During my freshman year at the Air Force Academy in 1991, the Air Force Falcons featured an outstanding All American cornerback, Carlton McDonald.
We used to call him "Mr. 50-50" because he was so aggressive in going after the ball. It seemed like half the passes thrown at him resulted in interceptions, many returned for touchdowns, while the other half resulted in big plays for the offense since he had taken himself out of the play going for the interception. But there was no denying that he was incredibly exciting to watch.
Carlton McDonald aside, cornerback has traditionally been one of the weakest positions for the Falcons because of the elite athleticism required to play the position. On some very good Falcons teams, cornerback was their Achilles' heel.
This challenge is compounded in an often pass-happy conference that typically features several elite wide receivers.
But, for this year's team, that traditional weakness is one of its biggest strengths.
The Falcons defense features two outstanding cornerbacks, the best pair of corners in a conference that is home to a legitimate national championship contender.
Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright are the best cornerback duo to play at Air Force in recent memory and one of the best duos in the country.
They were first-team preseason All-Mountain West picks and they were the leaders of a secondary that sparked their defense to pick off Heisman trophy candidate Case Keenum six times in their final game of last season against Houston.
They are also one of the main reasons that Air Force has been so good at winning the turnover battle and stand a legitimate shot of knocking off Oklahoma on Saturday.
The two cornerbacks, who are also friends, have a healthy competition going between themselves. Last year, Wright led the conference with seven interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. Rembert picked off three passes but one-upped Wright when he was named First-Team All-MWC to Wright's second team honor.
Air Force feared it had lost Rembert for the season when he was knocked unconscious in the opener, suffering a mild concussion. When he woke up and found himself in the ambulance, his biggest concern was getting back on the football field.
Luckily for the Falcons, he was back by the next game, helping the defense to smother BYU’s vaunted offense, holding them to 88 yards passing.
In the past, Air Force has relied on schemes to try to cover up deficiencies in their secondary when playing elite passing schemes.
Their first priority has been keeping the other offense off the field with their ball control offense that eats up the clock. Against BYU last week, two offensive drives essentially eliminated a quarter from the game, significantly reducing the time the Falcons' defenders had to match up against BYU and keeping them fresh.
BYU was never able to get in sync as an offense after the first quarter and finished with one of their worst passing days in the school’s history.
Air Force’s second priority has always been to bring a lot of pressure with their linebackers, relying on disguised blitzes coming from all angles. While the secondary has traditionally been weak, the team has almost always featured an excellent linebacker corps with undersized linebackers who can get after the quarterback in a hurry.
This has typically set up a race against time to see if their pressure can get to the quarterback before receivers run wide open all over the field.
Even the best cornerbacks cannot cover an elite receiver forever, but in Air Force’s case, this has been even more pronounced, setting up mismatches that were easy to exploit if the pass rush wavered at all.
In games against better teams, where the pass rush was not able to almost immediately disrupt the passing game, the defense has floundered. But, their current secondary is superb in coverage, allowing much more room for error in their pass rush.
Rembert and Wright would be the starting corners on many of the nation’s best teams and they are joined by a solid pair of safeties in Jon Davis and Brian Lindsay.
Oklahoma threw at will on Florida State, relying heavily on screen passes that completely bewildered the Seminoles. By the time the game was over, they had racked on nearly 400 yards through the air while finding the end zone four times in the 47-17 demolition.
This sets up the key defensive match-up for Saturday’s game if Air Force is to pull off the upset. That matchup is the Air Force secondary against Oklahoma’s receivers and quarterback Landry Jones.
Will they be able to stop speedster, Ryan Broyles, and a deep Oklahoma receiving corps? Can they record a couple interceptions that give Air Force the nod in the turnover battle?
Can they, along with the rest of the defense, find a way to blow up the screens that so tormented the Seminoles?
If they can win that matchup and answer these questions positively, the Falcons have a legitimate chance of shocking the college football universe on Saturday.
And while Rembert and Wright are mostly unknown outside the Mountain West Conference, that may change on Saturday.
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