Allegiant Stadium offers a new glitzy adventure for the incoming Air Force Falcons.
Saturday marks their first game in the Las Vegas football haven when they take on the UNLV Rebels in Mountain West crossover play.
“The opportunity to play in this facility is really, really splendid,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun told reporters earlier this week.
But updated experiences aren’t what the Falcons need against the Rebels.
They’re quite happy with the old ones, dominating the all-time series 16-6 and having won the last four meetings, which includes last fall’s 48-14 no-doubter.
The trouble is the 2022 version of UNLV is turning some heads, even after last week’s sloppy drop — 40-7 — to the host San Jose Spartans.
“They’re a completely different team than they were last year,” Air Force junior defensive back Eian Castonguay told reporters. “So they have a lot of athletic guys over there and definitely a lot of competitors.”
Indeed, the proof is in the record.
At 4-2, the Rebels are right there with the Falcons. But they’ve got a leg up on Air Force with a 2-1 conference record in Mountain West action. Saturday’s visitors have struggled in conference play with a 1-2 mark — helped along by last week’s 34-27 road loss to the Utah State Aggies — making this game pretty much a must-win in an effort to claim the Mountain West championship.
The Rebels — after a 2-10 2021 — just won’t be rolling over for them this year.
“You’ve just got to be honest with yourself,” UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo told reporters. “We’re 4-2. We’re playing good ball. You get punched in the face like (last week), you’ve got to respond. There’s a lot of season left.”
Air Force at UNLV
When Air Force Has the Ball
The offense, of course, runs the ball a lot, and the primary conduit is senior fullback Brad Roberts.
Only four players nationwide have more rushing yards than his 709 That’s tops in the Mountain West by 150-plus yards. Even in last week’s defeat, he had 136 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
But the star back needs help to get the Air Force offense back up to snuff. After averaging 487 rushing yards in their first four games of the schedule, the Falcons have fallen off by more than 125 in their last two outings.
In the loss to Utah State — which boiled down to a pair of late turnovers, including an interception thrown deep in Aggies territory by senior quarterback Haaziq Daniels with less than four minutes remaining — Air Force gained 359 total yards, including 256 on the ground.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Roberts, who could only muster 34 yards over the final 37 minutes, told The Gazette. “The game comes down to little inches and little mistakes, and we made more mistakes this game — and we paid for it.”
A lot of the drop-off and errors can be attributed to injuries, with weapons such as DeAndre Hughes, Dane Kinamon, Zac Larrier and Kyle Patterson all banged up.
The good news is the cavalry could show up Saturday, with running back Hughes expected to return along with — perhaps — all-purpose back Larrier and tight end Patterson.
Any help would be welcome for the key conference tilt.
“Obviously, the resiliency (has been a positive),” Calhoun said. “But we’d like to get a couple of guys that return to be involved.”
That would help against a UNLV defense that could prove ornery. The Rebels were ripped up last week by San Jose State QB Chevan Cordeiro, who totaled four TDs and helped the Spartans accumulate 433 total yards, 203 of those on the ground. The latter number is not a good sign leading into a game against the run-happy Falcons.
“It sucks that it happened like this,” said UNLV senior linebacker Austin Ajiake, who had 13 total tackles and two sacks in the losing cause. “This is not how we envisioned this game going, but I don’t want to just leave it like that. I want to find a way that we can turn this into a positive and we can learn from it. We’ve still got a lot of games left. It’s a long season.”
When UNLV Has the Ball
Health also is an issue for the home team. Talented QB Doug Brumfield took two hits in last week’s loss before leaving and is considered day-to-day with head and ankle injuries. His status for Saturday remains up in the air, with Arroyo not committing either way.
“He’ll deal with our doctors until they clear him,” the UNLV head coach said earlier. “Then, we’ll be ready to roll. But we’re going to make sure we get him back the right way. We’re not going to hurry him back.”
Good call, given the sophomore’s success this season. Only Cordeiro has more passing yards — 1,308 to Brumfield’s 1,231 — among Mountain West signal-callers. He's also operating at a high clip, with a 68.4 percent completion rate.
Brumfield also can make things happen with his legs, with 137 yards on 48 carries. So his absence — as UNLV found out first-hand last week — would be felt unless one or both backup QBs Cameron Friel or Harrison Bailey step up in a big way.
“I think it’s a great week for these two to go after it,” said Arroyo of sophomores Friel and Bailey. “Battle it out and see what we can do.”
Friel got the call last week in relief of Brumfield, going 15-for-22 for 153 yards, but had just one touchdown. The Rebels' offense as a whole struggled against San Jose State, finishing with 213 total yards, including just 52 rushing. Aidan Robbins led the way with 55 yards on 13 carries, but Friel was credited with minus-24 yards as the Spartans registered four sacks and also recovered a fumble by the backup QB.
Still, Calhoun had good things to say about the UNLV unit — with or without Brumfield.
“On offense, they do have really, really good balance,” said the Air Force head coach. “And the back (Robbins) is enormous. He’s every bit of 6-2, 225 pounds. It’s Derrick Henry, with just the size and the power.”
Just what the Falcons' defense doesn’t need to face after allowing 199 rushing yards to Utah State in Week 6. It was part of a 414-yard onslaught by the Aggies.
“Huge credit to Utah State — they did a good job once they got out in the open field,” Calhoun said. “We need to tackle better.”
The defense needs to be better, period, to prevent Air Force, a popular pick to win the Mountain Division enterting this season, from slipping to 1-3 in the standings, well behind current leader Boise State (3-0).
With both teams coming off losses they didn’t like, this game sets up as a critical bounce-back opportunity.
The Falcons may be heavily favored, but it’s tough to come to terms with a double-digit spread with so many question marks for both teams heading into the contest.
“We just want to play competitive football,” Calhoun said. “And it’ll be hard to do this week, too, going in there and playing against a really, really talented team.
“There’s a reason why they’re 4-2. You look at the turnover margin — they’ve been really, really good that way. I think they’ve forced like 12 or 14 turnovers, and they’ve held onto it, too. They’re good. They are really, really good up front. They get near the quarterback. They’re disruptive.”
And if UNLV's starting quarterback can’t go, just how will the Rebebls fare? The end result could well come down to his status.
Regardless, with both teams looking to stay alive in the conference race, it shouldn’t be a runaway one way or the other.
“We’ve got to get healthy — guys have got to step up,” added Arroyo. “Everything is still in front of us.”
Prediction: Air Force 29, UNLV 26
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