A pair of Mountain West rivals and dark-horse conference title contenders, the Air Force Falcons and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, are scheduled to square off in a cross-division clash in Honolulu this Saturday night. Both squads had an opportunity to knock off a defending division champion last week and strengthen their case for a title run.
Air Force beat defending West division (and Mountain West) champ Fresno State 43-24 to improve to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play. Hawaii fell to Boise State, the reigning Mountain division champion, 59-37 on the road. The Rainbow Warriors are now 4-2 overall and 1-1 in league play. Though both teams lost to the Broncos (and each has at least one win over a Pac-12 opponent), the Warriors still control their own fate in the West division. Of course, a loss to the Falcons would likely change that.
Air Force at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -3
When Air Force Has the Ball
It should come as no surprise that Air Force ranks among the nation's leaders in rushing offense. The Falcons have averaged 296.5 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks second in the FBS behind Navy (327.2). Running backs Taven Birdow and Kadin Remsberg, fullback Timothy Jackson, and quarterback Donald Hammond III have shared the bulk of the carries this season. Birdow leads the team with 451 rushing yards and has scored four touchdowns. Remsberg is close behind with 440 yards and three scores and has averaged 5.64 yards per carry. Hammond III leads the Falcons with eight TDs on the ground and has run for 249 yards, followed by Jackson’s 245 rushing yards and three TDs.
What is somewhat surprising is the amount of success Air Force has had in the passing game. The Falcons have averaged 11.8 yards per attempt this season, which ranks third in the country, and is on schedule to become the best figure in school history. Hammond has completed 30 of 60 passes for 655 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions. Geraud Sanders (17 receptions, 363 yards, 3 TD) and Benjamin Waters (9, 292, 2) have done most of the work outside.
Hawaii is likely to load up to try and stop the run, but the Rainbow Warriors have struggled to slow down opponents on the ground who operate out of more traditional, and less sophisticated, rushing attacks than the Falcons. Hawaii ranks ninth in the Mountain West in run defense (179.67 ypg), and 11th in yards allowed per carry (5.28). Those figures sit at No. 90 and No. 119, respectively, nationally.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Likewise, the Rainbow Warriors once again feature one of the top passing attacks in the nation. They rank fourth in the country in passing offense (351.5 ypg) and have averaged 44.2 pass attempts per game, which ranks third overall. Quarterback Cole McDonald ranks fifth in the country in passing offense (313.3 ypg) and fourth in TD passes (20).
McDonald has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,880 yards, and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, though he has thrown nine interceptions — tied for the second-most among all FBS QBs. McDonald also is a capable runner and ranks second on the team with 155 rushing yards and one touchdown. Miles Reed has emerged as the top ball carrier, entering this game with 237 yards and three TDs on 54 carries.
Much like the Air Force backfield, the Hawaii receiving corps features several playmakers who have shared the load this season. Cedric Byrd leads the Mountain West with 46 receptions, nine touchdowns, and an average of 95.3 yards per contest. JoJo Ward (28 rec., 418 yds., 6 TDs), Jared Smart (32, 377, TD), and Jason-Matthew Sharsh (31, 330, TD) all rank among the top 15 in the conference in terms of receiving yardage.
Though the Air Force defense is far from dominant (the Falcons rank No. 55 in the country at 5.25 yards per play allowed), it has limited opponents to just 310.5 total yards per game, which is the second-best mark in the Mountain West and among the top 25 nationally. However, the Falcons are most susceptible to the pass, allowing 7.3 yards per attempt, which ranks 74th.
In a matchup of contrasting offensive styles, Hawaii and Air Force are nevertheless very evenly matched. Plus, both teams have the benefit of pitting their offensive strengths against their opponent's biggest defensive weakness. And though the Falcons' style of play typically slows the game down and limits opponents' possessions, the Rainbow Warriors can combat that equally well by scoring with lightning quickness.
It should be a close game, but Hawaii has both the home-field advantage, and a slight talent advantage, which should be enough to win and stay in the driver’s seat in the West division.
Prediction: Hawaii 37, Air Force 34
(Top photo courtesy of Hawaii Athletics)