Air Force heads into the final week of the college football regular season with an opportunity to advance to the Mountain West Football Championship Game with a win on Black Friday against UNLV.
The Falcons (8-3, 5-2) enter this week in a three-way tie with Boise State and Utah State for first place in the Mountain Division. But the Falcons are in control of the tiebreaker scenarios thanks to their head-to-head win over the Broncos and the fact that the Aggies' two losses have come to divisional teams. So it's pretty simple for Troy Calhoun's team — win and you're playing for a conference title.
Meanwhile, this season for UNLV (2-9, 2-5) can best be described as heartbreaking. The Rebels suffered their sixth one-score loss of the campaign last Friday night, falling 28-20 to No. 19 San Diego State at home. Justin Rogers came on in relief of an injured Cameron Friel and lit up the Aztecs' usually stout defense for 305 passing yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Steve Jenkins came up big with 176 yards and a score on five catches. SDSU did contain UNLV's Charles Williams, the conference's No. 2 rusher, holding him to just 35 yards on 16 carries. The Rebels also did a good job on the Aztecs' running game (98 yds., 3.1 ypc), but quarterback Lucas Johnson tossed three touchdown passes.
That same night, Air Force took on Nevada on the road, and the two teams put on a wild, back-and-forth contest that went into overtime. Actually, it took three overtimes before the Falcons prevailed 41-39. Air Force piled up 473 yards on a whopping 83 rushing attempts, led by DeAndre Hughes' 221 yards, which set a new school record. The Falcons went 12-of-21 on third and fourth down, which helped them keep the clock moving (had the ball for 37:38). Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong put up 351 yards and four touchdowns through the air on Air Force's defense, but Nevada did nothing on the ground (18 yards on 27 carries).
UNLV at Air Force
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -18
When UNLV Has the Ball
The Rebels should head into this game with a nothing-to-lose mentality on offense. Possessions will be at a premium as Air Force is outstanding at playing keep away from their opponents. The Falcons' productive running game is one of the reasons why they are second in the nation in time of possession (36:18). So UNLV knows it has to make the most of its drives.
If Friel can't go because of his injury or head coach Andy Avalos decides to stick with Rogers at quarterback, it will be interesting to see if the passing game has the same success it did against San Diego State. Air Force is ranked third in the Mountain West in passing defense (199.4 ypg) and has given up 14 touchdown passes, but the Falcons also are in the top 20 in the country in scoring defense (19.5 ppg). So yards and points won't be easy to come by for the Rebels. Williams is the key to the attack, but Air Force's rushing defense (96.1 ypg) isn't too far behind the Aztecs, who were able to contain the Chuck Wagon. He may not see enough touches on Friday to have a shot at trying to wear down this defense.
Throwing the ball also plays to one of the Falcons' strengths. They have collected 32 sacks this season. Vince Sanford leads the charge with 8.5 and also has 15.0 tackles for a loss, both of which rank third in the conference. UNLV is second to last in sacks allowed (36), so pressure could definitely play a factor in how this game turns out.
When Air Force Has the Ball
There's no secret to the Falcons' offensive approach. Run, run, and run some more. Air Force is not only leading the country with 326.6 rushing yards per game, but the team averages 64 attempts per contest as well and is still gaining five yards per carry.
It's a team effort too as seven different players have logged 34 or more carries. Consider that even though Williams is second in the Mountain West in rushing, UNLV as a team has run the ball 370 times. The Falcons have nearly twice as many carries (712). That's one of the reasons why they can control the clock and dictate tempo.
Brad Roberts leads the team and the conference with 1,186 yards (62 ahead of Williams) and 11 rushing touchdowns, but last week it was Hughes, listed as a wide receiver on the roster, who stole the show. He's averaging 8.6 yards per carry after his record-setting performance. Besides these two, Daniels has 705 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground to go along with five touchdown passes (and three interceptions).
The Rebels did a good job limiting the damage San Diego State did on the ground last week, but Air Force represents an entirely different challenge. UNLV is giving up four yards per carry entering this matchup and while no one is expecting this defense to completely shut down the Falcons' running game (because no other team has), it will be critical to limit the big gains and explosive plays. Not surprisingly, Air Force leads the conference in running plays of 20-plus (24) and 30-plus (13) yards, while the Rebels have given up just 16 and four, respectively. This defense will have to do what it can to help keep UNLV in this game.
Expect a spirited effort from UNLV, which has absolutely nothing to lose and looks to end the season on a high note. Air Force is in control of its own destiny, and this well-coached team won't take the Rebels lightly. UNLV may continue to have some success throwing the ball, especially if Rogers is back at quarterback, but the Falcons' running game will take over. The defense does the rest and Air Force books its spot in the Mountain West Football Championship Game with a comfortable win at home.
Prediction: Air Force 31, UNLV 16
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