Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: In in his first five seasons as the head coach of Air Force, Troy Calhoun led his alma mater to a bowl game and at the conclusion of the 2012 campaign the story was again the same for the Falcons and their leader.
However, the road to the postseason was somewhat rocky for a program that actually accepted a bid to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl still with one game remaining in the regular season. The Falcons tore up Idaho State in the season opener at home, 49-21, but then dropped winnable contests versus Michigan and UNLV by a combined nine points on the road.
The squad did come around with four wins in the next five outings, including Mountain West Conference victories versus Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, but the lone setback was rather tough to swallow. The first week of October saw the Falcons host Navy in the first portion of the annual Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series, an event they claimed in 2011. Unfortunately, Air Force did not have luck on its side when, in overtime, a fumbled snap by Navy was recovered by a Midshipmen in the end zone for what proved to be the winning score. Add to that mishap the team's complete failure versus Army (41-21) on Nov. 3 as the Black Knights ran for 314 yards and four touchdowns, and the competition versus the other service academies was a complete wash.
Nevertheless, the Falcons were invited to take part in the Armed Forces Bowl in the middle of November, the fourth time in six years that the program was slated to appear in the event, this time against the Rice Owls. Unfortunately for The Academy, Rice was more than up to the challenge as it captured a resounding 33-14 victory in late December. Overall, the defeat was the fourth in the final five outings for Air Force, leaving the team one game below .500 (6-7) and 5-3 in MWC action. The last setback also pushed the Falcons to just 10-12-1 all-time in postseason appearances.
"It fuels the fire that makes you want to work harder," offensive lineman Austin Hayes said of the disappointing finish to 2012. "I think it eats at pretty much all the players, that they want to not have that 6-7 season again and go to a bowl game and get blown out like that."
OFFENSE: Unfortunately for the Falcons, the offense is in complete rebuilding mode, with just three starters coming back from last season when they ranked second in the country in rushing with 316.2 ypg. Obviously the team will again be focusing on keeping the ball on the ground, using a stable of available running backs, but still a quarterback will have to be in charge of facilitating that attack and that appears to be in the hands of Kale Pearson who is the most experienced of the signal-callers on the roster, but don't assume that coach Calhoun will tie the entire season to the youngster who attempted only 29 passes last season and completed just 11 to his own teammates and four to opposing defenses.
Not only does Air Force have to break in a new starting quarterback following the departure of Connor Dietz, but finding ample bodies to work in the trenches and protect him will also be a challenge for coach Calhoun with only two returning starters back along the offensive line (Drew Kerber and Austin Hayes). In terms of returning starters at the skill positions, wide receiver Ty MacArthur fits the bill and could become an even more important fixture after leading the team in receiving last year with 24 catches for 411 yards, leading to a pair of touchdowns.
DEFENSE: Slightly more stable than the offense heading into the 2013 campaign, the defense for the Falcons features five returning starters, three of whom are defensive backs who had a hand in limiting the competition to 210.6 ypg through the air (fifth in the MWC and 35th nationally), but that's only because the run defense was often beaten up by opponents who gained close to 200 ypg (99th in the country).
Along the front line there are returning starters Alex Hansen and Joseph Champaign, but the former is just a sophomore and the latter a junior which means their actual game experience is still far from optimal. Fortunately for the Falcons, Hansen has already proven himself to be a threat in pushing forward at the line of scrimmage, resulting in nine tackles for loss and four sacks last season, the latter tying him for first on the unit.
As the top returning tackler for the group, defensive back Christian Spears not only recorded 91 stops, but he also forced a pair of fumbles, one of only two players to have more than just a single tally in that department. Of the mere eight interceptions logged by the defense, a pair were credited to Steffon Batts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: For the most part, it was the end zone or bust for the Falcons a season ago when it came to putting points on the board. The squad attempted only 10 field goals, and just four of those were converted by Parker Harrington. The kicker has moved on, which means the coaching staff will have to find someone to fill his spot which, based on last year's results, shouldn't be that difficult.
The punting chores are again being handled by David Baska who averaged better than 39 yards per attempt and landed 11 of his 40 kicks inside the 20-yard line. It will be important for Baska to take care of business and the coverage team to be aggressive in order to keep opponents from taking advantage of short fields versus an inexperienced defense.
OUTLOOK: Picked to finish third in the Mountain Division behind Boise State and newcomer Utah State, the Falcons don't have very many easy games on the 2013 docket outside of the season opener against Colgate.
With the expansion of the MWC, Air Force will be jumping into the league schedule almost immediately with a home date versus USU on Sept. 7, and with three of the next four contests on the road against the likes of Boise State, Nevada and Navy, there's a good chance The Academy could be in deep trouble once the second half of the season rolls around, although the group might be able to peek out from that potential hole in the final weeks with meetings versus New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State to close out the month of November.