PROVO — As usual, Air Force is one of the nation's top rushing teams.
But what makes the Falcons so good this year is their defense.
Just ask BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team hosts Air Force Saturday (1:30 p.m., CBS C).
Mendenhall has seen Air Force defenses play for a long time and he's been very impressed with this season's version.
"Of the years that I've been the head coach, and even the defensive coordinator, I think this is Air Force's best defense," he said. "And certainly, statistically, it proves that out."
The Falcons lead the nation in pass defense, yielding only 127.9 yards per game. Air Force is No. 10 in pass-efficiency defense — and will face Cougar quarterback Max Hall, who is No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency.
The Falcons are also No. 3 in turnover margin, having taken the ball away from opponents 25 times (13 fumble recoveries, 12 interceptions) while losing the ball only seven times.
"They're playing very well and they're playing with confidence and they're well-coached," Mendenhall said.
"They're playing with a different swagger and confidence than they've had in years' past, at least since I've been here," said Hall. "They've got a lot of seniors and leadership on the defense. It's going to be a tough challenge for us as an offense. But at the same time, I'm excited for it."
Providing much of that swagger are Air Force cornerbacks Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright Jr., who are regarded as two of the best to play that position for the Falcons in years.
"Traditionally, Air Force uses a collective approach defensively, like they do offensively, with scheme to make the most of the type of athletes they have," Mendenhall said. "This year, they have two corners that are playing really well. They do a lot of zone blitz and get nice pressure on the quarterback. They're very innovative in what they do. But if they choose to leave their corners alone on the wide receivers, they're doing a really nice job."
Mendenhall said Rembert and Wright are adept at baiting opposing quarterbacks and forcing them into making mistakes, such as throwing interceptions.
"This particular year, their secondary has really nice athleticism. They have a keen sense for where the ball is going and for where it fits into their scheme. They can bait one throw and take another one away."
No doubt, Hall is wary of both Rembert and Wright, who are known for their speed — Rembert placed seventh in the 60-meter dash at the Mountain West Conference indoor track championships. Both are technically sound and can catch passes like wide receivers.
Hall, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season, has been studying film this week, trying to find ways to combat the Falcons' baiting tactics.
"It might be something I can use to my advantage," he said. "We've got to find tendencies and see what they do. They do a really good job of disguising what coverage they're going to be in. You have understand where the safeties are and where the corners are playing and what kind of defense they're in."24 comments on this story
Since 2004, the Cougars have been able to rack up big yardage through the air and put up big points every year against Air Force.
But the Falcon defense figures to make that much more difficult this time around.
"The thing is, they're not doing a lot of things differently," said BYU tight end Andrew George. "They're just executing at a higher level. Guys are making more plays. They're always disciplined, but they've increased it this year. You can see a difference."
Cougars on the air
Air Force (7-4) at No. 19 BYU (8-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: CBS C
1160 AM, 102.7 FM