The Military Bowl began just three years ago as the EagleBank Bowl; in other words, one of those brand new, corporate named postseason additions that earns such vehement derision from the peanut gallery. It now stands out in the sea of bowls for its partnership with the USO, something (apropos) 2011 participant Air Force’s head coach Troy Calhoun commended in his postseason press conference.
Last season’s edition pitting Maryland against East Carolina earned over $100,000 for the USO, according to the game’s official site. Even the most jaded of bowl game supporters can applaud that.
The on-field product should match the lofty charitable spirit of the bowl. Both Air Force and Toledo have scored in bunches this season: AFA 34.4, Toledo 42.3. That translates to two of the top 21 scoring offenses in the FBS taking the same field. Those cool enough to have belonged to the Mid-Week MACtion club know what UT can do when paired with a like-minded offense. The Rockets had two games of 60 or more points this season, a feat that often eludes many college basketball teams, let alone football.
It’s unlikely AFA will surrender Toledo’s third 60-point outburst. After all, the Falcons come into the Military Bowl sporting an impressive pass defense ranked No. 22 in yards yielded. That ranking is somewhat inflated; Air Force’s non-conference slate consisted of FCS opponents Tennessee Tech and South Dakota, as well as notoriously non-passing offenses in Army and Navy. The Falcon pass defense can be best judged via its work against Mountain West foes TCU and Boise State. Quarterbacks Casey Pachall and Kellen Moore threw for 204 and 281 yards against the Falcons. Pachall was below his average, Moore slightly above.
Watch for Jon Davis to be in the neighborhood of Toledo’s star receiver Eric Page often. Davis led the Falcons with four interceptions and seven pass deflections. He’s also adept tackling in the open field, something that could prove critical against the Rocket receivers ability to gain yards after the catch. Four of the team’s seven pass catchers with at least 10 grabs went for more than 11 yards per reception, and none of those was Page. Limiting the production of Kevin Stafford and Bernard Reedy will dictate how much damage Page is able to inflict.
Perhaps more critical to Air Force’s defensive success is how it addresses the rush. The Falcons were one of the bottom eight teams nationally against the rush — another statistic somewhat inflated with its facing both Army and Navy, but a troubling statistic for defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt nevertheless. Opposing offenses rushed for 227.8 yards per game against AFA. Since returning from a mid-season injury, UT back Adonis Thomas has rattled off games of 131, 141, 160 and 216 yards rushing. His low since Oct. 22 is 80 yards, not coincidentally his first game back from the three-week layoff.
Thomas should see a steady workload early. Wallerstedt may counter by blitzing linebackers Alex Means and Brady Amack through the first half.
Matt Campbell was named UT’s head coach immediately following Tim Beckman’s departure for Illinois. An offensive line coach by trade, it will be intriguing to see how liberally the reins are turned over to coordinator Mike Ward. Ward is the associate head coach in addition to defensive coordinator.
A dramatic shift in the Rockets’ gameplan isn’t likely, but teams have thrown the kitchen sink at Air Force to slow its option attack. Frank Schwab of The Colorado Springs Gazette writes of AFA facing a five-man front against Colorado State, one of the many alterations opposing defenses have installed for Air Force week.
That UT has had an extra two weeks to prepare for the option could boost its readiness. However, the triple option is not something readily used in the MAC, nor by any of the Rockets’ non-conference opponents. The new look will test a defense that allowed just 123.7 rushing yards per contest.
Blitzes dialed up to rush AFA quarterback Tim Jefferson could prove vital, as the Rocket defense flourished when forcing turnovers. UT was among the nation’s best in takeaways, garnering 28. With 24 turnovers surrendered, the Falcons are prone to such folly. That might spell the difference, as turnovers will limit Air Force’s ball control-predicated style.
Calhoun could counteract the Rockets’ ability to slow the rush not by abandoning the run-heavy principles of the triple option, but continuing the freedom extended to Jefferson throughout the quarterback’s career passing the ball. Jefferson’s dual abilities are unparalleled among service academy play callers. He’s thrown for career bests in completions (98), yards (1478), completion percentage (60.7) and touchdowns (12). Altogether, that spells a dimension of the triple option rarely afforded teams that use it.
UT has allowed 3335 passing yards on the campaign, albeit against some of the most air-it-out offenses in the nation. But should Jefferson effectively test the Rocket secondary on Wednesday, it will open up the possibilities for his offense.