Air Force and Nevada are set for a Friday night clash in Reno following a tale of two fourth quarters a week ago. The Falcons fell behind 27-0 at home to UNLV before storming back and winning 34-30. Air Force won the fourth quarter 14-0 to pick up its second win of the season. Now 2-4 overall and 1-2 in Mountain West play, the Falcons gained important momentum as they prepare to make a run at a bowl game.
On the other hand, Nevada pushed first-place Colorado State to the limit, held a two-score edge in the third quarter and took a 42-38 lead into the fourth quarter before being shut out 6-0 in the final 15 minutes and losing 44-42. The loss dropped the Wolf Pack to 1-6 overall and 1-2 in the league, meaning the margin for error for bowl eligibility (with Boise State and San Diego State still to play) is razor thin.
Air Force at Nevada
Kickoff: Friday Oct. 20 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -5.5
Three Things to Watch
As is the case with most teams, the Air Force offense only goes as far as its quarterback takes them. Of course, the Falcons operate in a different system than most, and using the option requires their QB to carry a bigger load in the running game.
Arion Worthman is the team’s leader with 550 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, including five TDs last week with four coming in the second half. Worthman also leads the squad with 143 carries, which is more than twice the number of running back Tim McVey, who is second with 380 yards and five TDs on 63 attempts. His good work on the ground helps offset the fact Worthman has completed just 49.2 percent of his passes, though he does have a terrific 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 180.5 passer rating.
Nevada has struggled with consistency at the position, but has put up solid passing numbers overall. The Wolf Pack rank second in the Mountain West in passing offense (263.2 yards per game) and quarterback Ty Gangi ranks third in the league with an average of 239.2 passing yards per game. Gangi started the first two games, but lost the job to Kaymen Cureton in Week 3.
The junior, who beat out Alabama transfer David Cromwell for the starting job (Cromwell has since left the team after throwing three interceptions in his only action of the season against Washington State), regained the top spot on the depth chart ahead of the conference opener at Fresno State. Gangi led the Wolf Pack to a win over Hawaii, and threw for 428 yards and four touchdowns without an interception against Colorado State. Overall, Gangi has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,435 yards and 14 TDs with six interceptions.
2. Big plays
One of the good things about being an option team is that it creates opportunities for huge plays in the passing game as teams load up to stop the run. Perhaps no one knows this better than Air Force, which ranks fourth in the nation with an average of 11.1 yards per pass attempt – in the same company as explosive offenses as Oklahoma (12.5), Oklahoma State (11.4) and UCF (11.2).
Though no Falcons receiver has double-digit catches, three average more than 20 yards per reception with multiple touchdowns, led by Ronald Cleveland’s 28.7-yard average on seven catches, including two TDs (Cleveland also has a 10.2 yards per carry average and two touchdowns on just 22 22 rushing attempts). Worthman has eight TD passes in 65 attempts – one for every 12.3 passes. Nine of his 32 completions have gone for 30 yards or more while five have gained at least 50 yards.
Making matters worse for Nevada, the Wolf Pack have surrendered more long plays than any almost team in the nation. Opponents have connected for 19 passes of 30 yards or more, which ranks 128th in the country (out of 129 qualified FBS teams). The Wolf Pack also have allowed 13 passes longer than 40 yards – more than any other FBS defense. However, the Nevada offense ranks third in the Mountain West with 18 offensive plays of 30 yards or more.
But there is another dangerous aspect of option offense – more fumbles because of all the running plays and various pitches. Air Force has lost eight fumbles this season, which is more than all but five teams nationally. Those fumbles (plus two interceptions and only five takeaways) explain why the Falcons have a minus-five turnover ratio.
Alas, Nevada has its own problems. Wolf Pack quarterbacks have been intercepted 10 times this season, which is more than all but eight other FBS teams. Defensively, the Wolf Pack have forced 10 takeaways, giving the squad a minus-four turnover ratio.
Air Force and Nevada both disappointed in the first half of the season, and at this point the odds are slim either will make it to a bowl game. However, the Falcons picked up some much-needed momentum with their come-from-behind victory over UNLV last week. Air Force also has a significant edge in the running game, and a stable situation at quarterback. While both teams have struggled to win the turnover battle, and both are capable of making big plays offensively, the Falcons have done a better job limiting explosive plays.
It’s always difficult to win on the road, but Air Force matches up quite well with the Wolf Pack. The Falcons should pick up their second Mountain West victory, putting them one step closer to bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Air Force 37, Nevada 28
– Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Tim McVey photo courtesy of USAF Athletic Communications)