PROVO — When Air Force and BYU meet on Saturday, it will be a matchup — at least statistically — of the nation's best rushing team and the nation's next-to-worst.
The Falcons are top-ranked in rushing offense, averaging 338 yards per game, while the Cougars, averaging 65.7 yards per outing, are No. 116 (out of 117 Division I teams).
BYU had minus-five yards on the ground last week against Stanford, including five quarterback sacks. The Cougars ran the ball only 18 times, compared to 46 pass attempts.
Coach Gary Crowton says the plan on offense this week is to be more balanced.
One of the major problems against the Cardinal, Crowton explained, was the absence of senior center Scott Jackson, who sat out with a knee injury. Junior Hanale Vincent, who played for Jackson, made his first start. Jackson returns to the lineup this week.
The young offensive line's struggles hampered BYU's running game, Crowton said. "You have to be confident in blocking," he said. "I thought there was some indecisiveness in our blocking and it made a difference in the game (against Stanford). I just think our offensive line didn't play very well last week. We have to do better. Scott helps them play better."
Crowton said Jackson could have played against Stanford, but he elected to hold him out so he could be fully healthy for the upcoming conference schedule. "His experience and directing what we're doing is very key," Crowton said. "(Vincent) got some great experience, but it wasn't the same."
"He's like the father of the offensive line. He's the role model," freshman Ofa Mohetau said of Jackson. "That's who we look up to. He works harder than anybody else. We all want to meet him halfway."
Running back Marcus Whalen, who carried the ball only three times against Stanford, is expected to play more this week though he's still not at full strength after suffering a foot injury in the season-opener. Fahu Tahi and Thomas Stancil have carried the ball a lot during practice this week and could see considerable action Saturday.
The Cougars will need to be effective on the ground against the Falcons. Last season during a 52-9 loss at Air Force, BYU rushed for minus-21 yards.
One worrisome trend for the Cougars is that they have not scored a rushing touchdown in 26 straight quarters, dating back to a second-quarter TD run by Lance Pendleton against Wyoming last Nov. 9.
BRONCO BUSTING: BYU's defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall has the Cougars playing well on defense. In fact, BYU is No. 12 in the nation in total defense.
The Cougars face Air Force's option attack this week and Mendenhall is very familiar with the Falcons, having spent the last five seasons at New Mexico. With Mendenhall, the Lobos posted a 3-2 record against Air Force, including three straight victories from 1999-2001.
Last season, the Falcons abused the Cougar defense, rolling up 386 yards on the ground. "It was very frustrating," Crowton said. "We have to be able to shut down the perimeter. Bronco understands that."
The Cougars are also going to be watching out for trickery. "We have to take care of the special plays — the reverses, the throw back to the tackle, the double passes," Crowton said.
Cornerback Jernaro Gilford said there are several keys to being successful against Air Force. "We have to avoid all the cut-blocks and crack-backs and just make tackles," he said. "We've got to make sure that we make tackles. We can't let anything slip away. We'll be ready for them. It will be a big challenge, but we'll be ready."
BERRY'S STATUS: Quarterback Matt Berry, who broke a finger on his throwing hand against New Mexico, will receive a different cast on Friday that could hasten his return. Crowton is hoping Berry will be ready to play against Colorado State on Oct. 9.
CHRISTENSEN TO PLAY: BYU wide receiver David Christensen sustained a shoulder injury against Stanford but will be available this week. "He's a tough kid," Crowton said. "A doctor tried to tell him not to. He and his dad went in and they talked it over, they talked about the risks. He's going to tape it up and try to play. He wants to play. He's going to play hurt."