There’s no question Air Force has persevered through more than its far share of adversity during the 2020 college football season.
It all started in September when the Falcons had 40 players take advantage of a turnback clause, which allowed them to separate from the academy for a semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those athletes made that decisions after the Mountain West announced it would be postponing all fall sports. The conference ultimately reversed course a month later, but it was too late for those players to do the same.
Not only are the Falcons (2-2) short-handed this season, they’ve suffered their fair share of injuries, plus have had two games canceled and another one rescheduled due to the novel coronavirus. In fact, Air Force only played once in November — a 28-0 victory over visiting New Mexico on the 20th.
Thanks to the attrition they’ve faced, the Falcons have had 24 different players make their first collegiate start this fall, which ranks third among all FBS programs. Nevertheless, the Falcons have found a way to be a competitive team. Air Force blew out Navy (40-7) and New Mexico, and tested undefeated San Jose State before falling 17-6 on the road. AFA’s other setback was at home, 49-30, to a Boise State squad that, like SJSU, is still unbeaten in Mountain West action.
Baring a spur-of-the-moment decision, Air Force will finally return to action Thursday night on the road against Utah State. Aggie interim head coach Frank Maile has been impressed with how well the Falcons have dealt with the fallout from the aforementioned turnbacks.
“Yeah, man, it doesn’t surprise me,” Maile said. “... The type of kids they get their allow for them to be able to turn over and not really take a huge step backwards because of the mentality of the kids that they get there at the school. So, hats off to those guys, man. That’s the culture of Air Force ... recruiting those types of players, and that’s where it all starts for them.”
As was the case a year ago — the Falcons went 11-2 in 2019 and finished the season ranked 22nd in the final AP Poll after beating Washington State in the Cheez-It-Bowl — AFA has been dominant on both sides of the trenches. The Falcons have averaged 5.8 yards per rushing attempt this fall and have limited their opponents to 3.5.
This is no surprise on the offensive side of the ball as all five of the Falcons’ starters on the offensive line are seniors, plus all of the second-stringers are junior or seniors. AFA’s O-line is anchored by a pair of three-year starters in left tackle Parker Ferguson and left guard Nolan Laufenberg. Ferguson was a first-team all-MW performer as a junior.
Gone is dynamic quarterback Donald Hammond III, who elected to enter the transfer portal at the end of October. Hammond III was not able to play this season because he fell out of good standing with the academy.
The Falcons have used three signal callers this season, but sophomore Haaziq Daniels has seized the starting job. Daniels has played in all four games and has completed 54.8 percent of his 31 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown, vs. zero interceptions.
Air Force is only averaging 67.0 yards passing an outing, down from 123.1 a year ago, Indeed, Daniels doesn’t throw the ball a lot, but Maile spoke highly of his abilities.
“Yeah, I don’t see him any different (than other Air Force quarterbacks),” Maile said. “He’s just as athletic, he can throw the ball, he can spin it. He controls their offense, he runs it (well). I see him making checks according to the things he sees ... so he’s just like all of the Air Force quarterbacks. They’re all disciplined, they’ve all been prepped very well to be the next man up.”
The Falcons have one of the best running backs in the Mountain West in speeder Kadin Remsberg, who rushed for 1,050 yards and eight TDs last season. The senior has missed two contests this fall due to a collarbone injury, but will likely be healthy enough to play against the Aggies.
There’s also a good chance fullback Timothy Jackson will be able to play Thursday. The junior missed the Boise State game with an injury and sat out the New Mexico game due to contact tracing. As a sophomore, contributed with 745 yards on the ground and six TDs.
Air Force’s leading rusher this season has been sophomore fullback Brad Roberts, who is averaging an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. Roberts was selected as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after burning the Lobos for 177 rushing yards and three scores.
In his only other game this season, Roberts gained 103 yards on 10 carries against the Boise State. Daniels ranks second on the team with 195 rushing yards, followed by Brandon Lewis with 182 and Jackson with 180.
It’s certainly been a balanced effort on the ground for the Falcons, who rank first nationally in rushing offense (336.5 ypg) and time of possession (34:23). Air Force hasn’t averaged this many rushing yards in a season since 1991.
“Air Force I believe is No. 1 in the country in rushing offense for a lot of different reasons,” Maile said. “Their offense is kind of built to do that, (so it will be) a huge challenge for us defensively, especially up front D-line wise.”
Tight end Kyle Patterson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, has been AFA’s No. 1 target in the passing game as he has averaged an impressive 15.6 yards on his team-leading nine receptions. Slot receiver Brandon Lewis has chipped in with eight catches.
The Falcons have played very well defensively this season with the exception of the Boise State game as the Broncos tallied 459 yards of total offense in just 49 plays. AFA limited a potent SJSU offense to 298 total yards, Navy to 241 and UNM to 304.
The remarkable thing about the Falcons’ defensive prowess is they are without their top 10 tacklers from a year ago. Of Air Force’s 11 defensive starters at the start of spring camp, 10 ended up taking turnbacks this semester.
AFA’s top returning tackler is linebacker Grant Donaldson, who made 35 stops last season. Donaldson was sidelined against New Mexico because of COVID-19, but is available this week.
Senior cornerback Elisha Palm currently paces the Falcons with 25 tackles, which is four more than junior safety Corvan Taylor and five more than senior defensive tackle George Silvanic. Silvanic has 2.5 of AFA’s 5.0 sacks and also leads the team with 4.0 tackles for loss. Taylor has accounted for two of the team’s three interceptions, while Palm has the other one.
AFA’s kicker is Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl, who only played in one game during his first two seasons with the program. The junior has been successful on 5 of 7 field goal attempts this season, including 2 of 3 from 40-49 yards out. Joseph Carlson has averaged 39.2 yards on 11 punts as a senior.
The Falcons have only returned one kickoff and zero punts this season. Boise State standout Avery Williams brought back a kickoff to the house against AFA.