FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO BOWL
AIR FORCE VS WESTERN MICHGIAN – Saturday, Dec 20th, 3:45pm MT (ESPN)
This should be tabbed the “Turnaround Bowl” as the nation’s two top programs to flip their fortunes in 2014 meet for the first time. The Falcons slogged through multiple injuries at quarterback and an inexperienced defense, and the Broncos narrowly missed an “0-fer” season with a 1 point win over UMASS in late October & the growing pains of college football’s youngest head coach. Changes came to both programs as Head Coach Troy Calhoun got his starting QB back from a knee injury and shook up the Defensive coaching staff. P.J. Fleck hit the recruiting trail and despite the previous season’s outcome, was able to bring in some of the top young talent in the history of Western Michigan.
The results were a +7 turnaround for both programs.
The Falcons are once again in the nation’s top 10 rushing the football with 272 yards per game. The return of Kale Pearson at QB brought stability and leadership to a position that is critical in Troy Calhoun’s option attack. But it was Pearson’s 137 yards per game passing that gave Air Force a different element in 2014. Sophomore Jacobi Owens led all rushers with 1054 yards and 5 TD’s, before a late season foot injury sidelined him for the season. FB’s Shane Davern and D.J. Johnson added 659 yards and 13 TD’s, along with Pearson’s own 646 and 6.
The emergence of SO WR Jalen Robinette might have been the biggest surprise of the season. Robinette averaged over 18 yards a catch on 41 receptions and forced defenses to lay off the line of scrimmage. JR Garrett Brown’s big play ability led to 6 TD’s and TE Garrett Griffin added over 19 yards per catch on his 16 for the season, 4 for scores. That all added up to an offense ranked 12th in Mountain West scoring last season, to 4th and full TD more in 2014.
The defense was just as impressive. D-Coordinator Steve Russ brought an aggressive, attacking style to a Falcon unit that surrendered almost 500 yards per game in 2013. The turned up heat nearly doubled their turnovers and saw an improvement from 14 to 33 sacks, the biggest single jump in the Conference. 2nd TEAM All-Conference LB Jordan Pierce led the team with 107 tackles. 1st TEAM All-Conference S Weston Steelhammer picked off 6 passes, and 2nd TEAM All-Conference DL Alex Hansen recorded 10 Tackles for losses and 3.5 sacks. A defense that gave up 40 points a season ago slashed that number to 24 per game in 2014.
The Broncos saw similar success on both sides of the ball as well. Offensively, Western Michigan doubled their point production from 17 to 34 in a single season. The growth of Sophomore Zach Terrell at QB was a primary reason. Terrell threw for 70%, over 3000 yards passing and 23 TD’s. His 9.5 per attempt blew away the rest of the field in the MAC, who didn’t have a QB averaging over 8 yards. Terrell’s improvement rippled to his receivers. The sophomore tandem of Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman exploded for a combined 149 receptions, 2144 yards, and 18 TD’s. The passing attack took pressure off a running game that averaged just over 100 yards in 2013. Newcomer FR Jarvion Franklin rushed for 1525 yards and 24 TD’s, more than ALL of Western Michigan’s totals for last season.
Defensively the Broncos shaved almost 12 points per game off of last season. A trio of SR DB’s led the charge; Justin Currie, Trevor Ishmael, and Donald Celiscar. Celiscar recorded 17 pass breakups & 4 interceptions, while Ishmael tied for a team high 8 tackles for losses. SR DT Richard Ash anchored the front with 40 tackles, 7.5 for losses, and 2.5 sacks, he also blocked two kicks and broke up another 2 passes. As a result, Bronco opponents made 10 less Red Zone trips and came away with 11% less in scoring efficiency than the prior season.
The Key To The Game
This will be another challenge for the Falcons similar to those of Boise State and Colorado State, where both offenses can attack with skill in their running and passing games. Air Force will have to protect the football & give their defense some help. In their 3 losses the Falcons were -2, -3, and -3 in turnover margin, creating short fields and extra possessions that was too much to overcome.