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Mission impossible? Air Force must penetrate CSU's largely impenetrable pass protection

October 27, 2017 Updated: October 27, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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CSU quarterback Nick Steven signals before a play during a game at Hughes Stadium in Ft. Collins, Colorado on Saturday, October 17, 2015. Air Force lost to CSU 38-23. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

FORT COLLINS – The path to victory for Air Force on Saturday will likely have to go through a place few have been able to travel.

Into the face of quarterback Nick Stevens.

Colorado State has built a fortress around Stevens this season. The senior has completed 287 passes, yet has been sacked just three times. He has, however, been hurried 21 times.

Colorado got to Stevens twice on Sept. 1. Other than that he's been sacked just once.

For the Falcons (3-4, 2-2 Mountain West) to compete with the Rams (6-2, 4-0), they likely have to add to those figures.

“That’s a real task,” coach Troy Calhoun said. “Because of it you see how frequently the quarterback is able to throw in rhythm, and how good he is when he’s able to throw in rhythm.”

Stevens ranks fourth in the nation in passing yards (2,486) and sixth in passing touchdowns (20). The Falcons have seen it first hand, too, as Stevens went 22-for-29 for 374 yards and two touchdowns at Falcon Stadium last year.

Air Force survived 49-46 in that game, notching their ninth victory in the past 11 meetings in this series. And maybe that’s the route this game takes as well, with the Falcons’ offense scoring enough to prevail in a track meet.

But more likely, if Air Force is going to be competitive with the Rams, it’s going to have to slow Stevens and a group of receivers led by Michael Gallup (the nation’s leader with 1,006 yards).

“Got to go against the best to be the best,” Falcons cornerback Marquis Griffin said of facing Gallup. “I’m looking forward to it for sure.”

Air Force’s strategy against top passing teams under defensive coordinator Steve Russ is to create havoc with a pass rush bolstered by frequent blitzes. This has been effective at times. For example, Boise State has completed just 47 percent of its passes against Air Force over the past three years while throwing five interceptions and taking eight sacks. The Falcons have won all three meetings.

“Quarterbacks don’t like getting hit,” Air Force linebacker Jack Flor said.

But some quarterbacks – like Stevens last year, future No. 1-draft pick Jared Goff while at California and several others – have been able to stand tall in the face of that pressure and capitalize on the frequent one-on-one matchups created by Russ’ aggressive style.

The Falcons rank No. 1 in the nation in passing defense (157.6 ypg), but that’s a stat skewed by the running teams on the schedule. In passing efficiency defense, Air Force ranks 73rd.

Nothing is skewed about Colorado State’s production, which has come against a schedule that has included two from the Pac-12, three out of four Mountain West games on the road and a trip to No. 1 Alabama.

“They’ve been really, really good in a bunch of game this year,” Calhoun said.

The Rams have been good in different areas, too. The rushing attack is averaging 196.2 yards per game with 5.0 yards per carry. Top backs Dalyn Dawkins (a 5-foot-9, 185-pound jitterbug) and Izzy Matthews (a 6-0, 220 pound bruiser) have both carried more than 100 times this year and have combined for 1,285 yards and 10 touchdowns. They teamed up to run for 155 yards and three scores against Air Force last year.

“For us, we just have to do the little things,” defensive end Santo Coppola said. “We can’t go after the pass if we don’t stop the run first.”

If there’s a silver lining for Air Force, it’s that Colorado State has been susceptible to giving up large chunks of yards. New Mexico ran for 318 against it last week in a 27-24 Rams’ victory. Before that, Nevada put up 564 yards but couldn’t hold a late lead in a 44-42 loss in Fort Collins. Two weeks earlier, Hawaii amassed 512 yards.

With Air Force’s offense churning at a high level - averaging 40.5 points per game over the past four weeks - maybe this is simply another game destined to be high scoring. The Falcons have certainly seen a number of those this year (they have outscored opponents, on average, 37.3-33.3) and this series hasn’t seen the combined score finish under 50 since longtime coaches Fisher DeBerry and Sonny Lubick matched up for the final time in 2006.

But there’s a path around that if the Falcons can penetrate the Colorado State pass protection. Others have tried that, too, and none have succeeded.

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