SDSU Aztecs vs Air Force Falcons – Week 8/Game Preview

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Credit: MWC Logos

San Diego State Aztecs  vs. Air Force Falcons

Falcon Stadium – Colorado Springs, CO

Kickoff: Saturday, October 23rd @ 4 pm

TV: CBS Sports Network

The No. 21/22 ranked San Diego State Aztecs, are one of only eleven undefeated teams remaining in FBS. The team is back on the road this week as they travel to Colorado Springs, CO, to take on the Air Force Falcons on Saturday night. 

Both teams have reached the six wins required for bowl eligibility already this season. The Falcons are 6-1 for the first time since 2002 and are receiving votes in both Top 25 polls that would place them #31 and #30 in the Coaches and AP polls, respectively, if the polls extended past 25 selections.  Air Force’s last win over a ranked team came in 2016 in a home victory over #19/20 Boise State. 

By leading the Aztecs to their second 6-0 start in 46 seasons, head coach Brady Hoke became the only active coach to start 6-0 with three different FBS programs. The other two instances were at Ball State in 2008 (started 12-0) and Michigan in 2011 (started 6-0). 

After last week’s double-overtime victory against the San Jose State Spartans, head coach Brady Hoke told the media during his Tuesday press conference that “to win a championship you’ve got to win tight games [and] this team has done that twice.” 

The Aztecs are on an eight-game winning streak against the Falcons, including a victory in the 2015 MW Championship Game. This will be the first meeting between the two teams since 2018 when the Aztecs won by a score of 21-17 in San Diego after a 67-minute lightning delay. 

In the game played at Air Force the year prior, that game was also delayed by lightning for an hour and 28 minutes. The weather forecast for this Saturday in Colorado Springs is a high of 72 and a low of 41, with mostly cloudy skies and no signs of lightning. Although when is the last time a weatherman has proven to be trusted?

Falcon Stadium, situated on the Air Force Academy campus, sits at an elevation of 6,621 feet above sea level, which has been known to cause issues with incoming opponents who are from sea level. However, the Aztecs regularly play at elevation against conference opponents, including all road games last season, so they should be as well-equipped to handle it as anyone.  

The Aztecs are three and a half point underdogs in what coach Hoke called “our biggest challenge of the year so far.” 

Opponent Information

Team: Air Force Falcons

City: Colorado Springs, CO

2021 Record: 6-1 (3-1)

Series Record Against SDSU: 19-17 (8 game losing streak)

Opponent

Head coach Troy Calhoun is in his 15th year leading the Falcons football team after spending four years in the NFL as an assistant coach for the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos. He led the Falcons to a bowl game in 10 of his 14 previous years as head coach. Coach Calhoun played quarterback for the Falcons from 1985 through 1989 and became the first Air Force Academy graduate to become head coach at the program.  

The Falcons finished 3-3 last year during the COVID-19 shortened season, leading the nation in total rush offense with 305.7 yards per game. In the 2019 season, they finished 11-2 overall, 7-1 in the conference, and defeated Washington State in the Cheez-It Bowl. 

Air Force was picked to finish third in the Mountain Division and did not have any players selected on the 2021 MWC Preseason All-Conference Team. They lost 17 starters from last year’s team, eight each on offense and defense, along with one on special teams. 

Through the first seven games of the season, the Falcons have nearly doubled their opponents in scoring, 220-114. Their offense is built off the triple-option running game, which has compiled 2,355 rushing yards so far, an average of 336.4 per game that would blow away their FBS leading 305.7 per game average from 2020. In addition, they have rushed for 27 touchdowns and maintained a 38 to 22 time of possession advantage per game, second-best in the country. 

Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Junior starting quarterback Haaziq Daniels leads their attack. On the year, he has racked up 525 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, including a 94 yarder against FAU earlier this season. Their leading rusher is junior fullback Brad Roberts, who has 818 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. 

Aztec senior linebacker Caden McDonald sees a lot of great players on the Falcons offense. “Their offensive line is really physical, and they get after it,” he said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Their fullback is a great runner and runs the heck out of the ball. Their quarterback is a field general for that offense and runs it very well.”

The Falcons do not pass very often, as evidenced by only attempting 49 passes over seven games for a total of 553 passing yards. In last week’s matchup against Boise State, Daniels completed only one pass out of five attempts, but that one completion went for 59 yards to wide receiver and San Diego native Brandon Lewis. 

When they look to pass, it is usually taking a shot down the field for a big play. Their leading receiver is sophomore Micah Davis, who has caught ten passes for 221 yards and their only two receiving touchdowns. Davis also factors into the running game, adding 345 rushing yards and four touchdowns in addition to being their primary kickoff and punt returner. 

The Falcons have also converted an absurd 17 of 21 fourth-down conversions. McDonald noted that “if we need to hold them to four-and-outs [to get the ball back for our offense], we’ll be glad to take on the challenge.”

While Air Force gets its public notoriety from the triple-option offense, their defense has become a dominant force in itself. They are 12th in the nation in scoring defense (16.3 points per game), 11th in total defense (288.9 yards per game), and 10th in rushing defense (91.3 yards per game), which coach Hoke stated should tell you how good of a total football team they are. In addition, they have collected 21 sacks and won all five games in which they held the opponent below 300 total yards. 

Their best defensive player is junior linebacker Vince Sanford, who leads the team with 31 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, including six and a half sacks, six quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. Based on those statistics, it is apparent that Sanford can do it all and be highly disruptive against any offense. Sanford was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts in the Air Force’s 24-14 victory over Wyoming on October 9. 

Junior nose guard Kalawai’a Pescaia plugs up the middle of the defensive line and said on Tuesday during Air Force’s weekly press conference that his job is to “hold the double team at the line of scrimmage and let our linebackers flow and go make plays.”

