On paper, Air Force shouldn’t be as successful of a program as it has been. The Falcons have all the odds stacked against them, yet they enter Saturday’s matchup with the Bulldogs with a winning record, 3-2.
Head coach Troy Calhoun can’t recruit the same athletes that the rest of the country can. He’s extremely limited in who he can go after. Academy cadets are obligated to serve as a commissioned officer for at least eight years after graduation, five of which must be active duty. So Calhoun can only recruit athletes who want to make that commitment.
There are high standards for high school GPA as well as the SAT and ACT tests. There are height and weight restrictions for every cadet. For example, if you’re 6-foot-6 inches, you can’t weigh more than 216 pounds. For comparison, Fresno State offensive tackles Dontae Bull and Syrus Tuitele weigh 316 and 300 pounds, respectively. That hampers who Air Force can get to play offensive and defensive line.
Despite the stringent restrictions, Air Force has a winning history.
Although they’re coming off two consecutive 5-7 seasons, the Falcons win more often than not. They had 10-win seasons as recently as 2014 and 2016. Since Calhoun was hired in 2007, the Falcons have had eight winning seasons, including four where they won at least nine games.
So how does a program win when there are so many restrictions stacked up against it?
It comes down to discipline, which makes perfect sense – we’re talking about a military academy after all. And Fresno State knows that.
“They’re very solid,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “They stay fresh. Their offense does a good job of keeping them off the field as far as time of possession and things like that. I think they’re extremely disciplined. They play very hard – maybe out of any defense we’ve seen this year, hardest whistle to whistle.”
When asked if Air Force is the most disciplined team he’s faced, Grubb paused, mentioned the game against Alabama two years ago, and responded, “They’re up there.” At a minimum, Air Force is much more disciplined than the average and typical opponent the Bulldogs see.
“There’s definitely a different level of discipline versus just a common opponent,” Grubb said. “I think that that’s obviously something that they pride their program on and how they operate.”
Defensive coordinator Bert Watts called Air Force “an incredibly disciplined group,” adding that the Falcons play passionate football.
The Bulldogs recognize that they’ll have to play an equally disciplined game in order to win, and they know this will be one of the most challenging games of the season.
Linebacker Justin Rice said that the ‘Dogs will have to match Air Force’s discipline, saying, “It’s going to show how disciplined we can be.”
“They make you play disciplined football,” strong safety Juju Hughes said. “They give you a lot of different things. They’re real disciplined with what they do.”