There are plenty of moving parts making the Nevada Wolf Pack one of the Mountain West Conference's best programs these days.
So much so that — according to reports — junior quarterback Carson Strong will be moving on to the NFL next year and head coach Jay Norvell might be moving on to a Power 5 job elsewhere.
But the only move the Wolf Pack (7-3, 4-2 MW) are focused on right now is one up the conference standings and into the championship game. After last week's tough loss to San Diego State, Nevada has to win both of its remaining games to have any shot at the West Division title. That starts by beating Air Force on Friday night at home.
"We signed up for 12 games, and this team has been amazing in their maturity and how committed they are to doing that and being as good as we can be," Norvell told reporters. "We qualified for a bowl game a couple games ago, but we said our goals are much higher than that."
So, too, are those of the Falcons (7-3, 4-2), who are a game behind Utah State for first place in the Mountain Division. The Aggies hold the head-to-head tiebreaker (49-45 back on Sept. 18), so the Air Force knows it needs to go 2-0 these next two weeks as well.
So it's no stretch to call this a must-win for both teams. Nevada is in this position after losing a 23-21 heartbreaker to the Aztecs last week on a 35-yard field goal surrendered with less than a minute and a half left in the game.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are in this position after losing two of their last three. They rebounded last week with a dominant 35-21 victory over Colorado State.
Air Force at Nevada
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 19, at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Nevada -1.5
When Air Force Has the Ball
The Falcons love to run the football. And more than ever, they need to stick to a conservative game plan if no other reason to keep the ball out of Nevada's hands. And with a ground game that rolls up an FBS-leading 311 yards per game, that approach has been largely successful.
Air Force holds onto the ball for more than 36 minutes each game, a mark that's second only to fellow service academy and option-oriented team, Army West Point.
Last week, the Falcons had the ball for nearly 40 minutes and put up more than 500 total yards (388 rushing) in their 35-21 road win over Colorado State. Brad Roberts led the way with 151 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. The Rams totaled 37 rushing attempts. The effort pushed Roberts over the 1,000-yard mark for the season (1,064), and he ranks second in the Mountain West in rushing yardage and touchdowns (10).
But he doesn't do it alone. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels is second on the team with 648 yards and nine scores. Wide receivers Micah Davis (360) and DeAndre Hughes (250) are among six total Falcons with more than 200 rushing yards on the season. Hughes also went over 100 last week.
Even though Air Force is running the ball 63 times a game, the team is averaging nearly five yards per carry (4.95). And they are doing this behind an offensive line that had to replace all five starters from last season. That's a testament to how effectively the Falcons run head Troy Calhoun's patented flexbone triple option.
Daniels is capable of throwing the ball — he has 909 passing yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions on the season – but every team knows what to expect when facing Air Force. Nevada's priority will be slowing down the Falcons on the ground. The Wolf Pack come into this game sixth in the Mountain West in rushing defense at 136.2 yards per game and 4.1 yards allowed per carry, but they haven't faced the Falcons yet.
When Nevada Has the Ball
When it comes to contrasting styles on offense, it doesn't get much more drastic than Air Force and Nevada. As much as the Falcons love to run the ball, the Wolf Pack love to throw it. And why not with Strong as your quarterback?
Already tabbed as one of the top prospects at his position for the 2022 NFL Draft, Strong is as good as it gets among his collegiate peers.
"We've seen some really, really good ones," Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun told reporters. "There's no one that's more precise than Strong is."
The numbers back it up. His 70.5 percent completion rate, 374 passing yards per game, and 28 touchdown passes rank him among the top 10 in the country in each category. With Strong as the trigger man, Nevada is leading the Mountain West at 35 points per game.
And a solid defense doesn't exactly slow him down, as was the case last week against San Diego State. Even though the Aztecs are in the top 10 nationally in both scoring and total defense, Strong threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions while going 34-for-48, albeit in a losing effort.
So there's no fear facing another stingy unit this week in Air Force, especially with tight end Cole Turner expected to return after sustaining a concussion a couple of games ago. Adding the senior's 55 catches and 618 yards to a weapons cache that also includes receivers Romeo Doubs (64 rec., 853 yds., 7 TDs) and Melquan Stovall (51, 583, TD) only serves to make Strong stronger.
But the Falcons are giving up just 287 yards per game, to rank fourth in the FBS, and 17.6 points per contest as well (11th). They have been particularly stingy against passing attacks, holding teams to just 178 yards per game, good for seventh overall. With Vince Sanford (6.5 sacks) bringing the pressure and Trey Taylor making the stops (48 tackles), Air Force just may have the scheme and personnel to slow down Strong and company.
So this game could come down to Nevada's defense, the perceived weak link of the primary units involved. To add to the challenge facing the Wolf Pack, they could be without defensive back JoJuan Claiborne, who is out with a knee injury.
But with 19 takeaways on the year, Nevada's D can have its shining moments. So maybe it comes to location, location, location to decide this important matchup for both teams?
Nevada has won all five games at home. Air Force has won all four of its road games. So that doesn't help settle anything.
Well then, how about that whole run vs. pass thing? The run-heavy Falcons can throw the ball when they choose to, while there's been much made lately about the Wolf Pack not doing enough on the ground, as witnessed last Saturday when they gained just eight yards on 15 attempts in the two-point loss to San Diego State.
"We kind of made the decision to do what we feel like we need to do to win," said Norvell, who does have a senior star at running back in Toa Taua (558 yds., 5.1 y pc) at his disposal. "The most important stats are to win and score points. We are the highest-scoring team in our conference, and we've done that throwing the ball and not running the ball.
"We have a quarterback who is playing at a historic level," added Norvell of Strong. "We've made a decision to ride (Strong and his pass-catchers) out."
And well they should.
Prediction: Nevada 31, Air Force 23
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