Joe Santoro: Pack braces for Air Force rushing attack
Special to the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team has never stopped the Air Force Falcons.
Four games. Four bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred brawls. Four painful, punch-to-the gut wars that have left the Wolf Pack defense battered, tattered and torn.
And now they have to do it all over again this Saturday in Colorado Springs. Welcome to the Wolf Pack’s nightmare.
“Everybody struggles with it,” said Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell of the Falcons’ triple-option offense.
Napoleon struggled at Waterloo. Custer struggled at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When it comes to stopping the Falcons, the Pack gets shredded and chopped like lettuce against a Ginsu knife. It’s enough to make a linebacker take up golf.
“It’s a battle,” Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said. “It’s a grind. It’s tough to play the triple option.”
That’s tough as in total destruction. The Falcons have challenged and questioned the Wolf Pack’s manhood four times since 2012 and, well, picture what a tank could do to a field of tulips. In four games against the Wolf Pack, Air Force has run the ball 289 times for 1,728 yards and 18 touchdowns. That’s an average of 72 rushes for 432 yards and 4.5 touchdowns a game. It’s a wonder why the Pack didn’t change its school colors from silver and blue to black and blue after each one of those wrestling matches.
“The key is everybody has to take care of their jobs,” Reed said. “We didn’t do a good job of that last year.”
Air Force marched into Mackay Stadium last year and destroyed everything foolish enough to step into its path, running the ball a mind-boggling 91 times for 550 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-42 win over the Pack. Let’s just say that Norvell didn’t talk about how his football program was built on grit after that game. Those 91 carries are the most that Air Force has run the ball against anyone. Ever. The 550 yards are the 10th most in Falcon history. It was also the first time the Pack allowed 500 or more yards on the ground in a game since Boise State ran for 516 in 1972.
But don’t blame last year’s Wolf Pack. Air Force has been chewing up and spitting out the Pack defense ever since 2012 when it ran at will for 461 yards and four touchdowns on 82 carries in a 48-31 win over the Pack and head coach Chris Ault.
“That was not a good effort,” Ault said after that game. “Don’t get me wrong. The kids were trying. But we weren’t close. This one we didn’t deserve to win. They beat us in every way they could beat us.”
Ault’s teams were rarely known for stingy defense. But that game in 2012 was the kind of game that would make an old coach consider retirement.
“Playing Air Force, you need discipline,” Ault said in 2012. “And we didn’t answer. There was no excuse to play the way we did defensively.”
Air Force did the same thing to the Pack again in 2013, 2014 and 2017 to Brian Polian and Norvell’s teams. In just four games against the Pack, Air Force has had six 100-yard rushers and three more with 90 or more yards. And all nine of those performances were accomplished by nine different players. When you go up against Air Force you can change the defense and the ball carriers but the result remains the same.
Air Force is the epitome of the playground bully who brings the football to the game and never lets the other team touch it. The Falcons’ ground-chewing offense has controlled the ball for an average of nearly 34 minutes a game against the Pack, piling up nearly 530 yards and 30 first downs each game. The Falcons have enjoyed a 61 percent success rate on third down (37-of-61) and 88 percent (7-of-8) on fourth down against the Pack. They’ve also punted the ball just eight times over the four games.
“They possess the ball against every team they play,” Norvell said. “That’s why we have to be efficient on our drives and score on at least half our possessions.”
The essence of Norvell’s grit and grind football philosophy is at stake when the Pack plays Air Force. That essence was obliterated last year, prompting Norvell to pound his grit and grind philosophy even deeper into everything silver and blue this off-season.
“We’re bigger and stronger,” Norvell said.
We’ll find out Saturday if they are tougher.
“We’re bigger on the defensive line this year,” said Reed, who moved from the line to linebacker this season. “We’re bigger at linebacker. We’ve been more stout against the run. We are more physical.”
Norvell has made it a focus, ever since the end of last season, to make his Wolf Pack football team more physical on defense. And while the results haven’t exactly showed up on the scoreboard — the Pack defense is allowing 39.5 points a game — there has been some improvement. The Pack defense this year is allowing just 3.7 yards a carry on the ground after allowing 4.4 a carry last year.
Then again, the Pack has yet to play Air Force this year.
“I think we understand how to handle them better than we did last year,” Norvell said.
Norvell circled the date of Sept. 29 on his calendar since the day the 2018 schedule was finalized. “We spent a lot of time in the off-season learning how to handle the triple option,” Norvell said.
It’s not often a coaching staff will obsess about a late September opponent in Week 5 of the season way back in August. But this isn’t just any late September opponent. It is the Pack’s first Mountain West game of the year. And it is Air Force, the inventors of grit and grind.
“The big thing is to be assignment sound,” Norvell said. “The linebackers have to get over blocks and take proper angles.”
Ault said the same thing back in 2012. Polian, his successor, said the same thing back in 2013 and 2014. Norvell said it last year. Every coach who has ever gone up against the triple option has said the same thing. Assignment football. You have to shed blocks. You have to run to the football. You have to be mentally and physically tough. The Pack said the same things when it played New Mexico in 2012 and again in 2016 against lowly Division I-AA Cal Poly, two victory-challenged teams that also ran the triple option. New Mexico ran for 352 yards and three touchdowns while Cal Poly ran for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
So, yes, stopping the triple option has never been the Wolf Pack’s favorite fall weekend activity. It hurts. It’s frustrating. It can be embarrassing. And it’s not just the Wolf Pack. Nobody stops the triple option. Just ask Boise State, which lost to Air Force three consecutive years from 2014-16.
The pain of stopping the triple option is easy to understand. The Falcons hold the ball in their right arm, punch you with the left and hit you when you (or the officials) least expect it. This is a program that knows all the tricks of running the ball, some are even within the rules. Heck, they invented most of the tricks. The frustration of stopping the triple option comes from the simplicity of the offense. It’s like losing to a team from 1915. Imagine a telephone stuck on the wall of your grandmother’s house getting better reception than your $1,000 smart phone or a fireplace stove cooking your turkey better and more efficiently than your $10,000 oven.
That’s what it’s like to lose to the Falcons.
There are no secrets when it comes to stopping Air Force. The Falcons don’t try to trick anyone. They just climb into the ring and start slugging and dare you to hit back. Norvell needs his team to hit back on Saturday.
“We have to be ready to play,” Reed said. “It will be physical.”
Air Force has won three of its four games against the Pack. The only time the Pack won (45-42 in 2013) was because Air Force had to throw the ball late in the game and promptly threw one to the Pack’s Charles Garrett with eight seconds to play.
The games have all been close (average score: 45-39 Air Force) because Air Force really only does one thing well. They run the football. They don’t throw it well. They don’t play defense all that well. But they do run the ball well. No, it’s not pretty. The Falcons run it slowly and methodically. They are, after all, pilots. Not track stars. These guys are serving their country. They are not trying to get to the NFL.
But they will force you to be disciplined, patient, tough and smart. Just like they are. Most college football players — like many other countries — can’t handle it.
“They are really an interesting team to play,” Norvell said. “They have their own formula to win.”
The Falcons have stolen the tortoise’s game plan against the hare and have fashioned an entire football program out of it. Air Force will run the ball over and over and over again (86 times last week against Utah State in a 42-32 Falcons’ loss) until you simply wear out. The Falcons count on you wearing out because, after all, they will never wear out. This is what they have been built and programmed to do. Over and over and over again.
“We know what they want to do,” Reed said. “They want to run the ball at you.”
Ready or not, here they come.