The Cheez-It Bowl features a fascinating contrast in styles, as Washington State’s high-powered passing game meets Air Force’s flexbone option attack on Dec. 27 in Phoenix. The Cougars finished the regular season at 6-6 after a loss to Washington in the Apple Cup, while the Falcons capped a 10-win season by beating Wyoming 20-6 on Nov. 30.
After back-to-back 5-7 seasons (2017-18), Air Force rebounded in a big way in 2019. The Falcons finished 10-2 and earned the program’s third double-digit win total under Calhoun’s watch. Calhoun – a former Air Force quarterback – is 97-69 overall at his alma mater and missed out on a bowl just three time since taking over in 2007. The only defeats Air Force suffered in 2019 came against two ranked opponents – Boise State and Navy – and this program finished the year on a seven-game winning streak. The Falcons finished second in the Mountain West by averaging 34.3 points a game, while the defense ranked third in the conference by holding teams to 19.8 points a contest. En route to the 10-win campaign, Calhoun’s squad knocked off Colorado in Boulder, won at Hawaii and picked up quality wins against Utah State and Army.
Washington State has been a consistent bowl team under coach Mike Leach, as the trip to the Cheez-It Bowl marks the program’s fifth consecutive postseason bid. After winning at least eight games every year from 2015-18, the Cougars dipped to 6-6 this fall. As usual, Leach’s offense ranked among the best in college football. However, some regression on defense played a significant role in the team’s six losses, including two by four points or less. Washington State played in one of the season’s most entertaining games (UCLA), lost to Oregon by two points and picked up a wild 54-53 victory over Oregon State to secure bowl eligibility in late November.
This is the first matchup on the gridiron between Air Force and Washington State. The Falcons are 4-5 in bowl trips under Calhoun. The Cougars are 2-3 under Leach, with last year’s win in the Alamo Bowl snapping a two-game losing streak in postseason trips.
Cheez-It Bowl: Air Force vs. Washington State
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 27 at 10:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Air Force -3
When Air Force Has the Ball
Air Force’s flexbone option offense enters Friday night’s game ranked third nationally in rushing attempts (686) and yards per game (292.5) Time of possession isn’t an important statistic when it comes to evaluating teams, but the Falcons average nearly 34 minutes (33:43) of possession in 2019. However, that’s a key statistic when it comes to keeping Washington State’s high-powered offense on the sidelines. When Air Force has the ball in this matchup, it’s no secret what’s on tap. Calhoun’s group wants to generate long scoring drives and chew up large portions of the clock to prevent Washington State’s offense from getting on the field. With an offense near the top of the nation in most rushing stats and averaging 5.1 yards per carry, the Falcons will challenge the Cougars at the point of attack to stop the run.
Quarterback Donald Hammond III is an effective distributor for the offense and his reads against the defense will be instrumental in getting Air Force’s ground game on track. Hammond ranks fourth on the team with 491 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The backfield is full of options for Calhoun, as Kadin Remsberg (872 yards and seven TDs), Timothy Jackson (745) and Taven Birdow (731) will each see a handful of opportunities on Friday night. Birdow and Jackson have combined for 12 touchdowns from the fullback position, while Remsberg paces the offense in yards (872) and ranks second on the team in scores (seven).
While the Falcons’ gameplan on offense won’t be a secret, Washington State can’t focus just on stopping the run. Hammond only averages 13 pass attempts a game, but the junior certainly makes the most of his opportunities. He’s connected on 52 completions for 1,286 yards and 13 touchdowns to five picks this season. Hammond is averaging 24.7 yards per completion, with Geraud Sanders (25.4 ypc) and Benjamin Waters (32.3 ypc) catching all 14 of the team’s touchdown passes this season.
Washington State finished in the top five in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in back-to-back years (2017-18) but slipped to eighth in the conference this season. The Cougars enter Friday’s game giving up 31.4 points a game – a jump of just over a touchdown (23.3) from last year. Additionally, Washington State has struggled to stop the run (11th in the Pac-12), allowed 6.8 yards a snap and finished 10th in pass efficiency defense. The Cougars are also prone to allowing big plays (33 of 30 yards or more) and have only 66 tackles for a loss. Interim co-defensive coordinators Roc Bellantoni and Darcell McBath have to find a way to stop Air Force on early downs and limit the big plays. Winning third downs is also crucial, especially since the Falcons convert those opportunities at nearly 55 percent (54.8).
When Washington State Has the Ball
Similar to Air Force, Washington State’s gameplan on offense isn’t a secret. The Cougars lead the nation in pass attempts (668) and passing yards per game (444.3). Additionally, Leach’s offense averages 55.7 pass attempts a game, leads the Pac-12 in yards per play (7.13) and and paces the conference in points a contest (39.2). If Washington State can force its style of play and jump ahead to an early lead on the scoreboard, that’s a big win for Leach’s team. Air Force has showed the ability to hit on big plays on the passing game, but the Cougars can protect their struggling run defense by forcing the Falcons out of their comfort zone.
As Leach’s offenses have demonstrated throughout his tenure, regardless of who is under center, this attack never misses a beat. That once again held true this year, as Gardner Minshew departed Pullman and Anthony Gordon stepped into the starting role. Gordon ensured Washington State’s offense didn’t miss a beat, as the senior threw for 5,228 yards and 45 touchdowns. He also connected on 72.1 percent of his throws and led the Pac-12 in completions of 30 or more yards (27). Gordon will be throwing to one of the Pac-12’s deepest receiving corps, as six wide receivers have at least 42 receptions this fall. Running back Max Borghi (81 catches) is another valuable weapon as a safety valve for Gordon out of the backfield.
The contrast in offensive style between these two teams is illustrated even more by the rushing attempts. While Air Force ranks near the top of the nation in attempts per game, Washington State is last at 16.8. The Cougars won’t run it often, but Borghi has the most rushing yards (790) of any back during Leach’s tenure in Pullman.
Air Force’s veteran defense has showed marked improvement over the last two years. After giving up 32.4 points a game in 2017, the Falcons held teams to just 19.8 a contest this fall. This unit has been effective versus the run (allowing just 107.7 ypg) and has limited the big plays generated by opposing offenses by ranking second in the Mountain West after holding teams to 20 plays allowed of 30 yards or more. Air Force allowed over 400 passing yards in a win at Hawaii earlier this year but won the turnover margin (2-0) to overcome the high-powered passing game by the Rainbow Warriors. Winning the turnover battle will be essential once again. Washington State has been generous with giveaways (23), and the Falcons will need a couple to overcome a secondary that is likely to be vulnerable to the pass after ranking 10th in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense. Air Force has also accumulated just 24 sacks in 2019 and will need to find a way to create pressure to disrupt some of the timing of Washington State’s passing game.
This should be fun. Air Force’s option attack and run-first approach will be a handful for a leaky Washington State defense, which should also help limit the possessions by the Cougars’ offense. When Washington State gets the ball, look for Leach (as usual) to lean on Gordon, Borghi and a deep receiving corps in hopes of jumping out to an early lead to force Air Force away from its preferred style of play. Whichever team can dictate the flow of the game will have an edge on the scoreboard. The guess here is a back-and-forth game is in store. A turnover or two might be the difference in a tight contest, so Washington State has to do a better job in that department than it did in the regular season. It’s hard to find a glaring edge in this matchup for either team, but we’ll take Gordon finding a way to land a key score in the fourth quarter to lift the Cougars to a win.