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Air Force's stout run defense to be put to the test by Navy

September 28, 2016 Updated: September 29, 2016 at 6:23 am
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photo - AFA linebacker Jacob Onyechi and defensive back Jesse Washington take down an Abilene player during the AFA season opener against Abilene Christian University at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, September 3, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
AFA linebacker Jacob Onyechi and defensive back Jesse Washington take down an Abilene player during the AFA season opener against Abilene Christian University at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, September 3, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

Air Force has long been known for its rushing offense, but lately the rushing defense has been every bit as impressive.

The Falcons boast the nation's second-best unit in both areas - the 359.3 yards per game it has gained on the ground and the scant 51.7 it has allowed.

This is not a new development. Dating to the beginning of last season - when much of this current Air Force defense began playing together - the Falcons have allowed just 108 yards per game on the ground in 14 games against teams that don't run an option-based offense.

From a confidence standpoint, that history of stopping the run will give Air Force a boost this weekend. But from a practical standpoint, it becomes irrelevant against Navy and its triple-option attack that ran for 296 yards against this unit in a 33-11 victory last year.

"We definitely know that the option game is a completely different mindset," outside linebacker Jacob Onyechi said. "If you pop a gap in a conventional type of offense it's maybe like a 5-, 10-yard gain. If you do that with Navy it could be going a long ways."

That's how things went for Navy last year, as it broke eight plays for 15 or more yards. Its other 53 plays averaged just 1.7 yards. Granted, seven of those long gains involved record-breaking quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who is now toiling in the NFL, but the blueprint figures to be the same.

Aside from Navy potentially attacking Air Force's short-handed secondary - Air Force confirmed Wednesday that no appeals exist for safety Weston Steelhammer, who will miss the first half - the Falcons know what to expect. And they are as equipped as anyone to stop it.

Those 296 rushing yards for Navy last year were still 30 below its average.

"It helps having a team that also runs the triple option, but at the same time you've got to prepare like it's a different team because it is," said Air Force linebacker Claude Alexander III, who on Wednesday was named one 156 semifinalists for the Campbell Trophy - a scholar-athlete award. "They do different things than our offense."

The disparity between Air Force's rushing totals against option teams and everybody else also carries over to offense.

Air Force's three lowest rushing outputs from last year came in games against option teams - Army (196), Navy (204) and New Mexico (222). Part of that comes from teams knowing how to stop each other, but a big part of it is also a lack of opportunities in contests condensed by offenses that are each burning large chunks of clock.

Air Force averaged 60 plays per game on offense last year against option teams and 67.25 against everyone else.

"If it was baseball it might be a five-inning game or a six-inning game instead of a nine-inning game," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "There are a few less outs that you have, so you better not sacrifice too much to give up outs."

But it's not just opportunities that differ; it's productivity. Against those three teams last year Air Force averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Against everyone else it averaged 5.7 yards.

"Navy and Army are always the toughest opponents of the season because they know how to play against the triple option along with that great rivalry," Air Force fullback Shayne Davern said. "It's just a grind out there. You've got to be ready for a fight."

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