On Saturday night, San Diego State heads to Air Force. The 22st-ranked Aztecs are 6-0. The Falcons are 6-1 and receiving votes in the national polls. Then consider Colorado Springs is 6,035 feet above sea level and you understand why this trip is no picnic.
“This is definitely, definitely, our biggest challenge of the year,” says Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke.
Air Force does not run a modern football offense. They’re one of the few teams that still deploys the classic triple option, which is almost exclusively a rushing attack. In seven games, the Falcons have only attempted 47 passes. So, it’s no surprise they lead the nation with 336 rushing yards a game.
It certainly helps that SDSU has the country’s number one rushing defense at 61.2 yards per game. But, this kind of unique style is not easy to prepare for. So … how do you slow it down?
By taking a throwback approach to a throwback system.
“My background always has been you’ve gotta stop the fullback and I still believe that’s the first element,” says Hoke.
Yes, you heard him right. The fullback. A position that has become almost extinct with the proliferation of high-octane spread passing attacks. Only 17 of the 32 teams in the NFL even have a fullback on their roster, yet that spot holds the Aztecs key to victory.
“You’ve gotta hit him. You can’t let him stay upright because if he stays upright and goes through the line of scrimmage and you’re the guy who’s responsible, whether he has the ball of not, I think you’ve gotta tackle him,” says Hoke.
Yes, you heard him right. Tackle a guy even if he doesn’t have the football.
In this offense the fullback will lead nearly every play, whether it’s a run to the edges or up the middle. Sometimes he’ll have the ball, other times he’ll be blocking. There’s so much misdirection and deception to the offense that Hoke says knock that dude down no matter what, then basically figure it out from there.
Another thing Air Force does is go for it on 4th down. A lot. Only Mississippi has converted more 4th downs than the Falcons. If they get it to 4th and anything under four yards, odds are they’re going to leave the offense on the field. The Aztecs defense is 11th in the nation on 4th down stops and they’re definitely going to be challenged at altitude.
“If we’ve gotta hold them to four and outs we’ll be glad to take on the challenge. That’s what our defense prides itself on is getting the punt return team on the field and getting our offense the ball back,” says linebacker Caden McDonald. “If four and out is the way we’ve gotta do it then we’ll do it.”
In fact, they might even have a little fun doing it.
“I love it,” says McDonald. “It’s time to see what people are made of. It’s a true test of, it’s all or nothing right here and our defense thrives on that. We want to be the team to make the big plays and the big stops. That’s when it gets really, really fun, I’d say.”
Here’s a fun little informational nugget. The last time SDSU played at Air Force was 2017 and they were ranked … 22nd in the nation. They won that game 28-24. The Aztecs would certainly be happy with a repeat of that performance.