Two teams with productive running attacks, suspect defenses and that won just enough games to become bowl eligible face off when Rice and Air Force take the field at TCU’s renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas. The Owls are in a bowl for the first time since 2008, thanks to a four-game winning streak to finish the regular season. The six wins also represent the most for the program since a 10-3 mark in 2008, head coach David Bailiff’s second season.
Air Force has been a consistent winner and has earned a trip to a bowl game in each of head coach Troy Calhoun’s six seasons at the service academy. However, the Falcons lost three of their final four games and need a win to avoid their first losing season since 2006. They are 2-3 in bowls under Calhoun and this represents their fourth appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl. They made three straight trips to this bowl from 2007-09, losing the first two to California and Houston, and then defeating the Cougars 47-20 in ’09.
These two teams have played each other six times before with Air Force holding a 5-1 advantage in the series. The last meeting took place in 1998 and the Falcons’ margin of victory over the Owls is 22.8 points.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl – Rice (6-6) vs. Air Force (6-6)
Date and Time: Dec. 29 at 11:45 a.m. ET
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
When the Rice Owls have the ball:
The Owls’ offense is averaging more than 200 yards on both the ground and through the air per game and it is scoring nearly 32 points per game. They rank 29th in the nation in rushing offense with 201.3 yards per game, but are also averaging nearly 220 yards passing (72nd) per contest.
Junior quarterback Taylor McHargue is a dual-threat signal caller who has passed for 2,178 yards and rushed for another 628. He has thrown for as many touchdowns (11), as he’s scored on the ground, and has just five interceptions. Senior running back Sam McGuffie is more of a receiver than a runner, as he leads the team with 49 receptions and five touchdown catches.
The leading rusher on the team is junior running back Charles Ross, who has 743 yards and is coming off of a 154-yard effort in his last game against UTEP. Ross has four rushing touchdowns, while fellow junior Turner Petersen has seven, to go along with his 510 yards rushing. Six different Owls have gained more than 100 yards on the ground this season. They also have had some trouble holding onto the ball, as the team has lost 14 fumbles.
Air Force’s defense has performed much better against the pass compared to slowing down the run this season. Overall, the Falcons are 65th in the nation in total defense at 401.6 yards per game. They are 98th in rushing defense, allowing nearly 200 yards on the ground per game, but are 28th against the pass (203.6 ypg). The Falcons allow as many points (28.7 ppg, 69th) as they score (28.5 ppg, 68th), so it makes sense that they are an even 6-6. They rank near the bottom of the FBS ranks in both sacks (1.3 per game, 104th) and turnovers forced (13, 103rd).
When the Air Force Falcons have the ball:
The Falcons’ complex triple-option attack features the nation’s second-ranked rushing offense, as well as one of the least productive aerial attacks. Air Force has run the ball 756 times this season, compared to just 139 pass attempts. The Falcons are averaging nearly 330 yards on the ground per game, second only to fellow service academy Army (369.8 rushing ypg).
All told, 16 different Air Force players have tallied at least one carry this season, and the Falcons are averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a team and have scored 37 rushing touchdowns. Senior halfback Cody Getz leads the way with 1,213 yards rushing, ranking 20th in the nation with 110.3 yards per game, and nine rushing touchdowns.
The team’s second-leading rusher is quarterback Connor Dietz. A fifth-year senior, Dietz is similar to Rice’s McHargue in that he is capable of making plays with his arm, he’s just not called on to do so often in this offense. Dietz has 658 yards rushing and five touchdowns, to go along with 1,127 yards passing and eight scores. He’s only thrown three interceptions in his 108 attempts, but turnovers have been somewhat of an issue for this offense. The run-oriented attack has fumbled the ball away 19 times and also tossed seven interceptions in just 139 total pass attempts.
Rice’s defense ranks among the bottom third of the FBS ranks in pretty much every major defensive category, as the Owls are allowing nearly 445 yards and more than 31 points per game. They are an equal-opportunity unit in that they are surrendering a fair amount of yards both on the ground (192.8 rushing ypg) and through the air (250.8 passing ypg). The positives for this defense have come in its ability to get to the quarterback (2.2 sacks per game, 47th in the nation) and to create turnovers. The Owls are tied for 34th in the nation in turnovers created with 24, including 14 forced fumbles.
Considering both teams have had success running the ball and neither defense has had much success in stopping it, Rice and Air Force should be plenty “armed” for this game. Look for lots of offense and plenty of points, with most of the damage coming via the ground game. This offensive strategy could also result in a fairly quick game, as both teams will grind it out and try to chew up some clock. In the end, the Falcons have a reputation and track record for beating teams with its triple-option attack, and there’s little reason to think the Owls’ defense will be able to slow it down enough to give its offense a chance to come out on top in this game.
Prediction: Air Force 35, Rice 31
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