The Air Force Falcons have never beaten Bronco Mendenhall as a head coach. Mendenhall and the Cougars are a perfect 5-0 against the Academy since Mendenhall took over the reigns in Provo in 2005.
The all-time series has been dominated by BYU with the Cougars holding a 24-6 edge.
In fact, the Falcons haven’t beaten the Cougars since 2003, a 24-10 victory over a lackluster 4-8 Gary Crowton-led team.
To put it another way, if the Cougars get the win in Colorado Springs this Saturday, it will mark the fourth consecutive Air Force senior class to go winless against BYU.
A large part of the Cougars’ success over the years has to do with their ability to contain the triple-option veer offense deployed by the Falcons.
Perhaps no team in the country has had more success against the option attack over the last three decades than BYU.
The key to the Cougars success lies in their many years of experience seeing the offense, their disciplined approach, their preparation during the week leading up to the game, and the execution of their assignments on the field.
When defending the Falcons there are five things a defense must handle well.
1) Cut Blocks
The first thing defenders must do is to keep the Falcon blockers off their legs. The undersized players at Air Force are notorious for going for the legs of their opponents in an effort to chop bigger, more athletic defenders down to the turf.
The block is legal and the the Falcons take full advantage of the rules. Their use of the cut block is the main reason that Air Force opponents hate playing the Falcons.
BYU coaches do a great job of preparing their players for the tactic and few teams are better at dealing with it. The key is in anticipating the block and using one’s hand as leverage against a blocker trying to get into your legs, pushing a diving blocker into the ground.
2) Stop the Fullback
On running plays the Falcon quarterback makes two reads. First he will read the defensive tackle and middle linebacker as the fullback goes through the line.
If the play is open he will give the ball to the fullback on a dive up the middle, if not he will keep the ball and continue down the line of scrimmage to his second read.
It is imperative to stop the fullback dive in the triple-option or its becomes a very long day for a defense. Anytime the Air Force fullback gets 100 or more yards rushing, the Falcons are virtually unstoppable.
BYU has consistently shut down the fullback over the years, forcing the quarterback to make reads and plays on the outside.
During the Mendenhall era, the Cougars have gotten great efforts from their nose tackle, who has the main responsibility to stuff the fullback in BYU’s 3-4 defensive alignment.
3) Tackle the Quarterback
The quarterback’s second read in the triple-option offense is the defensive end or, in some instances against BYU, the outside linebacker in the 3-4. The quarterback will read to see if that player pinches down or stays to the outside.
If there is a seam available the quarterback will keep the ball and cut it up field. If there is no opening, then he will pitch the ball to his running back on the outside.
Again the defensive end or linebacker must tackle the quarterback and force the pitch, otherwise a big play can result from the defense being stretched horizontally.
As a defense you also want to make the quarterback pay in this offense. Anytime you can get a hit on the quarterback you want to make good on it, as BYU did last year, knocking starting Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson out of the game.
4) Cover the Pitch Man
The final assignment to stopping the the triple-option lies with the BYU safeties. The safety to the side that the Falcons are running to is responsible to anticipate, just after the snap of the ball, where the pitch man will be and get there to stop him.
The responsibility falls to the safeties because the Falcons typically try to engage the corners with their receivers as blockers, or run them off in pass patterns.
BYU’s safety play against the option has been stellar over the years, and with a big hitter like Andrew Rich in the defensive backfield, the pitch man can tend to start looking up field to see where Rich is, rather than keeping his eye on the ball.
5) Be Aware Of the Play Action Pass
The Air Force offense is essentially the same play run from various sets and with different men in motion. It can look confusing, but in the end its the same fullback, quarterback or pitch option.
The only real wrinkle in the Air Force offense is the play action pass, which can be a dangerous weapon, especially when the Falcons have a quarterback that can throw the ball with some accuracy, as they currently have in junior Tim Jefferson.
Jefferson has completed 56 percent of his passes in his career for 1,682 yards and 12 touchdowns. Many of the scores have come on big pass plays over the top of a defensive secondary that has been lulled asleep by constantly pressing the line of scrimmage against the run.
The Falcons run their play action off the option. Jefferson will typically fake to the fullback then slide down the line of scrimmage as usual, only to then fade back and try to hit a receiver, usually deep over the middle.
The Falcons will typically run this play to the side of the free safety, forcing the strong safety to cover the deep middle of the field.
The statistics show what a good job the Cougars have done over the past six years, holding Air Force to just 211 yards rushing per game, well below their average, and just 337 total yards per contest.
BYU has defeated the the Falcons during that span by an average score of 40.5 to 21.7.
This season the Cougars bring a talented but less experienced defensive front seven into Colorado Springs. How disciplined and assignment sound these less experienced players are will determine to a large degree if the Cougars can push their winning streak against the Falcons to seven games.
For more insight on stopping the Falcons’ offense, check out articles from years past from Quinn and Markell under the “Air Force Week” category.