LARAMIE — Mention Air Force football, and there’s one thought that immediately comes to mind: offense.
Specifically, how the Falcons go about it.
Air Force’s triple option has consistently produced one of the nation’s most imposing rushing attacks over the years under veteran coach Troy Calhoun, and that hasn’t changed this season. The Falcons are on pace to finish in the top 5 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing for the sixth straight season.
But when Wyoming heads to Falcon Stadium for a noon kick Saturday to close out the regular season, the Cowboys (7-4, 4-3 Mountain West) will also have to deal with one of the nation’s top defenses, which hasn’t always been the case.
“Some of the years, Air Force has been really prolific on offense, but their defense has kind of been lacking,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “For them to win, they’ve needed to actually outscore people. That’s not the case right now.”
For all the yards the Falcons (9-2, 6-1) have racked up on the ground this season — 304.4 per game to be exact — they’ve been just as stingy allowing them. Air Force ranks in the top 4 in the Mountain West in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass defense. The Falcons are yielding 21 points and 324 yards per game, both of which rank in the top 30 nationally.
That combined with an offensive scheme that’s rare in today’s game has Air Force playing as well as anybody in the sport. The Falcons, who received votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, have won six straight games with an average margin of victory of 19.3 points during the streak.
“I think it’s probably the most complete Air Force team we’ve faced since I’ve been our head football coach,” Bohl said.
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Wyoming has already seen a pair of top-3 defenses in the league on the road at San Diego State and Boise State. The Cowboys didn’t score more than 22 points in either of those games and haven’t put up more than that in any of their losses, which have come by a combined 15 points.
Quarterback Tyler Vander Waal remained at the top of Wyoming’s depth chart heading into the week, but Wyoming is set to again rotate in true freshman Levi Williams, who gave the Cowboys a spark when Vander Waal briefly went out with an ankle injury in the second half of a 17-7 win over Colorado State last week. Williams, who scored the go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter, finished with 49 of his 74 total yards on the ground.
The 6-foot-5, 208-pound Williams attempted just two passes and completed both of them. Offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said Williams’ role could expand this week, but the Cowboys will continue to use him in the running game to help out Xazavian Valladay. Wyoming’s sophomore running back is one of the last ball carriers standing in a backfield that’s been depleted by injuries, but even with a sore knee, it hasn’t stopped him from ripping off five straight 100-yard games on the ground.
Wyoming will need all the help it can get as it puts the nation’s 20th-ranked rushing attack (217.1 yards per game) up against the 14th-ranked run defense (107.1 yards allowed per game).
“They’re fundamentally sound,” Vigen said. “They’re where they should be. They’ve been fairly aggressive in all the years that we’ve been here. They’ve been one of the better defenses. They really complement their offense well. There are several games where they’re hardly out on the field, so they’re allowing their offense to build a lead and get them off the field. I think they’re just a good team defense.”
Of course, Wyoming is no slouch defensively either. The Cowboys rank in the top 15 nationally in points and rushing yards allowed and held Colorado State to just 48 yards on the ground last week — the fewest they’ve allowed all season.
Air Force, though, is a different animal. The Falcons, who piled up more than 300 rushing yards against Wyoming last season, have four players who’ve each rushed for at least 456 yards, led by running back Kadin Remsberg (809). Fullback Timothy Jackson is averaging a team-best 6.1 yards per carry while Donald Hammond III has 10 rushing touchdowns, tied for the most among Mountain West quarterbacks.
Hammond is also coming off the best passing performance of his career, going 9 of 10 for 327 yards and four passing scores in the Falcons’ 44-22 win at New Mexico. His top target, Geraud Sanders, is averaging a league-best 25.5 yards per catch among qualified receivers.
Containing the Falcons’ offense will be as important as generating its own if Wyoming is going to notch its eighth win.
“They’re going to try to run it down your throat, and if they get a chance to pass it, they’ll pass it,” defensive end Garrett Crall said. “But at the end of the day, they’re going to try to do what they do on the ground.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter @DavisEPotter