Last year’s Cheez-It Bowl remains burned into our memories for how bad it was. TCU and Cal put on an all-time terrible show in Phoenix. The Chase Field crowd had to experience it in person. The rest of us just watched Twitter. As awful as Twitter is 99.9% of the time, it is made for sporting events and breaking news stories. This game was both, in that it was a sporting event and it was breaking news how god awful it was.
Well, this year’s Cheez-It Bowl will at least be a lot more interesting. You have the Air Force Falcons, a highly-disciplined service academy that runs the triple-option. You have the less-disciplined Mike Leach Washington State Cougars, who run the Air Raid and have a head coach that has a vendetta against his team. This one sure will be entertaining no matter what happens.
Air Force is a field goal favorite with a total of 67.5 in this one.
I’ve been doing this for over a decade and have been a sports fan longer than that and I feel like I cannot remember a less celebrated 10-win season than Air Force’s. Air Force lost on the road at Boise State and then lost on the road at Navy. Other than that, the Falcons took care of every game and won all but one of them by at least a touchdown. That was the win over Army.
It’s not like Air Force played an awful schedule. The 85th-ranked schedule was decidedly worse than the 51st-ranked schedule that Washington State played, but Air Force was really efficient and really good during the regular season.
The Falcons were actually 124th in pass yards with 1,572. They managed 6.35 yards per play as a result of some enormous chunk plays in the passing game and a solid 5.12 yards per carry that ranked 19th nationally. Air Force was the lowest of the service academies in the YPC department, but did finish ahead of Georgia Southern among the option teams.
Air Force actually passed for four more yards last season, but that was also a team that only managed 5.64 yards per play and went 5-7 and was forced to throw more in late-game situations. Donald Hammond III threw for 1,286 yards and 13 touchdowns. Unlike the other option teams, the backs have more of a say, as there are fewer keepers. The three primary runners, Kadin Remsberg, Timothy Jackson, and Taven Birdlow, had 5.6, 6.1, and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively.
One of the clear in-season advantages for option teams is that the window to prepare is very short. With a bowl game, Washington State has a long time to prepare. Of course, asking a scout team for an Air Raid offense to run the triple-option is like asking a truck driver to pilot a plane. Leach’s bowl record is right down the middle at 7-7 and he’s 2-3 with Washington State, which also suggests that the opposition does better with time to prep for the Air Raid.
Of course, Air Force doesn’t exactly have Air Raid quarterbacks on its practice squad either, so these two teams will have a lot of things to try and figure out once the game actually gets underway. Leach hasn’t had to prep for an option team in a very long time.
With that Air Raid attack, Washington State finished the regular season fifth in yards per play with 7.13. Washington State had just 870 rushing yards. Only Akron had fewer. Washington State had 300 more passing yards than any team and the two that were the closest were LSU and Hawaii. LSU played a 13th game in the SEC Championship Game and Hawaii actually played 14 games. Wazzu was 39th in yards per pass attempt. The 47 passing touchdowns didn’t even lead the nation. That went to LSU and Ohio State tied it.
We’ve come to expect those gaudy offensive numbers and the production from the passing game. You know what we hadn’t come to expect? An atrocious defense. Washington State finished the regular season 126th in yards per play allowed with 6.81. Only Houston, UConn, Bowling Green, and UMass were worse and the teams slightly above Wazzu were UTEP, Louisiana-Monroe, and New Mexico. In the previous seven years, Washington State allowed 6.0 yards per play just once, which happened back in 2016. This was a monumental drop-off that saw Tracy Claeys resign from his post as defensive coordinator.
Air Force is the play here for me. They are the more disciplined team. I don’t know what the mindset of Mike Leach’s team is. Anthony Gordon will go out there and put up numbers and they will move the football, but will the Cougars be prepared for the triple-option? I highly doubt it. After all, a big part of the 6.81 yards per play allowed is that Washington State was 104th in yards per carry allowed with 4.87. They were 125th in yards per pass attempt allowed and we know that Air Force has created some big passing plays.
I just expect Air Force to be ready and I don’t expect the same from Washington State. I’m also expecting a very high-scoring game. I don’t know how many stops there are for either defense in this one. I have a pretty good idea that we won’t see many negative plays.
Pick: Air Force -3
Stronger Lean: Over 67.5