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Difficult task awaits CU Buffs in rare trip to Air Force

Colorado aims to bounce back from season-opening loss to TCU

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University of Colorado Boulder's Jalen Sami ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Jalen Sami tries to get a hold of Texas Christian University’s Chandler Morris on Sept. 2, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Game at a Glance

Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (0-1) at Air Force Falcons (1-0)

Kickoff: 1:37 p.m. MT

Where: Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs

Capacity: 46,692. Playing surface: FieldTurf

TV: CBS

Radio: KOA (850 or 760 AM & 94.1 FM)

Odds: Air Force by 17.5

Series: Colorado leads 12-5

It has been three years, but Colorado defensive lineman Jalen Sami still remembers going against the Air Force offense when he was a freshman in 2019.

“There was this one play where two guys cut me, both on one side,” Sami said. “So I hope they don’t do that again, but they might.

“There’s the vivid memory of just how it was a battle.”

On Saturday, Sami and the Buffaloes will battle the Falcons again, as they make their first trip to Air Force since 1974. It appears they will do so with a new starter at quarterback.

A BuffZone source confirmed Friday night that the team was informed junior JT Shrout will get his first start with CU. Brent Briggeman of the Colorado Springs Gazette was first to report the Buffs’ quarterback status.

Earlier this week, CU head coach Karl Dorrell said the Buffs had a plan in place but didn’t reveal the plan. Sophomore Brendon Lewis started last week’s opener, making his 13th consecutive start. Dorrell also said both quarterbacks could play.

CU is looking not only to upset the Falcons, who are heavily favored, but to bounce back from a dismal season opener last week against TCU.

“The guys were frustrated, I think in a good way at the end of the game, because they felt that they didn’t play to their capabilities,” Dorrell said of last week’s 38-13 loss. “I think that’s a good sign. That’s the good frustration about (now) cleaning things up and getting back to playing the style of football and the stuff that we’ve been working on for the last several months.”

This week, however, will present a very different challenge for Dorrell and the Buffaloes.

From the time that then-head coach Ken Hatfield introduced the triple option to Air Force in 1980, the Falcons have been a highly successful program that routinely makes life difficult for their opponents. Since 1982, Air Force has ridden its option attack to 23 bowl appearances.

Under the direction of head coach Troy Calhoun, now in his 16th season, the Falcons’ offense has evolved. The triple option is still the foundation of Air Force’s attack, although Calhoun is quick to point out he doesn’t label the Falcons as an option offense.

“Nah, because we don’t run that many real snaps of it,” he said. “We’ve just got to be able to change year-by-year and really game-by-game, too. We can’t be stuck in one thing.”

It is, however, an offense that is very different from anything CU sees from other opponents, from the cut blocks to the option concepts and the Falcons’ discipline and toughness. CU spent weeks preparing for Air Force in 2019 and still lost, 30-23 in overtime.

“They’re so unique from everybody,” Dorrell said. “If we played all the service academies and we have three games of similar style (that’s one thing), but we don’t do that often. That’s why it’s more challenging for our program. It does take different rules from your normal schemes and what you do. It’s almost like a different playbook that you have to utilize against this team.”

At the heart of the Air Force offense is the rushing attack. The Falcons have led the country in rushing each of the past two years and racked up 582 yards on the ground in last week’s 48-17 win against Northern Iowa.

CU gave up 275 rushing yards to TCU, with 261 of those coming in the second half. The Buffs are aiming to fix their run defense, but the challenge will be very different than it was a week ago.

“Our technique (on the defensive line) is different from last week than it will be for this week,” Sami said. “Instead of being an attack front, we’re more reacting to them now. So we’re just trying to play the blocks that they give us.”

There aren’t many CU players who faced the Falcons in 2019, but defensive linemen Terrance Lang, Na’im Rodman and Sami all played in that game.

“We are communicating and just knowing how they’re gonna block us,” Sami said. “They will cut you backside. If you’re not in your gap, or you’re not eye disciplined, you don’t have good eyes and good hands and good feet, you’ll be cut out of your gap and it could be a big play that they hit.

“We’ve got to be able to defend the block, fight the double team and stop the trap or the dive. This isn’t an offense that you see often, so the more you dial in, the more you know  your opponent, the easier it is for us.”

Dorrell said the Buffs have used skill players to run the scout team offense this week to try to simulate the Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels and the option.

It isn’t just the run game that can hurt CU, however. Air Force doesn’t throw the ball often, but is very good when it does. The Falcons are usually one of the most efficient passing teams in the country and burned the Buffs for 155 yards and two touchdowns through the air in 2019.

Dorrell and Calhoun both learned from former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan years ago. Dorrell said he can see the Shanahan influence in the Air Force passing game.

“You see some of the passing concepts are very similar to what all of us have done in our past,” Dorrell said. “What makes this so challenging for any team to defend is everybody’s geared about stopping the run and then all of a sudden, there’s guys wide open down the field. That’s the challenge of playing with discipline, understanding what your read keys are, understanding when you should be in coverage versus filling that gap or on the perimeter for a running play.”

Dorrell added, “It’s going to take a great level of concentration and discipline to stay in that mindset for 60 minutes, because this team is going to challenge you to do that.”

In a lot of ways, facing Air Force will be difficult for a CU team licking its wounds from last week. Yet, facing Air Force demands a high level of concentration and discipline that might be good for the Buffs after that humbling defeat.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us, but I think our guys are excited about it, given how we played last week,” Dorrell said. “We feel that we’re going to get ourselves back on track with a good week of practice and hopefully showing that improvement on Saturday.”

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