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7 reasons Air Force can really win at No. 7-ranked Michigan

The oddsmakers made No. 7 Michigan a 26-point favorite over Air Force on Saturday for a reason. The Wolverines are stacked on both sides, have one of the game's hottest coaches in Jim Harbaugh and enjoy one of the great home field advantages in all of sports brought by 107,000+ in the Big House. It’s a sure thing, right? Well, here are seven reasons Air Force might just be up to the task against the nation's No. 7 team. (Brent Briggeman, The Gazette)

1. Option offense

Yes, we know you’ve heard before how Air Force’s offense is a great equalizer against superior size and talent. The deception of the option makes the ball hard to find. At least one defender can be left unblocked on each play. The speed at which plays are executed means linemen must sustain blocks only briefly. Yada yada yada.

But this phenomenon is real. And it can work against anyone. The Falcons averaged 5.5 yards per carry at Michigan State two years ago. They ran for 290 at Michigan in a six-point loss in 2012, carving out a 10-minute advantage in time of possession and a 26-19 edge in first downs. They ran for 351 in a 27-24 loss at Oklahoma in 2010.

Air Force has finished outside the top 10 nationally in rushing once since 1986.

And right now, the offense may be as explosive as ever thanks in large part to …

GARY KAZANJIAN

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2. Arion Worthman

It’s not hyperbole to say Air Force has been unbeatable since the speedy quarterback took over midway through last season. The Falcons, in fact, are 7-0 since he came on in relief at Fresno State.

In games Worthman has started, Air Force has averaged 376 rushing yards and 489 total yards. And that’s against a slate that included four bowl teams.

To put that into perspective, New Mexico led the nation with 350 rushing yards per game last year.

And though Worthman doesn’t pass often, his efficiency rating is 210.02 over 51 career attempts. For perspective on that number, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield led the nation last year at 196.4.

The arm has led to many big plays, but the system thrives on Worthman’s speed. That could pose problems for …

David Zalubowski

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3. Michigan’s young defense

Air Force wasn’t the only team in this matchup to enter the year with just one returning starter on defense. The difference is that the Wolverines filled those gaps largely with a Jim Harbaugh recruiting class from two years ago that was so rich in four- and five-star recruits that Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said it reminded him of Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team from two decades ago.

But talented as this defense may be, it hasn’t seen Air Force’s option. And, more so, it may be so young that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. To hear the quotes coming out of Michigan this week, it sounds like the defense is secure in its knowledge of the Falcons’ triple-option after facing it on the practice field in spring and again through fall camp. But the version the Wolverines have produced from the scout team isn’t the real thing, and this defense may not be veteran enough to show the discipline required to consistently put down Air Force’s attack. And if there’s a hole to expose, it likely will be by …

Tony Gutierrez

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Hawaii Air Force Football

4. Tim McVey

The thing about special players is they have a knack for producing signature moments on the biggest stages. Maybe for McVey, Air Force’s senior tailback, that came with 141 yards of total offense in an upset at Boise State during his sophomore year in the game where he was first handed an expanded role in the offense. Or when he scored five touchdowns with 262 total yards the following week at New Mexico. Maybe it came with 184 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a thrilling home victory over Colorado State last year.

Or maybe it will happen Saturday.

One thing is for certain, McVey has proven to be special. He’s Air Force’s all-time leader in yards per carry (8.5), he’s second all-time in yards per catch (27.5) and he’s third in average kickoff return yards (26.6). He’s appeared in 28 games and he has 27 touchdowns.

The last time Air Force played at Michigan, it was Cody Getz running for 130 yards and three touchdowns. Maybe this time it’ll be McVey’s turn. Or maybe it will be someone else because of …

David Zalubowski

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5. Air Force’s fresh legs

Look, nobody from Air Force wanted the open week to fall on Sept. 9. However, the calendar staples of Navy on the first weekend of October and Army on the first weekend of November often leave the Falcons with some funky schedules.

The positive is that the Falcons, who have full slates of classes, military obligations and early morning wake-up calls to drag them down as the season progresses, will come into this game as fresh as can be expected.

In 2014, Air Force didn’t play Sept. 20. The next week it came in rested as a 13-point underdog at home against No. 20 Boise State. The fresh Falcons forced seven turnovers, built a 28-point lead and cruised to a victory. That was Weston Steelhammer’s coming out party, as the eventual three-time first-team all-Mountain West selection intercepted the first three passes of his career (he finished with a program-record 18 picks). This could set a similar stage for a member of …

DOUGAL BROWNLIE

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6. Air Force’s young secondary

If the Falcons are going to have success on defense, it must start against the run. Coordinator Steve Russ’ crew ranked 10th in the nation last year in that department despite facing three of the top four running teams (maybe that’s because it saw the No. 3 rushing team every day in practice).

Many of the faces have since changed over, but linebackers Grant Ross and Jack Flor are back, as is defensive end Santo Coppola. And so is Russ’ daring, blitz-happy scheme.

If the run can be contained, the pressure will then fall on the secondary to win enough one-on-one battles in coverage to prevent Michigan from running away with this on the heels of big pass plays. Cornerbacks Marquis Griffin, a senior and the group’s lone veteran, and Robert Bullard, a junior, as well as junior safeties Kyle Floyd and Garrett Kauppila appear to be as physically gifted as the starters they replaced from last year, but an opening slaughter of VMI didn’t provide enough of a test to see how that translates onto the field. They’ll get that test Saturday. But even if they fail a few times, Air Force doesn’t figure to panic thanks to its …

DOUGAL BROWNLIE

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Air Force Fresno St Football

7. Coaching staff stability

Troy Calhoun is in his 11th season at Air Force, where among his achievements are nine bowl appearances in 10 years. But perhaps his greatest achievement has been to build a staff with some serious staying power.

On offense, offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen and running backs coach/special teams coordinator Ben Miller came aboard with Calhoun. Offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke is a relative newcomer in his third year — and first at that spot — but like Calhoun, Thiessen and Miller, he’s an academy grad and his experience in this coaching family dates to time spent at Ohio and Wake Forest.

On defense, Russ is in his fourth year as the sole defensive coordinator. Through that time he’s had Ron Vanderlinden (inside linebackers), Tim Cross (line), John Rudzinski (secondary) and Matt Weikert (outside linebackers) in their current roles.

Air Force’s staff (not even including 11th-year strength and conditioning coach Matt McGettigan) has logged 68 years at the academy. No staff in the Mountain West has more than 33 years together. Harbaugh and his crew have put in a total of 17 years at Michigan.

That continuity allows the Falcons to game plan and recruit with efficiency. More importantly, with everyone so in tune with their roles within the system, it allows for quick on-the-fly changes when adjustments are necessary.

It’s no accident that five come-from-behind victories have occurred during Air Force’s seven-game winning streak. Three of those involved deficits deep in the second half and another saw the Falcons score the final 42 points in a 45-21 victory over South Alabama in the Arizona Bowl.

The Falcons may not find a way to mount a monumental upset Saturday, but there’s no reason to think this staff won’t have them in position to pull it off.

GARY KAZANJIAN

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