Bob DeBesse, the University of New Mexico’s sixth-year offensive coordinator, professes nothing but the greatest respect for the Air Force defense.
Schematically, DeBesse said this week, the Falcons are at the same time sound and unpredictable. Their players execute that scheme with equal parts discipline and aggressiveness. Why, then, has the UNM offense put up such astonishing numbers against Air Force the past five years?
“I wish I knew,” DeBesse said this week after a practice in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Falcons at Dreamstyle Stadium. “Honestly, I don’t have an answer.”
Certainly, the Falcons have had no answer for the Lobos’ triple option-based running game.
During those past five seasons, New Mexico has averaged 395 yards rushing and 6.9 yards per carry against Air Force. They’ve averaged 38.2 points per game in going 3-2 against the Falcons.
Part of the equation, of course, is that the UNM offense is built to run on anyone. Since DeBesse’s arrival in 2012 with head coach Bob Davie, the Lobos have finished no lower than ninth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in yards rushing per game. Last year, they led the nation with 350 yards per contest.
Even so, UNM’s success against Air Force has been remarkable — win or lose, right from the start.
- 2012: running back Kasey Carrier sets a still-standing UNM record with 338 yards rushing on 39 carries. As a team, the Lobos finish with 409 yards on the ground in a 28-23 defeat at the Academy.
- 2013: Carrier rushes for 182 yards and quarterback Cole Gautsche for 140 as the Lobos pile up 451 yards on the ground in a 45-37 New Mexico win in Albuquerque.
- 2014: The Lobos rush for 367 yards, 150 from junior running back Jhurell Pressley, but the Falcons win 35-31 at the Academy.
- 2015: Pressley rushes for 170 yards and three touchdowns as the Lobos beat the Falcons in Albuquerque, 47-35. As a team, UNM rushes for 377 yards.
- 2016: At the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, technically an Air Force home game, senior Teriyon Gipson and sophomore Tyrone Owens combine for 266 yards rushing as the UNM beats the Falcons 45-40. The Lobos finish with 373 yards on the ground.
So, is Air Force just that weak defensively against the run? Not really, and not anymore.
In 2012 and 2013, the Falcons ranked 99th (199 yards allowed per game) and 119th (250) nationally in rush defense. The past three years, though, Air Force ranked 28th (136), 36th (145) and 10th (114) in that department.
This year, despite having played and lost to eighth-ranked Michigan and 19th-ranked San Diego State, the Falcons (1-2 overall, 0-1 Mountain West Conference) rank 67th in rush defense with an average yield of 144 yards.
“Air Force is relentless,” DeBesse said. “They’re a downhill, attacking-type mentality. … Schematically, they’re really tough, because they’re a heavy, heavy, pressure team, maybe the highest-percentage pressure team we’ll play.”
Does Air Force, a triple-option team on offense, simply not defend well against other triple-option teams? It’s clearly not that simple.
Navy, which runs the triple option, has had mediocre success (by its standards) against its rival service academy. In their games against Air Force the past five years, the Midshipmen have averaged 227 yards — some 88 yards below their average overall during that span— with a 4.6 average per carry.
Most remarkably, Air Force completely shut down the Navy triple option last year, holding the Midshipmen to 57 yards rushing in a 28-14 Falcons victory. Two weeks later, the Lobos rushed for 373 yards against the Falcons in the Cotton Bowl.
Past success, DeBesse is aware, guarantees nothing.
Hitting big plays against an Air Force defense that he calls “high-risk, high-reward” has worked well for UNM in past years. But through four games this season, the Lobos have had just three running plays of 30 yards or more.
Last week, albeit against one of the more porous defenses in the nation, UNM did rush for 338 yards in a 16-13 victory over Tulsa. But, DeBesse said, the Lobos (2-2, 0-1) have yet to hit high gear.
Will Air Force week also be high-gear week, as it has been in the past?
Air Force at New Mexico
5 p.m., CBS Sports Network,
770 AM/94.5 FM