Nevada Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones will never forget the trip back home to northern Nevada last season after meeting the Air Force Falcons.
“It was one of those things where you get on the plane and you think to yourself, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’” the Wolf Pack sophomore said.
What just happened was a 48-31 beating the Falcons handed the Wolf Pack on Oct. 26, 2012 in Colorado Springs. Air Force, which comes to Mackay Stadium on Saturday (5:05 p.m.), gained an even 600 yards, ran off 89 offensive plays, never punted the ball once, picked up 36 first downs, rushed for 461 yards, controlled the football for nearly 13 minutes in the fourth quarter and thoroughly demoralized the Pack.
“We didn’t know they were that good,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Brandon Wimberly said.
The Falcons, which finished 6-7 last year and are 1-3 (0-3 in the Mountain West) this year, aren’t usually that good. Their 36 first downs against the Pack a year ago are the second most they’ve ever had in the seven-year era of head coach Troy Calhoun. The 82 running plays are the most in the Calhoun era and the 89 total plays are the third most.
“I don’t often go back to last year’s games and watch film,” first-year Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said this week, “but this week I did. I watched it twice and I took away a lot from that game.”
What Polian saw was a Wolf Pack defense that was physically dominated by a smaller and more efficient Air Force team.
“It’s not scheme-based,” said Polian, when asked what he will like to correct about the Wolf Pack defense this year against Air Force. “What I want us to understand is that when you play Air Force, it’s a bar brawl. I’m not sure they understood that last year.”
Polian has a ton of respect for the Air Force Academy.
“This will be physically and mentally the toughest opponent we’ll face all year,” Polian said. “You have to have a lot of respect for a bunch of guys who consider football practice the easiest part of their day. They are tough by education and training. They are professional tough guys. Think of what they are trained to do. They are trained to protect our country. To strap it up against us on a football field is not such a big deal to those guys.”
The Falcons were clearly tougher than the Wolf Pack was a year ago at Falcon Field.
“It wasn’t pretty last year but it was a very good learning experience for us,” Wolf Pack tight end Kolby Arendse said. “Those guys love to go out to practice. Practice is their time to release and have some fun. They can’t wait to get out there.”
Arendse said reviewing last year’s game wasn’t a pleasant experience.
“It’s one of those games you don’t want to think about but you have to do it,” he said.
Jones said the loss to Air Force had a huge affect on the Wolf Pack a year ago. The Pack, which started out 6-1 in 2012, dropped to 6-3 with the loss to the Falcons and finished 7-6 on the year.
“It kind of changed our whole season,” Jones said.
The Falcons, which have run the ball on 222 of their 281 plays (79 per cent), are led by quarterback Jaleel Awini this year. Awini, pressed into duty because of an injury to starter Kale Pearson in a season-opening 38-13 win over Colgate, has rushed for 220 yards and passed for 275 this season. The sophomore ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-20 loss to Boise State earlier this month. A year ago Air Force senior quarterback Connor Dietz rushed for 68 yards and completed 6-of-7 passes for two touchdowns against the Pack.
“In this day and age of pass-happy spread offense, they are a little bit of a throwback,” Polian said. “And it all starts with their quarterback. He’s an excellent runner and he’s a more than adequate passer. I’ve seen far worse than him throwing the ball in that offense.”
The Falcons, Polian said, don’t try to trick you. But they will challenge your heart, focus and discipline.
“It’s assignment football,” Polian said. “You have to have your eyes in the right place.”
“We have to run to the ball and be physical,” Jones said. “You kind of know what’s coming but you have to be disciplined. This is a game where you can make a lot of plays if you do your job.”
Linebacker Albert Rosette had a Wolf Pack-record 25 tackles against Air Force last year. Linebacker Dray Bell had 22 and four more Pack players had 10 or more tackles. Linebackers Jordan Dobrich and Jonathan McNeal lead the Wolf Pack this season with an average of just five tackles a game.
Not all tackles, Polian warned, are created equal. Air Force last year, for example, got back to the line of scrimmage or gained positive yards on 77 of 78 running plays against the Pack. Their other four running plays each lost a couple yards each only because they were in victory formation and taking a knee at the end of the game.
“If you are tackling a guy seven yards down the field it’s not a big deal,” Polian said. “That’s a deceiving stat. My question is, are those tackles after two yards or are they after eight?”
The Wolf Pack obviously didn’t have enough tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage a year ago against Air Force.
“Look, they are not very big,” said Polian of the scrappy Falcons. “They average just 260 pounds on their offensive line (the Pack offensive line averages 302 pounds). They are not going to just line up and try to knock you off the ball. They are going to do a lot of cut blocking and try to get you to the ground. They run option football and option football is the great equalizer.”
The Wolf Pack is hoping to be healthier this week than they’ve been since the season opener. Starting quarterback Cody Fajardo and former starting running back Don Jackson (he has since lost his starting role to Chris Solomon) could return from injuries this week after missing the last two-plus games. Fajardo injured his knee against UC Davis on Sept. 7 and Jackson injured his ankle a few days before the Davis game.
Whether Fajardo or Jackson return or not this week, Polian is demanding that his team toughen up for the Falcons.
“If you are injured, you are injured,” Polian said. “We understand that. But I don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, I’m sore. My hamstring is sore. My ankle is sore.’” We need every practice rep we can get this week so we can get ready for this team. And if you think you are sore now, wait until Saturday night.”
Practice reps, Polian said, were crucial this week in preparation for the Falcons’ triple option attack.
“Air Force has been running their offense for 25 years,” Polian said. “We only get five days to prepare for it. Their style of play is going to be a challenge for us. Everybody has to know what their assignment is on every play.”
The Wolf Pack has been waiting for this rematch for almost a year.
“Nobody likes losing, especially the way we lost down there (at Air Force),” Wimberly said. “So, yeah, you can say we are going into this game with a chip on our shoulder.”
“The good thing about football is you sometimes get a chance to play an opponent again,” Jones said. “And Saturday is our chance to play them again.”