(Sports Network) A couple of Mountain West Conference programs kick off the league portion of their schedules this weekend as the Air Force Falcons and the BYU Cougars tangle in Colorado on Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars enter this week having won six straight outings, one of the longest win streaks in the nation, thanks to a 23-17 victory over Washington at home last weekend. The triumph was also the 50th in the career of head coach Bronco Mendenhall, with all of them coming at BYU. Mendenhall is just the second Cougars coach to come up with as many victories in his career, the other being LaVell Edwards after whom BYU's home stadium is now named.
As for the Falcons, they too came up with a win in their first game of 2010 thanks to a substantial 65-21 decision over Northwestern State at home. Add that to last year's season-opening win over Nicholls State and Air Force has defeated its first opponents the last two years by a combined score of 137-21. Since losing to Wyoming by a score of 10-7 in the MWC opener back in 1999, the academy has won 10 straight conference openers, thanks in part to a 37-13 romp over New Mexico in Albuquerque last year.
The Cougars lead the all-time series between the teams by a count of 24-6 and that includes 14 wins in 17 chances on the road at the academy. BYU has taken six in a row over the Falcons, with the last Air Force win being a 24-10 decision in Provo back in 2003. Last season, the Cougars logged a 38-21 win at home.
Utilizing a two-quarterback attack, coach Mendenhall got the best out of Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson as they combined to hit 24-of-40 passes for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of those being tossed by Nelson. Adding 45 yards on eight carries, Nelson also showed that he could handle the pressure in the pocket and then make something on his own. With 10 different players catching a pass, no single receiver dominated for the Cougars, although JJ DiLuigi did grab four balls and turn them into 83 yards and a score while also leading the team with his 69 yards rushing as well. Last season, DiLuigi was second on the team in rushing behind Harvey Unga, but it was a distant second as the youngster ran for less than 20 yards per contest. In 2009, the team, even with the efforts of Unga and his 90.6 ypg on the ground, generated just 145.7 ypg rushing and that had them ranked fourth in the MWC and 63rd in the country. As a result, the offense leaned heavily on the passing of Max Hall who was one of the best in the business as he guided the team to 281.5 ypg, but with Hall now gone it falls to Heaps and Riley to keep the squad afloat. Heaps is a freshman from the state of Washington and Nelson is someone who started out his career at Utah State before making the jump to Provo and the Cougars.
Against one of the more heralded quarterbacks in the Pac-10 Conference in Jake Locker, the pass defense for the Cougars did rather well in limiting the damage caused by the signal-caller in the narrow win last weekend. Locker, who ran for a touchdown in the meeting, converted 20-of-37 passes for 266 yards and a score, but was sacked by the combination of Jordan Pendleton and Romney Fuga, the former delivering 1.5 tackles for loss altogether. Joining Pendleton in the middle of the field this season are Aveni Leung-Wai, Shane Hunter and Jameson Frazier and all three are upperclassmen so hopefully that will translate into success at the linebacker positions. Andrew Rich, who led the team in tackles a year ago with better than six and a half per outing, tied with Hunter for the most stops versus Washington with nine. One area in which the Cougars have to give more attention is getting into the opponent's backfield, considering they placed seventh in the conference in both sacks and TFLs and were tied for 101st in the nation in the latter category with only 4.7 per game in 2009.
Not known much as a passing program, Air Force may have raised a few eyebrows during the first week of the season when quarterback Tim Jefferson began the onslaught against Northwestern State with a 38-yard TD pass to Jon Warzeka early in the first quarter. Jefferson, who placed third on the team in rushing with 59 yards and scored twice on the ground, turned 7-of-12 passing into 179 yards and a couple of TDs for the home team. Ranked third in the nation in rushing last year with 283.5 ypg, Air Force stepped up the pressure in the opener by romping for 437 yards and seven touchdowns. For several years the Falcons have been one of the premier running teams in all of college football and the tradition continues under head coach Troy Calhoun, the difference now being that Calhoun is also trying to get his quarterback to stretch defenses. Last season, the academy passed for a mere 88.4 ypg to rank 117th in the country, so already the group is off to a quick start, even if the first opponents was from outside the FBS.
While the offense for the Falcons was humming along, the defense not only gave up 21 points to the Demons, it also lost a crucial player in Reggie Rembert to a neck injury. Rembert, who was one of three players to go down with serious injuries on the day, also doubled as a kick returner a year ago for the Falcons so the loss was that much more severe. Early this week he was listed as doubtful for action against the Cougars, but you never know with the stubbornness of a cornerback. Also suffering a crucial blow was defensive end Wylie Wikstrom who tore an ACL and will now miss the remainder of the season as a result. Having a pair of key contributors on the sidelines certainly will hurt the Falcons as they try to duplicate their pass efficiency defense which ranked 17th in the nation with a rating of 106.84 a year ago. Take away a rusher at the line of scrimmage and a cover man in the secondary and BYU will likely try to take its chances setting up plays over the top.
The loss of Rembert for this game could be huge because he could have so much influence over the BYU quarterbacks. However, even if the cornerback is unavailable, expect to see the Cougars have a response for everything the Falcons might throw at them.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: BYU 27, Air Force 17
Saturday, September 11th, 4:00 p.m. (et).