Kickoff: 3:15 p.m. ET (Tuesday, December 28th), ESPN
Spread: Louisville -1.5, O/U 55 (Caesars)
This is the first ever meeting between Louisville and Air Force. Louisville holds an 8-3 all-time record against the FBS military academies (6-3 against Army, 2-0 against Navy).
2021 Air Force Falcons at a Glance
The Air Force Academy, based out of Colorado Springs, Colo., plays in the Mountain West Conference. Of the military academies in FBS (Air Force, Army and Navy), Air Force has won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy more than anyone else, securing it 20 times in the rivalry’s history.
The 2021 season was another successful one for 15th year head coach Troy Calhoun. The Falcons finished the regular season 9-3, with notable wins over Navy, Nevada, and Boise State. Each of Air Force’s three losses this season (Utah State, Army, and San Diego State) were by one possession.
Air Force Offense Breakdown
Air Force boasts the nation’s best rushing attack, averaging 342 yards per game on the ground and averaging 5.25 yards per carry (17th in FBS).
Of course, the gaudy rushing totals are expected of any military academy, as Air Force, Army, and Navy all run some sort of option offense. But the level of execution that Air Force operates on is very high. They not only lead the nation in rushing, they also lead in time of possession (36:40) and sit at +6 in the turnover margin.
The Air Force option offense features a lot of eye candy with their play design. The B-back dive is still the bread and butter of the offense, but they’ll run counters with both halfbacks and quarterbacks, reverse plays, and of course, an intermediate or deep pass to keep defenses honest. Defending any option offense requires good gap discipline and avoiding overaggressive tendencies, but the zone blocking and “feinting” of plays in Calhoun’s scheme adds another layer of preparation for the Louisville defense.
Running back (or B-back, if you are an avid option offense connoisseur) Brad Roberts earned first-team All-Mountain West honors this season as the leading rusher in the conference, tallying 1,284 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry. He’s rushed for over 100 yards seven times this season and Air Force uses him a lot on the dive plays they like to use to set up everything else. He’ll get tough yardage and can create short yardage situations for Air Force very often.
While quarterback Haaziq Daniels has completed only 45 percent of his passes this season, he’s often able to hit big throws that can change a drive. He’s also a very nimble runner in between the tackles and on the perimeter, averaging five yards per carry and second on the team with 707 rushing yards.
Regardless of down and distance, though, Air Force is very good at utilizing the perimeter and getting big plays. Micah Davis is a speedy receiver that is used often as a pitch option, he can fly to the first down marker in little time. DeAndre Hughes is yet another option for Air Force at receiver, and he’s arguably their biggest outside threat with 8.5 yards per carry on 54 carries. Hughes and Davis usually line up as the slotbacks in the flexbone that Air Force primarily runs plays out of, and they’re the big play threats Louisville has to be worried about.
Brandon Lewis leads the team in receiving (16 rec., 447 yards, TD) and also averaged over nine yards per carry, he’s another option for Air Force on the perimeter through the air or an occasional WR reverse.
Notable Players: B-Back Brad Roberts (1,284 rushing yards, 13 TDs); Slotback Micah Davis (22.1 yards per catch, 7.7 yards per carry, six total TDs); Slotback DeAndre Hughes (8.5 yards per carry, three TDs)
Air Force Defense Breakdown
Though the Air Force offense is unsurprisingly good at using the option offense, their defense has been exceptional this season. The Falcons boast a top five defense in the FBS, allowing just 289 yards per game with 5.11 yards per play (27th in FBS). They are also one of eight FBS schools allowing under 100 rushing yards per game (95.33).
Air Force boasted one of the best front sevens in the conference with two all-MWC selections in Jordan Jackson and Vince Sanford. Sanford is a great pass rusher and equally great as a run stopper, while Jackson can eat space and cause havoc in the backfield. Linebacker Alec Mock can also fly around on the field and get stops. This front seven can swarm the line and get plenty of stops in the running game. Only Florida Atlantic has been able to average over five yards per carry against the Falcons, so Louisville will have its work cut out for them with establishing the run.
The secondary has had a couple games where they’ve struggled against potent passing attacks, but they’ve been pretty solid for the most part. Cornerback Tre Bugg III leads the team in tackles and pass breakups, he’s a tough corner that can stick to receivers and make a play on the ball. Safety Corvan Taylor is also top five on the team in tackles and leads Air Force with three interceptions on the season.
Notable Players: LB Vince Sanford (9.5 sacks, 17 TFLs, four forced fumbles); DL Jordan Jackson (seven sacks, 10 TFLs); CB Tre Bugg III (61 tackles, two INTs)
Keys to the Game
- Louisville must keep Air Force from getting chunk plays
Louisville will likely have stopping the B-back dive as their first priority, as that sets up a lot of what Air Force likes to run from the flexbone formation. Kentucky was able to run the ball inside with almost flawless execution, especially with quarterback guts and draws up the middle. If Louisville can’t stop the dive play, Air Force is likely going to control the game with their methodical pace and ground control.
Where Air Force can really hurt Louisville, though, is with the eye candy and the outside runs. Air Force’s offensive line and blocking outside has been very solid during the season. If Louisville overcommits to stopping Daniels as a quarterback keeper, he can easily pitch it to Davis or Hughes (vice versa if Louisville plays the pitch man moreso). That opens the door for a chunk play, and keeps Louisville’s offense off the field.
- Will Louisville test Air Force deep with their new starting receivers?
With receivers Jordan Watkins and Justin Marshall both transferring before the bowl game, Louisville will be starting two new outside receivers in Tyler Harrell and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, along with Josh Johnson listed as the starting slot receiver.
All three guys should give Louisville more incentive to stretch the field, and I think they can against Air Force. Though the Falcons are top 20 nationally in passing defense, they have proven vulnerable to some of the better passing teams in the Mountain West Conference. Utah State and Nevada, two of the top three leaders in passing in the Mountain West, threw for 448 and 351 yards against Air Force, respectively. Both also completed over 60 percent of their passes and averaged 8+ yards per attempt.
With big plays threat like Harrell and Huggins-Bruce now flanking the perimeter, Louisville could be more explosive on the outside, in theory. Malik Cunningham also has proven to be able to hit the deep ball with regularity over the course of his career, so Louisville should look to showcase that explosiveness against the Falcons.