Though it will be a break from Mountain West Conference play, the stakes are even higher for the Air Force Falcons as Troy Calhoun’s team travels to West Point for the annual rivalry showdown with the Army West Point Black Knights. Air Force comes in 3-5 overall and fell to 1-4 in conference play with a 48-38 loss to Boise State last week. Army, already bowl eligible at 6-2, has won four straight after beating Eastern Michigan 37-22 on the road last week.
With Air Force having already beaten Navy, a win for the Falcons would return the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Air Force after a one-year hiatus. However, Army, which snapped a five-game losing streak against the Falcons with a 21-0 victory last season and won the three-headed rivalry series for the first time since 1996, won’t give the trophy up without a fight.
Air Force at Army West Point
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Army -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The backfield
It should come as no surprise that both Army and Air Force rank among the nation’s best in rushing offense. Jeff Monken’s Knights rank second only to Georgia Tech on the national leaderboard with 314.6 rushing yards per contest. Air Force isn’t far behind at No. 8 overall, as the Falcons average 255.5 yards on the ground per game. Both offenses utilize the triple option, and both units are well-rounded and utilize multiple ball carriers to move the chains and put the ball in the end zone.
The top performers in the Army backfield are quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and fullback Darnell Woolfolk. Despite not playing against Miami (Ohio) two weeks ago, Hopkins leads the Knights with 596 rushing yards and ranks second to Woolfolk with seven rushing touchdowns. The junior has eclipsed 100 yards rushing in three games this season, and though he was limited to 99 against San Jose State earlier this year, Hopkins set a career high with three scores against the Spartans. Woolfolk has yet to post triple-digit rushing yardage this season, but the 235-pound senior has four such games to his credit in his career. He posted 98 rushing yards against Liberty and 96 versus Miami this season and scored twice in both games.
The Falcons are also led by a dynamic quarterback-running back duo. Air Force QB Isaiah Sanders leads the team with six rushing touchdowns and 115 carries despite splitting time with two others at the position earlier this year. Sanders exploded for 173 yards on the ground and three TDs against UNLV to earn MWC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Overall, he has 445 rushing yards, which ranks second on the squad. Cole Fagan leads the team with 486 rushing yards, and the junior has scored four touchdowns this season.
2. Progress in the passing game
Just as the Army and Air Force offenses rank near the top of the FBS leaderboard in rushing offense, the two units fall towards the bottom in passing. Army ranks No. 127 in passing offense (91.4 yards per game) and is one of just four programs that have yet to hit the 1,000-yard passing mark, while Air Force sits at No. 123 (137.5). Nevertheless, both teams have made progress in 2018.
The Black Knights threw for just 361 yards all of last season and completed only two TD passes — both of which were the fewest in the nation by a wide margin. Army has already doubled its passing total this season (731 passing yards) and has tripled its touchdowns (6). The element of surprise has also been very effective as the Black Knights rank third nationally in yards per pass attempt (10.8). As a first-year starter, Hopkins has had a big impact. Most recently, his 3-for-3 passing effort for 63 yards on a single drive in the second half against Eastern Michigan played a key role in the win.
Thanks in large part to Sanders’ passing skills, Air Force has also improved its output this season. Sanders has completed 43-of-71 passes (60.6 percent) for 767 yards — including back-to-back 200-yard performances — and four TDs with two interceptions. The Falcons have averaged 137.5 passing yards per game this season (an increase of 27.4 per contest over last year) and rank eighth in the country in yards per pass (9.6).
3. Third-down conversions
Option teams also generally post high conversion rates on third downs, though Army has been far better this season. The Knights rank third in the country (53.73 percent), having moved the chains 72 times (tops in the nation) in 134 attempts. Air Force hasn’t been as fortunate. The Falcons rank a disappointing 84th overall in third-down conversion rate (37.7 percent).
Army has also been decidedly better stopping its opponents on third down. The Black Knights rank sixth in the country in opponent third-down conversion rate (26.92 percent) and first in conversions allowed (21). The Falcons have allowed opponents a 36.63 percent success rate on third down, which ranks 48th nationally.
As annual rivals, Air Force and Army know each other very well. That familiarity, as well as the fact that both defenses consistently face triple-option offenses in practice throughout the season, limits the schematic advantage its rival usually enjoys offensively. The Falcons have a better passing attack, but Army has been more consistent overall, and the Black Knights are among the best in the nation limiting opponents' third-down conversions. Expect Army to ensure that the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy stays in West Point, as a win over Air Force would guarantee no worse than a three-way tie in the series.
Prediction: Army 24, Air Force 14
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of goarmywestpoint.com)