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First Responder Bowl Prediction and Preview: Air Force vs. Louisville

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl Prediction and Preview: Air Force Falcons vs. Louisville Cardinals

Falcons, Cardinals meet for the first time ever with Air Force aiming for a 10-win season and Louisville hoping to finish above. 500

Dallas will be the scene on Tuesday as Louisville and Air Force square off in the First Responder Bowl. The Cardinals had an up-and-down season but won two of their final three regular-season games to become bowl eligible. Air Force, on the other hand, went 9-3 and aims for its second 10-win season in three years.

Related: College Football Picks for Every Bowl Game in 2021-22

Tuesday's First Responder Bowl will be the first-ever meeting between the schools. Under head coach Troy Calhoun, the Falcons have won their last two bowl appearances.

Louisville won the 2019 Music City Bowl in its only prior bowl appearance under head coach Scott Satterfield. The Cardinals will try to avoid a second straight losing season.

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Air Force (9-3) vs. Louisville (6-6)

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 3:15 p.m. ET
Where:
Gerald J. Ford Stadium (Dallas)
TV: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -1.5

When Air Force Has the Ball

For Air Force, it almost has to be forced to throw the football. Throughout the course of the season, the Falcons averaged more rushing yards per game than any team in the country. Averaging 342 yards per game on the ground, the Falcons rushed for than 60.9 yards more than the next closest team. Running back Brad Roberts powered the attack with 1,279 yards on the ground and 13 rushing touchdowns en route to being named a first-team All-Mountain West performer.

Air Force, however, had four players who rushed for at least 400 yards this season. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels rushed for 705 yards and accounted for 14 total touchdowns, although he completed just 45.7 percent of his passes. DeAndre Hughes was a big-play threat for the Falcons, averaging 8.6 yards per carry and tallying 471 yards for the season. Fullback Emmanuel Michel is undersized but picks up the tough yards for Air Force. Guard Hawk Wimmer anchors the offensive line.

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Statistically, Louisville was in the middle of the pack defensively in the ACC, but allowed 4.5 yards per rush, which ranked 92nd nationally. The Cardinals are best at linebacker with C.J. Avery, Yasir Abdullah, and Jack Fagot, and they will need to make plays at the line of scrimmage on Tuesday. The Cardinals could also use a big game from Malik Clark and YaYa Diaby up front.

Abdullah was the best pass rusher this season for Louisville, although if Air Force has any say, it won't be throwing the ball all that often. Kei'Trel Clark was a solid cover man for the Cardinals, but with Air Force's propensity to run the football, expect the biggest impact in the secondary to come from safeties Qwynnterrio Cole and Kenderick Duncan Jr., who each have more than 75 total tackles in 2021. This season, Louisville has gone as its defense has. The Cardinals have allowed at least 28 points in all six losses and at least 30 in five of those.

When Louisville Has the Ball

Air Force has seen some talented quarterbacks this season, but Louisville's Malik Cunningham will likely be the biggest dual-threat that it has faced all year. One might argue that Cunningham is still more dangerous with his legs than his arm, but that's not as cut and dry as it used to be. Cunningham cut down on turnovers this season and showed the ability to push the ball down the field. Cunningham passed for 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions, but he is just 32 yards away from 1,000 on the ground and leads the ACC with 19 rushing touchdowns. Cunningham, however, was far from a one-man show.

Running back Jalen Mitchell served as an outstanding complement in the backfield this season with 722 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Jordan Watkins has hit the transfer portal at wide receiver, but Marshon Ford is as steady as they come at tight end. He leads the Cardinals with 47 catches for 530 yards. Tyler Harrell and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce each showed the ability to stretch the defense throughout the course of the season. Center Cole Bentley headlines the offensive line.

When it comes to defense, Air Force gave up the fewest yards and second-fewest points per game in the Mountain West this season. Granted, much of that has to do with its offense being on the field for so long. Still, the Falcons were a stout group on that side of the ball. Linebacker Vince Sanford led Air Force with 56 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles this season and earned second-team all-conference honors. He'll be tasked with trying to get to Cunningham, as will defensive tackle Jordan Jackson, who recorded seven sacks this season.

The Falcons were solid against the run and pass this season. In the secondary, Tre Bugg III tends to be all over the field. Corvan Taylor also had a stellar year from his safety position. Should this game be close, both teams have solid kickers. Air Force's Matthew Dapore was 7-for-9 this season while Louisville's James Turner was 6-for-9 from beyond 40 yards.

Final Analysis

Both teams are used to playing close games this season, so expect this one to be no different. Throughout the year, both Louisville and Air Force were 2-3 in games decided by eight or fewer points. This contest has the feel of one where defensive stops could be few and far between. In the end, Cunningham's ability to extend plays and keep drives alive with his legs will be the difference.

Prediction: Louisville 31, Air Force 28 

— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.