Two of the nation’s most improved teams – Air Force and Western Michigan – meet for the first time in program history in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Falcons and Broncos each improved their win total by seven games last season and scored some impressive wins in the process. Air Force beat Colorado State and Boise State – arguably the top two teams in the Mountain West – this year and claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after beating Army and Navy. The Broncos went 0-2 against Power 5 opponents but lost by one to Toledo and defeated MAC East champion Bowling Green 26-14 in mid-October.
Improvement on defense has spurred the seven-game jump in wins by Air Force this season. The Falcons allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but lowered that number to 24.2 in 2014. Western Michigan experienced a similar turnaround on defense, limiting opponents to 23.8 points per game after giving up 35.4 per contest last season. But the Broncos also took a step forward on offense, as the emergence of running back Jarvion Franklin and quarterback Zach Terrell propelled Western Michigan to lead the MAC with an average of 34.6 points per game.
This will be the 18th bowl matchup of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The bowl name has changed a couple of times since its inception in 1997, but the last two meetings in Boise were blowouts. Utah State dominated Toledo 41-15 in 2012, while San Diego State defeated Buffalo 49-24 last season.
Air Force vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Air Force -1.5
Air Force’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
In Air Force’s 3-4 alignment, its three listed starters on the depth chart for the defensive line average 262 pounds. That’s a light defensive front compared to some of the other teams Western Michigan has played this year. The Broncos lean on their ground attack to setup the pass, and running back Jarvion Franklin emerged as one of the top freshmen in college football this season. Franklin recorded 1,525 yards and 24 scores on 294 attempts and earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors for his performance. Air Force may not measure up in terms of overall size up front, but the Falcons are active around the line of scrimmage and ranked second in the Mountain West against the run in 2014. Under the direction of coordinator Steve Russ, Air Force ranks third in the Mountain West with 77 tackles for a loss and finished the season on a high note by containing Colorado State’s offense to just 106 rushing yards on 32 attempts. The Broncos will try to establish the run from the opening snap, and it’s critical the Falcons win the battle on first and second down to force Western Michigan into third-and-long situations. Quarterback Zach Terrell completed 70 percent of his throws this season and tossed only 10 picks on 330 attempts. But how important is it for Franklin to have success? In all four of Western Michigan’s losses, Terrell attempted over 30 passes. In eight wins by the Broncos, Terrell attempted less than 30.
Western Michigan’s Key to Victory: Third-down Defense and Turnovers
Regardless of the time to prepare, playing a team that runs an option offense is no easy assignment. Western Michigan faces a tough task trying to slow down an Air Force offense that averages 272.2 yards per game and led the nation with 732 rushing attempts. The Falcons use a variety of rushers, with Jacobi Owens and quarterback Kale Pearson leading the team in yardage this year. However, Owens is out for the rest of the season due to injury, and Pearson did not play in the regular season finale. Pearson is expected to go against Western Michigan, while Devin Rushing, D.J. Johnson and Shayne Daveren will be counted upon more out of the backfield with Owens sidelined. Despite the injury to Owens, Air Force’s ground attack will test the Broncos rush defense, which ranks fourth in the MAC by allowing 142.7 yards per game. Western Michigan held six opponents under 100 rushing yards this season, but Northern Illinois gashed the defense for 196 yards, while Toledo recorded 234 yards on 36 attempts. Teams that had the right pieces up front and in the backfield had success against the Broncos. However, stopping the run isn’t necessarily the only task for Western Michigan, as this defense needs to get off the field on third downs and force turnovers. Pearson has been efficient when he’s asked to throw, but this offense isn’t built to rally from 14 or 17 points down on a consistent basis. When Air Force gets its ground attack established and continues to eat up the clock on third downs, it’s difficult for a defense to get off the field and get the ball back to its offense.
This matchup could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Both teams have plenty of motivation to cap a season of significant improvement with a win in Boise, while the overall matchup is fairly even between the Broncos and Falcons. Western Michigan should benefit from the extra time to prepare for Air Force’s option attack. However, it may take some time to adjust in game speed. Pearson and the Falcons’ rushers should have success, but the Broncos will also land a few punches behind the one-two punch of Franklin on the ground and Terrell through the air. Limiting big plays in the passing has been a challenge for Air Force this year, and Terrell has a dangerous outside threat in receiver Corey Davis (17.6 ypc). Expect a back-and-forth affair, with Air Force edging Western Michigan for the win in the fourth quarter.