Ground vs. Air – Cheez-It Bowl Preview

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It‘s an age-old debate. Ground versus Air. And we’re not talking about how to ship your holiday packages. 

The 2019 version of college football’s Cheez-It Bowl features contrasting styles of football. And that makes this second-tier bowl game intriguing. 

Ground and Pound

The Air Force Academy brings its triple-option running game to Phoenix to take on Mike Leach and his Air Raid, the high-octane passing game of Washington State. 

Air Force is coming off its best season since 1992 and finished 13th in the final Associated Press rankings. After beating Wyoming 20-6 in the season finale for their seventh straight win, the Falcons finished the year 10-2. A remarkable turnaround after consecutive 5-7 campaigns. 

The Falcons’ unique running game ranked third in the nation this season, averaging 292 yards per game, and featuring four players with over 490 rushing yards. As a team, Air Force rushed for 3,510 yards on the year.

Like most all the service academies, Air Force runs a triple-option attack using three running backs and a quarterback capable of running the ball at any time. The triple option levels the playing field for the academies because this uncommon style doesn’t require huge offensive linemen and receiving specialists.

Although known for their rushing attack, the Falcons are not afraid to mix it up and throw the ball to keep teams off balance. Mountain West offensive Player of the Year quarterback Donald Hammond III was 52 of 99 for 1,286 yards and 13 touchdowns out of their run-first formations. 

So how are the Cougars going to stop this prolific attack? 

The WSU defense has been in disarray the entire season. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys shocked the team and left midseason after the Cougs inexplicably blew a 32-point lead to UCLA and lost 67-63. 

Teams ran wild on WSU most of the season. In a 37-35 loss to Oregon, the defense gave up257 yards and three touchdowns to quarterback CJ Verdell.

The Cougs gave up an average of 456 yards a game on defense, including 170 on the ground, which landed them just ahead of Arizona for 11th place in the Pac-12. Throughout the season they couldn’t get a big stop when they really needed it, and it seemed teams could run at will when it counted the most. 

Air Force must be licking its chops heading into this game on December 27.

It will be a stern test for sure trying to contain Hammond. I foresee Leach stacking the box and making Hammond throw as much as possible. Not seeing an offense like Air Force all season will be a unique challenge, but maybe the three weeks since the Cougs’ last game has given them time to conjure up some sort of plan. I’m not holding my breath.

Air Assault

As big a task as stopping the option will be for WSU, the other monumental challenge in this game will be for the Falcons to contain the nation’s No. 1 offense. 

WSU senior quarterback Anthony Gordon made Cougar fans quickly forget Gardner Minshew at the helm of the Air Raid offense. 

While the Air Force QB threw the ball just 99 times all season, Gordon tossed it 647 times for 5,228 yards and 45 touchdowns while completing 71 percent of his passes. The team averaged 39 points and 444 yards passing per game to top the nation and had seven receivers with over 500 yards receiving. 

The Cougs will look to get the ball to sophomore running back Max Borghi, who led the team with 81 receptions and ran for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns this season 

The Falcons are no slouches on defense however and should put up a good fight. They had the second-best defense in the Mountain West this year, giving up only 315 total yards a game, just 208 of them through the air. 

And, despite all the impressive numbers the Cougs put up this season, they ended the season 6-6 and just 3-6 in conference. They lost nail biters to both Arizona State and Oregon and had the aforementioned meltdown against UCLA. 

It was quite a letdown coming off an 11-2 season in 2018, which saw the team in the national playoff conversation until their yearly no-show against the Washington Huskies at the end of the season. 

The Cougs should be able to move the ball as they have all season. It will just come down to execution in the red zone. Can they put the ball in the end zone instead of settling for field goals?

Prediction

Weather won’t be a factor in Phoenix, so this should be a high-scoring game. The Cougs have showed that few teams have an answer to the Air Raid, short-passing game, and I foresee them taking it to the Falcons with their up-tempo, high-octane attack. 

However, Air Force will get their yards on the ground, and I think you’ll see plenty of big plays reminding Coug fans of their team’s woeful rushing defense. If the Falcons can eat up the clock and keep WSU’s offense off the field, this game could be close.

But on this day, I see the Cougs scoring just enough points to best the Falcons and take home the lifetime supply of Cheez-Its. Go Cougs!

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About Author

John D. Hunter is Montana native but grew up in the Tacoma/Seattle area and proudly attended Washington State University. He is a former morning show producer on KJR SportsRadio in Seattle. For 7 years he produced ‘Knight in the Morning’ with Michael Knight and New York Vinnie. From there he moved to ESPN.com where he spent another 7 years as an Interactive Editor and Soccer reporter/writer. He has covered 3 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, 1998 World Cup in France and many more sporting events.

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