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Cal vs. Air Force: Previewing the Falcons defense

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Air Force should know something about handling the Bear Raid, right?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Armed Forces bowl has been billed as a matchup of contrasting offensive styles, and rightfully so. Though the Bear Raid is a more balanced offense than many realize, it could hardly be more different from Troy Calhoun's triple option system at Air Force. But this column is about defense, and the defensive matchups set up to be just as interesting as the offensive ones.

For the Bears, the key word is discipline. Looking at Air Force QB Karson Roberts' rushing stats gives me flashbacks to Jerrod Heard running freely through the Bears' secondary... On the other side, the Falcons will face the best quarterback they've seen all year in Jared Goff (except maybe for some guy named Cook at Michigan State). Their defense has performed admirably this season despite filling some major holes, but will they hold up against a fully rested Bear Raid?

The Story so Far...

About those losses: Air Force faced the challenge of matching last year's 10 wins without the help of their top safety, two best cornerbacks, and four members of their starting front seven from 2014. Though their 8-5 record isn't as impressive, the rebuilt defense has done an admirable job on the way to winning their division in the Mountain West.

Their campaign started with two comfortable non-conference wins over Morgan State and San Jose State before hitting the skids against Michigan State. The Falcons couldn't keep up with Connor Cook, who exploded for four touchdowns in a 35-21 win for Sparty. Air Force actually outgained the Spartans, but the offense turned the ball over three times to give away the game.

Things got worse in a loss to Navy. The Midshipmen put up 27 straight points to start the game on the way to a 33-11 win. This time the culprits for Air Force were the rush defense (which allowed over 200 yards) and four offensive turnovers. The Falcons rebounded against a weak Wyoming team, improving to 3-2 thanks to a massive day by safety Brodie Hicks. Hicks wrote pretty much his entire season's stat line against the Cowboys, recording two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the 31-17 win.

Neither Hicks nor his teammates could find the same magic against Colorado State, allowing 38 points in a loss. Sitting at 3-3, the Falcons got a needed boost from the scheduling gods, who offered up Fresno State, Hawaii, and Army in succession. Air Force won those games by a combined score of 120-24. In those three contests, only Fresno State reached double digit points.

Calhoun's team passed a tougher test against Utah State, hanging on to their win streak with a 35-28 victory. The Aggies rolled up more than 400 yards and had a chance to tie the game in the final minute, but the Falcons defense stiffened up to seal the win. The story was similar against Boise State the next week, who fought back from a 34-13 deficit but could not finish the job. Air Force escaped Boise with a 37-30 win and an 8-3 record.

The Falcons backed into the Mountain West Championship Game the following week, clinching their division despite an ugly 47-35 loss to the New Mexico Lobos. Air Force tuned over the ball three times, and UNM responded with 512 yards of offense. San Diego State put up nearly as many yards in the conference championship, but only secured the win on a late field goal. The final, 27-24, gave Air Force an 8-5 record after a disappointing end to the season.

The numbers reflect the Falcons' up and down season. They performed better against the pass (19th FBS) than the run (47th), and allowed a respectable 24.6 points per game (42nd). They succeeded in causing negative plays, posting an 18.8% havoc rate. Give credit to the linebackers and the secondary for that, as both units produced top 25 rankings in that category.

Defensive Line

Starters: Jr #54 Lochlin Deeks, Sr #87 Alex Hansen, So #97 Santo Coppola

Senior Alex Hansen leads this unit, starting all 13 games and earning a spot on the MWC first team. He was named to the Lombardi Award watch list to start the season, and made a decent case for himself with a team-leading 15.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Hansen hasn't missed a game in his four years and has made every start in the last three seasons. On the other end of the spectrum is Santo Coppola, a sophomore who saw his first game action this season. He's come on in recent weeks, making three starts in the Falcons' last four games.

Linebackers

Starters: Jr #47 Claude Alexander, Jr #34 D.J. Dunn, Jr #48 Jacob Onyechi, Jr #41 Patrick Healy

This unit has mixed and matched quite a bit, but these four juniors started the MWC championship game and have combined for 27 starts this season. Frequent contributors #44 Grant Ross and #6 Connor Healy were out in recent games with injuries. Claude Alexander leads the unit in tackles (45), while D.J. Dunn leads in TFL (12.5) and sacks (6). These guys have been gashed a bit in recent weeks, which could provide opportunities if Cal can block Alex Hansen on the D line.

Defensive Backs

Starters: Jr #8 Weston Steelhammer, Jr #25 Roland Ladipo, Jr #18 Brodie Hicks, Jr #21 Jesse Washington

Man, I will not envy DC Steve Russ when he has to replace almost the entire defense in two years. In the meantime, he can rely on safety Weston Steelhammer, who I can only assume is a comic book villain who has come to destroy Jared Goff. He seems set to play that role, at least, based on his season production. The Falcons' leading tackler, he also has a team high 5 interceptions to go with seven pass breakups. Not to be outdone, CB Roland Ladipo has broken up 16 passes and has 3 INT of his own. The two earned MWC first team honors for their efforts.

Andrew's Take

This is a tough one to pick. Cal is the more talented team, but I worry about their ability to contain the Falcons' offense in space. That seems like something a few extra weeks of practice might help to sort out though, while there's not much Air Force can do to simulate playing against Jared Goff. One stat to note is turnover differential: Air Force is -3 on the season, which could be the kind of thing that makes a difference if this game stays close. My prediction? Bears win, and it doesn't require a surprise visit from Kevin Riley.