TEAMS: Air Force Falcons (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West Conference) vs. Rice Owls (6-6, 4-4 Conference USA)
TIME: Saturday Dec. 29, 11:45 a.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Air Force -2; Over/Under 62 points
Like option offenses? Then you’ll love the Armed Forces Bowl, which pits Air Force’s Flexbone against Rice’s zone-read. Of course, the two formations couldn’t be any more different. Troy Calhoun maintained the set he learned from Hall of Famer Fisher DeBerry, but with the added twist of a surprise passing attack.
Tim Jefferson mastered the nuances of Calhoun’s remastered option, and his departure left a very apparent void in this year’s Falcons. But in true system fashion, the 2012 version of the Air Force Academy football team began to gel as the season progressed.
Air Force finished second in the nation running the ball, the Flexbone thriving on a multifaceted approach. Five Falcon rushers went for at least 419 yards.
John Reagan joined head coach David Bailiff’s Rice staff in 2010. Reagan brought elements of the spread offense Kansas ran during its successful run under Mark Mangino, replacing the air raid Rice had run previously. In 2008, Rice’s last bowl-bound season, David Beaty had the Owls throwing 516 times — just one pass fewer than Oklahoma threw that season en route to Sam Bradford winning the Heisman.
Chase Clement is no longer captaining the Rice offense, and the system’s been altered to one still predicated on a spread blocking scheme, but with zone-read facets added. Three different Owl ball carriers have rushed 119 times or more for at least 510 yards, including quarterback Taylor McHargue.
Rice has rushed 571 times, almost 200 more than it’s passed. But the sprinkled in passes have given the Owls a nice balance, manifested in a 31.8 point per game average.
With a pair of teams that have rushed for a combined 6360 yards, ball control becomes paramount. Rice boasts the nation’s second longest time of possession at 33:41 points per game. The Falcon defense needs to cut that down dramatically.
Rice comes into Fort Worth with considerable momentum. The Owls reached bowl eligibility for the third time since 2006, but just the fourth time over the last four decades and changes by winning five of their final six.
Cynics deride the bowl season. There’s too many games, is a common refrain. But it takes a truly jaded outlook to lament these programs getting a shot at the postseason. For Air Force, the bowl game is one more opportunity to represent the Academy as student-athletes. For Rice, this is a landmark moment after a half-century of struggles.
“[The coaching staff] would not let [the seniors] have bad days,” said Bailiff. ” We drew a line in the sand. We used a lot of the hard lessons early that put us on a roll late and we were absolutely honored when it was the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl extended us an invitation.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cody Getz keys the Falcons’ diverse rush attack. The diminutive (he’s just 5-foot-7, 175 pounds) senior rushed for 1213 yards on 191 carries. Quarterback Connor Dietz is the second option (pun not intended, I promise) with 138 carries for 658 yards.
Dietz will also unleash the pass when called upon. He’s been accurate on 62 percent of his attempts at an impressive 10.4 yards per completion. Eight of his 67 completions have gone for touchdowns. To get a sense of how the Air Force pass attack operates, consider that the team’s three leading receivers — Drew Coleman, Dontae Strickland and Ty McArthur — average 23.3, 19.3 and 17.1 yards per catch.
The extra preparation time Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond had to ready his unit for the option could help a defense that allowed more than 31 points per game. Rice improved steadily in the season’s second half, holding four of its final seven opponents below 20 points.
Defensive end Cody Bauer and tackle Hasom Shahin must get into the backfield routinely and accurately read the misdirections. When ball carriers get beyond the first level, linebacker Cameron Nwosu‘s ability to keep them from moving further is crucial.
Aforementioned Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue can run the zone-read effectively, going for over 600 yards on the ground. Charles Ross and Turner Petersen are vital cogs in the rush. The duo has a combined nine touchdowns and over 1200 yards. McHargue will also throw to Petersen, who caught 11 balls on the season.
Swings, slants and mid-range passes are Rice’s bread and butter in the passing game. Air Force linebacker Alex Means will be active, and needs a big game to key the Falcon defense.