Las Vegas Sun

February 26, 2024

UNLV football:

Keep your composure: Defending Air Force one of the more unique challenges in football

Whether it’s catching up to the speed, handling the blocks or not forgetting the pass, the Rebels have a lot to prepare for against the triple option

Air Force-UNLV

Mark Reis / The Colorado Springs Gazette

In last year’s 45-17 loss at Air Force, UNLV failed to contain the triple option and let Asher Clark scoot down the field for this 67-yard touchdown. This year the names are different — it will be quarterback Connor Dietz and running back Cody Getz for the Falcons — but it’s the same offense. Sports Talk

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The most difficult thing about defending Air Force’s triple-option offense is adjusting to its pace.

“You can’t simulate their speed,” UNLV football coach Bobby Hauck said. “If you watch week in, week out, the first couple of drives of the game, every defense they play is trying to catch up.”

Wait, no. The hardest thing about defending the nation’s-leading rushing offense is remembering to also guard against big plays through the air.

“We’d just like to be able to (play) effectively in both areas,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Whenever you can complement (the run) with some play-action passes, certainly it helps.”

Scratch that. The tricky thing about facing the Falcons is dealing with their constant cut blocks and fighting your instincts by staying in your defensive assignment and waiting for the play to come to you.

“You’ve got to play the block before you can play the ball,” UNLV junior linebacker Tim Hasson said. “You never want to look at the ball while you’re trying to defeat a block. You always want to defeat the block first, get over it and then attack the run. It’s one step at a time; you can’t just freak out out there.”

In truth, it’s a combination of all those things plus more, which is what makes playing Air Force (1-1) one of the truly unique challenges for any team in the country. UNLV (0-3) gets its chance Saturday night at 7, the finale of its four-game season-opening home stand. The game will be aired locally on digital channel 8.2 and Cox Cable channel 129.

The difference in offensive styles from week to week doesn’t get much more disparate than Mike Leach’s pass-happy attack to the Academy’s ground efficiency. In last week’s 35-27 loss to the Cougars, the Rebels’ secondary was beat multiple times by deep post patterns, one of the most basic tenets of a passing offense.

The defense can ill-afford to make similarly simple mistakes against the Falcons’ running. Avoiding that starts with extensive film work for the Rebels to refamiliarize themselves with the ins and outs of the triple option.

“I’m going to have to get in the film room and see exactly how they’re going to attack me so I can get a visual in my head and get prepared for how I’m going to have to play the blocks,” Hasson said.

Those blocks are just as important as who’s carrying the ball at any given time. The idea of a cut block is to stop a defender’s momentum by going low around the knees, forcing him to pause or change his direction. Meanwhile, the offensive play has already developed past him down the field. Or at least that’s the idea.

The Rebels don’t practice cut blocks regularly because there’s a lot more injury risk when large men are lunging at each other’s knees. So that alone is difficult to adjust to in one week. Then you throw in the multiple options that give this offense its name.

Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz can run with the ball, pitch it to one of his running backs or drop back for a pass. Although running is always going to be the Falcons’ first option — they lead the country with 387 rushing yards per game — Dietz has shown a decent ability to stretch the field through the air. He’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 134.5 yards per game.

“It’s pretty fun to watch on film, just not quite as fun to play against,” Hauck said.

Defending all of those options at game speed is obviously a difficult task. It’s got to start with keeping the runners between the hash marks, which mostly relies on UNLV’s defensive ends keeping their contain assignments on the edges. When Air Force stretches the field sideways and gets around the ends, that’s when big plays happen.

The Rebels’ defense also needs to play to its advantages, which include superior size and a solid track record on third down. The service academies never field particularly large teams because their off-the-field fitness requirements simply don’t allow for it. For example, UNLV’s projected defensive line starters outweigh Air Force’s projected starting offensive line by nearly 20 pounds, and the Rebels’ O-line outweighs its Falcons counterparts by nearly 50 pounds.

As long as that weight doesn’t come at a sacrifice of speed — and UNLV’s D-line is actually quite quick — then the Rebels have a chance to bust through and stop some plays in the backfield before they ever get going.

UNLV’s third-down efficiency on defense was one of the major things that caught the Falcons’ eyes this week.

“Defensively, they’re as good in the country as there is, period, when it comes to third down,” Calhoun said. “… I watch them on film on third down and my gut says on third down they’re probably better than Alabama or LSU.”

The Rebels are holding opponents to a 26.2 conversion percentage, which is tied for the 12th best in the country. That’s one spot ahead of LSU and nine better than the Crimson Tide.

No one’s going to confuse UNLV’s unit with those elite defenses, though. Most people would opt for Michigan’s defense ahead of UNLV, too, and the Wolverines struggled mightily against Air Force two weeks ago in a 31-25 win.

“They’re coming fast and they’re trying to cut you, so there’s so much coming at you at one time,” Hasson said. “You’ve just got to be ready.”

Air Force runs its system with such precision that an upset is going to take a level of execution UNLV hasn’t attained yet this year. You can argue about what exactly the hardest part about slowing down the triple option is, but what’s certain is the Rebels must prepare to stop it all.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at

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