RENO, Nev. – If this game were being played on paper, a full ream could be filled with the intricacies.
Air Force and Nevada enter Friday’s football game with identical records (7-3, 4-2 Mountain West) reached from opposite angles.
The Falcons have the nation’s top rushing offense, averaging 311 yards. The Wolf Pack have the Mountain West’s lowest-ranked rushing offense (64.1).
Nevada has the conference’s top passing offense (fourth nationally), averaging 373.7 yards. Air Force has the Mountain West’s lowest-ranked passing offense (96.7).
In the past four meetings the teams have each won two, with Air Force holding a 155-153 edge in scoring. One game went to overtime, one was decided on a last-minute field goal and one saw Nevada score two touchdowns in the final six minutes to win by three.
“It’s not a game I look forward to, I can’t say that,” Nevada coach Jay Norvell told The Gazette in July. “The Air Force Academy just poses so many challenges to prepare for with their style of offense, mature players, great coaching. We’ve had some really good games with them.
“The style of offense is so different than people we see, and they say styles make fights.”
So, pen to paper, who has the advantage between these contrasting styles who have produced such close games?
Nevada has given up 136.2 yards per game against the rush, sixth-best in the Mountain West. But it has faced just five rushing offenses that rank in the nation’s top 100 – San Diego State (38), California (70), Kansas State (71), Hawaii (87) and Fresno State (93). Against those three it gave up an average of 200.2 yards and lost three of the five games.
“It’s really unique how we prepare for Air Force because it’s nothing like the other teams you prepare for,” Nevada linebacker Lawson Hall said. “The scout teams have to learn whole new concepts and have to do different things. You almost have to be a different defense when you’re playing Air Force. They have a lot of grit, a lot of toughness, and be technically sound at all times.”
Air Force’s No. 13 national ranking against the pass (184.2 yards per game) is aided by a schedule that includes five of the nation’s bottom 11 passing offenses (Wyoming, San Diego State, New Mexico, Army and Navy). But Air Force more than held its own against the middle-of-the-road passing attacks of Florida Atlantic (ranked 63rd) and Colorado State (68). In those games Air Force gave up 78 and 173 yards, respectively, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. The Falcons held Boise State (30th at 271.1 passing yards per game) to below its average (259) while giving up a touchdown and grabbing an interception.
The lone blot on Air Force’s pass defense record (Army’s less conventional 214 passing yards aside) is the 49-45 loss to Utah State on Sept. 18, when the Aggies (with the 15th-ranked passing attack) had 448 passing yards and five touchdowns. The caveat there is Air Force has introduced three new starters in the secondary (cornberback Michael Mack II, safety Trey Taylor and “spur” linebacker Camby Goff) since that game. Mack is expected to be out Friday, with Eian Castonguay entering the lineup for first time.
The other variable to consider is the accuracy of quarterback Carson Strong, whose name has circulated as a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
“It’s the most complete team that we’ve played so far this season,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Air Force might gain a slight advantage with this being a short week. While Nevada has been the best passing team in the conference, the Falcons have seen other teams like air it out. The Wolf Pack hasn’t seen anything like the Falcons.
“I really would prefer to play them early, to be honest with you,” Norvell said. “I wish we were playing them in the first month, because then you can prepare for them in training camp and then you have your game.”
Nevada has the plus of playing in its own stadium, but the teams are 1-1 against each other in Reno with a total score knotted at 90-90.
There’s just not an obvious advantage that jumps out, and it could make for yet another competitive installment in the series.
“Every single team we play we have the mindset that they have the capability of beating us, we have the capability of beating them,” Air Force defensive tackle Christopher Herrera said. “So that’s kind of the mindset you have to have so you don’t go into a game not confident or overconfident. That’s how we’ve been going at it this week.”
2012 – Air Force 48, Nevada 31
2013 - Nevada 45, Air Force 42*
2014 – Air Force 45, Nevada 38, OT
2017 – Air Force 45, Nevada 42*
2018 - Nevada 28, Air Force 23
*At Nevada, other games at Air Force