Senior safety Corvan Taylor leads the team with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. 

The Falcons have only committed four turnovers this season while forcing eleven from the opposition, a +7 turnover margin. They also lead the nation in fewest penalty yards per game at 33. They rarely beat themselves and make the opposing team have to earn their success. 

(Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

The Falcons went 3-0 in non-conference play at the start of the season, beating Lafayette, Navy, and FAU by a combined score of 89-24. They will close out their non-conference schedule with a game against Army on November 6. 

After losing their conference opener to Utah State in a shootout, 49-45, they won their next three conference games, including an impressive road victory on the blue turf at Boise State this past weekend. While their offense rushed for 307 yards and scored 24 points, it was their defense that took control of the game after allowing a touchdown on Boise State’s opening drive, holding the Broncos to only ten points for the remainder of the game. 

Both Aztec student-athletes who were made available to the media on Tuesday praised the Air Force players for what they do off the football field. “I have high respect for him [Daniels] and that entire team for everything they do on and off the field,” said McDonald. “We know what they do outside of school and football, and the dedication it takes to go to Air Force and serve our country,” stated wide receiver, Jesse Matthews. 

 Player to Know

Senior linebacker Demonte Meeks (#38). 

The linebacker, who opted out of last season due to COVID-19, is back to play his senior season. In 2019, he was named Second Team All-Conference, and was a tackling machine, averaging eleven tackles per game in the last three regular-season games. The Falcons are very pleased to have him back to lead the defense in 2021. 

So far this season, Meeks has 28 total tackles, including three and a half sacks, and is dropping into coverage more as a middle linebacker than he has in prior seasons. When asked during a press conference last week which linebackers he idolized growing up, Meeks noted that he has tried to emulate the work ethic of Ray Lewis, who he called the “GOAT linebacker,” but noted he did not (and still does not) really enjoy watching football.

Aztecs

Through their first five games, the Aztecs complemented their dominant defense with an explosive running game that ranked 10th in the nation and reached at least 200 rushing yards in every game. 

In their sixth game of the season, their rush offense was stifled by the San Jose State defensive front, leaving their defense to pick up the slack in regulation before the offense woke up in overtime. 

The biggest headline coming out of the San Jose State game was the quarterback change made in the fourth quarter, which saw Lucas Johnson replace starter Jordon Brookshire. While Johnson was put in a difficult situation at the end of regulation, he excelled in the two overtime periods, throwing both touchdown passes to Jesse Matthews, including making the bold yet successful decision to audible from a run to a pass on third down when a field goal would have won the game. 

Coach Hoke announced on Tuesday that Johnson will remain as the starter for the upcoming game. Johnson started and won two games earlier this season while Brookshire was unable to play due to injury. Coach Hoke attributed the decision to start Johnson to him finishing the San Jose State game on a high note, having the hot hand, and practicing well. True freshman Will Haskell was named as Johnson’s backup in a surprising move, moving Brookshire to #3 on the depth chart. 

Credit: AP Photo

While the rushing offense was not its usual dominant self against the Spartans, the Aztecs still hold the 19th best rushing offense in the country at 215.3 yards per game. They will look to get Greg Bell, who leads the team in rushing with 561 yards, and the rest of the running backs going this week despite playing against one of the best rush defenses in the country. 

Falcon nose guard Pescaia noted that the Aztecs offense “runs outside zone [schemes] and we have not generally seen a lot of so it will be a good test.”

The Aztecs’ defense is coming off a strong performance in which they only allowed six points in regulation and secured a crucial interception in the end zone in the second overtime that allowed the offense to win the game on its drive.  

The Aztec defense only allows 16.0 points (10th in FBS) and 282.8 yards per game (8th in FBS). They had held six straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards for the first time in its Division I era before allowing 117 rushing yards to San Jose State. While their rushing yards per game average increased to 61.2, they moved up from second to first in FBS standings in that category. 

The Aztecs’ defense is led by junior Cameron Thomas, named The Athletic’s Midseason Second-Team. Thomas is second on the team with 29 total tackles but first with nine tackles for loss, including three and a half sacks and twelve quarterback, hurries, more than double that of any other defensive player on the team. 

“They move exceptionally well, and they are large,” coach Calhoun answered in response to a question about why the Aztecs’ defensive line is so effective. 

Aztec safety Patrick McMorris leads the team with 40 total tackles while also collecting an interception and six pass breakups in his first season as starter for the Aztecs. Warrior safety Trenton Thompson leads the team with nine pass breakups and is tied with cornerback Tayler Hawkins with two interceptions. Coach Hoke is proud of the way his defense is playing but believes they “have to do a better job of knocking the ball out or stepping in front of a couple picks.”

Punter Matt Araiza continues to lead FBS with a 53.9 yard average per punt. The FBS single-season record is held by Braden Mann, who had a 51.0 average in 2018. While Araiza will need to keep his current average high over the final half of the season, he is close to setting a pair of FBS single-season records. He is seven punts shy of the record for most punts of 50+ yards and only two shy of punts that traveled 60+ yards. The elevation in Colorado Springs might be a great setting to break the latter mark.

After another stellar performance against the Spartans by kicking a 53-yard field goal and compiling a 52.9 yard per punt average, which included a career-high 86 yard punt in the third quarter, Araiza was named the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week. He was also named as the punter on the ESPN, Sporting News, and AP midseason All-American teams. 


Injury Updates

The only starter who missed action against San Jose State was wide receiver Kobe Smith, who is still recovering from a car accident before the Towson game and has missed the first two conference games. His status is unknown for this week’s game. 

The Falcons have not reported any injuries heading into this matchup. 

Opponent’s San Diego Connection

  • Senior wide receiver Brandon Lewis attended Madison High
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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.

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