If the Boise State football team is as good as it has shown in flashes the first three weeks of the season, there are only three danger games left on the regular-season schedule.
And one of them is at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN2).
Air Force, which beat Boise State three straight times from 2014 to 2016 and already owns one win on The Blue, is coming off an upset win at Colorado of the Pac-12 last week. The Falcons boast a talented quarterback and veteran offensive line, a funky defense that has given Boise State trouble and that devilish offensive system that uses conviction and confusion to gash opponents.
“It’s always a physical game,” Boise State senior offensive lineman John Molchon said. “And we love that, and they do, too. They play hard. They don’t give up. They’re hard to break.”
The No. 20 Broncos (3-0) already have two of their most challenging games in the win column: at Florida State, where they overcame an 18-point deficit to win, and at home against Marshall on a short week, when they clawed their way to victory with a dominant defensive performance.
The other games that look like potential stumbling blocks: Oct. 19 at BYU, which is 2-1 after three games against Power Five opponents; and Nov. 23 at Utah State, the team expected to challenge Boise State for the Mountain Division title.
According to the SP+ computer rankings, Florida State (42), Marshall (68), Air Force (63), BYU (46) and Utah State (34) are the only Boise State opponents in the top 80 in the nation. Boise State is No. 30 in those rankings, which measure efficiency in a way designed to predict future performance.
“We get a chance to face one heck of an opponent this week,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun told reporters. “Probably, I think, the most complete Mountain West Conference team in the last seven years, just how stout they are defensively.”
1. Stop the pass. Air Force is known for its rushing attack, but it’s the passing attack that has bitten Boise State. The Falcons threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns last year and 279 yards and two touchdowns in 2015.
Since Bryan Harsin became the Broncos’ head coach in 2014, Air Force is 35-for-63 for 729 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions against Boise State. That computes to an outstanding 171.49 pass efficiency rating and a 3-2 record.
Boise State senior safety Kekoa Nawahine said he reminds himself every play to narrow his focus to his keys.
“You go back and look (at the big pass plays), it’s because a lot of people are coming off of their keys or their assignments because they think it’s something else,” he said. “You just have to follow your job all the way through and then you’ll be a lot better off. ... The idea is very simple but, as far as executing, it’s not always easy.”
2. Unlock the run. Boise State’s run game has been ineffective against Air Force during Harsin’s tenure. The Broncos have finished those five games with 97, 141, 84, 90 and 121 rushing yards. The only time they averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry was in 2015 (4.4) — and that was only because Jeremy McNichols busted an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game. It was 31 carries for 58 yards after that.
Under Harsin, the Broncos have 148 carries for 533 yards (3.6 per carry) and five touchdowns against Air Force.
The Broncos will need the run game this year to take some pressure off true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier. In his four seasons, Brett Rypien barely completed half of his passes against the Falcons (68-for-130).
Boise State tailbacks Robert Mahone and George Holani have combined for 5.46 yards per carry this season. Air Force usually brings an extra defender near the line of scrimmage to control the run game, Molchon said.
“They do a really good job of owning their gaps,” Molchon said, “and their safeties are playing really well. ... Being able to handle their movement is a big deal for us and being on the same page there.”
3. Survive the first quarter. The Broncos have been outscored 38-20 in the first quarter this season, then dominated 75-10 the rest of the way. That includes a 41-0 score after halftime.
Air Force can be particularly difficult to handle in the first quarter because its offensive style is impossible to replicate in practice.
“There’s always that shock when you first step on the field vs. (option teams),” Boise State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said.
Boise State is a 7-point favorite in Las Vegas with an over/under of 55 total points. The Broncos are 17-9 against the spread in their past 26 games.
Air Force is 9-5-1 ATS in its past 15 games. The Falcons were 5-0 ATS against the Broncos until Boise State covered the past two years.
My pick (2-1 straight up, 1-2 ATS): Boise State has beaten Air Force the past two years with eight touchdown passes thrown by veteran quarterback Brett Rypien. That’s a lot to ask from Bachmeier, who hasn’t executed well in the red zone. But he’s surrounded by an embarrassment of riches at receiver and supported by what might be the Broncos’ best defense since 2012. A home crowd that has been electric despite soft ticket sales — and did somebody say “blackout”? — works in the Broncos’ favor, too. Boise State 30, Air Force 20
Air Force perspective, from Brent Briggeman of The Gazette (opponent view is 1-1, 1-1): “Boise State knows all too well what Air Force can do when it’s at full strength (see 2014-16), and that’s where the Falcons are right now. The quarterback play from Donald Hammond III is as good as the program has had in years. The backs are speedy and the defense and offensive line are experienced. Don’t be surprised if the Mountain Division race sees a jolt right out of the gate.” Air Force 35, Boise State 31
Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears weekly on KTIK (1-1, 1-1): “Boise has not figured it out, they have not figured out this option offense. Now you’ve got a new defensive coordinator ... I think it’s a bad matchup here for Boise State. I like the Boise State offense, but they’re prone to some mistakes. ... Air Force, 11-2-1 against the spread the last five years as an away underdog.” Boise State 31, Air Force 27
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s assistant editor and sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.