Falcons protecting football

November 18, 2009
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Only one team in the nation has turned the ball over less than Air Force this season.

And No. 5 Cincinnati, which has committed six turnovers to the Falcons’ seven, has played one fewer game.

Air Force always prides itself on ball security, but through 11 games this season the Falcons have protected the football as if it was the Hope Diamond, throwing only one interception and losing just six fumbles.

With one regular-season contest (at BYU on Saturday) and a bowl game left to play, the Falcons are on pace to break the school single-season record for turnovers – 11, set in 1998 and matched in 2000. And because the academy did not start counting bowl game stats toward single-season records until 2004, the 11 turnovers in 1998 and 2000 were committed in 12 and 11 games, respectively.

“It’s something you ought to be good at here,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said of protecting the football. “Whenever we’ve had good stretches, we’ve been really good” at avoiding turnovers.

Air Force is in the midst of a good stretch, having won seven or more regular season games in each of Calhoun’s three years – just the second such run in academy history (the other was 1982 through 1985). Avoiding turnovers has been a big reason for recent success.

Just twice in 37 games under Calhoun has Air Force committed more than two turnovers in a game (five at New Mexico in 2007 and three at home against the Lobos last season). And this season the Falcons have turned the ball over more than once in a game just once (at Navy).

They’ve been especially good of late, turning the ball over just three times in the past six games. And one was fluky – a punt bounced off Brian Lindsay’s back and was recovered by UNLV.

While Air Force does not pass much, which limits the amount of interceptions it can throw, it does run plenty of triple option, which can be dangerous. Quarterbacks must pull the ball out from the belly of fullbacks and pitch it on the run.

But the Falcons work on ball security daily, sending ball carriers through “gantlets” – two lines of players who swipe at the ball and try to knock it loose – and practicing with balls soaked in water or wearing slick blue covers.

Plus, coaches don’t tolerate turnovers. Tailback Jim Ollis was benched and sent down the depth chart midway through the 2007 campaign after losing three fumbles in two games.

“We just teach it from day one in terms of the proper way to carry a ball,” Calhoun said. “And they know that if you can’t do that, you can’t play.”

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