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

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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.

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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 twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Losing to NAU, Southern Utah and New Mexico is totally unaceptable and I just cannot get over the fact under Bobby's leadership we have only won 4 games in three years. I am disappointed in the results of Bobby as the coach. It will be interesting to see if the Rebels can win 2 games this year. Then I guess I will have to wait to see if the President will address our AD and the Coach.

    I will be attending the game on Saturday because I enjoy college football and I pray for the Rebels to get better and someday win. Regarding AF based upon the Michigan game this will be a huge challenge and a major upset to win.

    If the Rebels can create some turn-overs win the special teams and score early and the defense can stop AF 40% without AF scoring we may have a chance.

    UNLV Offense needs to keep AF offense off the field.

    We got to get a nice lead in order to have a chance to Win.

    The sad news is the stadium will be very empty because of our record. 4 wins in 3 years just doesn't cut it. Winning takes care of everything and watching an exciting football team like Oregon, UCLA ASU where the offensive runs to the line and snaps the ball at 25 seconds on the play clock is what the new era of college football is all about. If Bobby is open to change then he would implement this style and I think it would generate some excitement and at least the fans would enjoy the game a bit more.

    The old coach has more wins!

  2. If you haven't enjoyed the games this year more than the previous 2 with Hauck and the horrible Sanford years, you probably don't know much about football. Not saying you personally previous poster, but the regular run of the mill UNLV/Hauck basher.

  3. Air Force disapline
    and speed will be difficult to deal with

  4. Jerry,

    Not to say I am an expert in college football but as former College Player Divison 1. I think I know a little bit about football. The facts are Bobby has had time to produce more Wins than 4 in 3 years. The Fact is he kept his staff in place when change is needed and he lack the guts to send his buddy Paulson down the road as the Def coordinator. Instead he promoted him to assistant head coach. Paulson sucked at Utah State and he luck out at Montana because they have such a strong football program with good players at that level. Bobby's leadership and performance does not relay to players as setting the bar high regardless if your a player or coach. Accountability is need no excuses saying were young. There are a lot of teams in college football playing young talented players. Winning starts at the top and setting the bar high with the proper system. Bobby's style of football is not suited for excitement. Losing to NAU this year was a big downer and to the program.

    Give me some reason why talented players should consider UNLV when the stadium is empty and we continue to lose of FCS programs like Southern Utah Northern Arizona. Give me a break - He should be on the HOT SEAT and a Strong Warning should be given either you Win some Games or your Gone!

    Everyone has an opinion and my is based upon performace. Win vs Lost speaks for itself.

  5. Ok fire Hauck right now,sure that will solve everything and the next coach will sure to bring in blue-chip prospects . I wanna see if an extra day to prepare will make some difference defending the triple option-UNLV does play AF every year so it's not totally alien to them. Key will be UNLV offense,need to control clock and should be able to move ball. We shall see.

  6. I dont think firing Hauck midseason is the answer but accountability has to be put in place. There is no excuse for 4 wins in 3 yrs. My take is based strictly upon what I have seen from attending games it is not based on whether I like the man or not, Ive never met him, it is strictly performance based. I agree Hauck has had plenty of time to generate much more then he has. The play calling is horrendous & easily predictable, my sons figured out the offense 5 plays into a game. The defense lacks discipline, heart, mental & physical toughness needed to win at that level.

    Hauck should have filled his staff (position) coaches with former Rebel players who were good if not great at their positions, at least offered them jobs & this would have done a whole lot for the development of the players & the fan base. That's where he should have started in my opinion. There will be so much pressure put on the university to get rid of Hauck after the season is over I dont see him coming back for his 4th year. The fan base is at an all time low, this is the worst Ive ever seen.