Run games in spotlight between No. 22 SDSU, Air Force (Sep 23, 2017)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Once the celebration subsided following San Diego State’s 20-17 defeat of Stanford last Saturday night, the Aztecs were left with no time to reflect on the accomplishment.

The Mountain West opener awaits two-time defending conference champion San Diego State, which is eager to move forward after a pair of wins against Pac-12 opponents. The Aztecs play Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday.

“We’re playing an Air Force team that is more aggressive on defense as far as blitzing and stunting than either (Stanford or Arizona State) were,” said Aztecs coach Rocky Long, whose team jumped into the rankings this week at No. 22.

“And we’re playing against a triple-option team, which neither of those teams were. So it’s a short week preparing for both things.”

The option attack Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun carried over from Hall of Fame predecessor Fisher DeBerry places Air Force near the top of rushing production every year. This season is no exception, with the Falcons seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 320.5 yards per game.

“It’s tricky,” said cornerback Kameron Kelly of defending the option. “If you try to make a play that’s not your assignment, they can pop a touchdown on you. They played with Michigan, so it proves the triple option’s tricky, and that they’re a good team.”

A hard-fought loss at Michigan last Saturday isn’t the only evidence of Air Force’s solid play under Calhoun. The Falcons won a combined 28 games from 2014 through 2016, and they reached the Mountain West Championship Game in 2015. That was the last time these two programs faced.

Air Force’s approach is unique, both in terms of execution and the manner in which a defense must prepare.

“We like to blitz a lot, stunt a lot, and most of the time when you blitz, you’re reacting to the blocker,” Long said. “Against a triple option when you blitz, you have to react to the action of their backfield. You’re not reacting to the blockers; you’re looking at the quarterback, fullback and pitch man.

“You don’t get the same look in practice as you’re going to get in the game,” he added. “In practice, you don’t get near the speed they do in it, so you have to have solid principles. Then, it takes your players a while to get used to the speed.”

Michigan limited Air Force (1-1) to 3.43 yards per carry, primarily on the Wolverines’ ability to deny quarterback Arion Worthman opportunities to pitch to leading rusher Tim McVey (168 yards).

The Air Force rush defense also faces a huge task Saturday. The Falcons are tasked with trying to do what three previous defenses this season were unable to achieve: stop Rashaad Penny.

The running back leads the FBS in rushing and all-purpose yardage, producing 196 and 258 per game, respectively. He combined for 175 yards rushing and 31 receiving in the win over Stanford, following up on a 216-yard rushing performance in Week 2 at Arizona State.

Penny’s nation-leading pace headlines San Diego State’s return to the Top 25, a spot in which the Aztecs resided after finishing last season 11-3. They also earned a ranking at this juncture in the 2016 regular season, but a loss at South Alabama in their next game kept the Aztecs out until November.

Upon their return, they lost at home to Wyoming and fell out once more.

“It’s great to be in it, be recognized, but honestly, I don’t like it because of past experiences,” Penny said. “But we don’t focus on it as much now as we did last year. Last year, we were excited because we really never had the chance of being in the Top 25.”

Last season’s final Top 25 ranking was the program’s first time finishing in the polls since 1986.

Now that it’s no longer new territory, Penny said San Diego State has the capacity to “keep it going.”

How the Aztecs establish their rushing game while limiting Air Force’s should determine if they keep their place in the Top 25 beyond Week 4.