defensive tackle Dom Peterson will be a key to forcing the Air Force ground game outside, where Nevada’s best tacklers (the secondary) can work their magic. The Pack linebackers also need to step up and make plays. Keep in mind that the Pack has already forced 11 turnovers this year and Air Force has fumbled the ball away five times. Winning the turnover battle is crucial for the Pack on Friday as it will be in most every game this year, because that seems to be the only way Nevada can consistently generate points.
What the Falcons need to do to win: Air Force, of course, does the same thing every game and every year. They are going to run the ball down your throat and if you start cheating up near the line of scrimmage with a bit too much intensity, quarterback Haaziq Daniels will throw it over your coverage. Fullback Brad Roberts is the Falcons’ workhorse (342 yards, four scores) but John Lee Eldridge (277 yards) has provided the ground game with some explosiveness. Daniels has passed for 218 yards and three touchdowns and run for 142 yards and two scores and might be the most dangerous quarterback in the Mountain West.
Does two quarterbacks equal no quarterback? Wolf Pack quarterbacks Shane Illingworth and Nate Cox have basically shared the job so far this season with less-than inspiring results. Neither one has thrown an interception but they’ve also combined for just 606 yards and two touchdowns in four games. The Wolf Pack offensive line has also allowed 13 sacks, 10 in the last two games. The Pack is also averaging just 3.2 yards on the ground. Illingworth started a week ago and played all but one play and didn’t put up a point. But that was against a Power Five team in the rain. Cox started and played the entire game against Incarnate Word the previous week and put up 41 points. But that was against an FCS team that jumped out to a huge lead. And the Pack lost both games. When they split the time in each game, the Pack won both games. Maybe they should try alternating on each play. All we know is that nothing is settled at the quarterback position right now.
Prediction: Air Force 27, Nevada 20. Yes, take the 24 points. It’s difficult for any team to go on the road and play two physical teams in a row (Iowa and Air Force) separated by just six days. The Wolf Pack is also going from playing a team with lightning bolts in the sky at Iowa to taking on a team with lightning bolts on their helmets. So there might be some bad memories on Friday night for the silver and blue to overcome. But we’ll find out Friday what this Pack team is made of, physically and mentally. This game for Nevada, first and foremost, is about putting up a fight. And we’re betting on the Pack, led by veteran tough guys Dom Peterson, Toa Taua, Devonte Lee and a nasty secondary, to set the tone and keep this game competitive.