Dallas Colleges: Air Force Falcons
In a day dominated by backup quarterbacks, Rice took down Air Force 33-14 in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl thanks to 26 unanswered points in the second half. It was Rice's first bowl appearance since the Owls beat Western Michigan 38-14 in the 2008 Texas Bowl.
It was over when: Rice junior safety Paul Porras intercepted Air Force quarterback Kale Pearson's pass at the Falcons' 36-yard line with Rice leading 27-14 with 3:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Rice scored four plays later to make it 33-14.
Game ball goes to: Rice backup quarterback Driphus Jackson took over for starter Taylor McHargue late in the first half after McHargue suffered a head injury from a hit by Air Force's Steffon Batts. Jackson went on to complete 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
Stat of the game: Air Force entered the game averaging 435.9 yards of offense per game but was outgained 503-214 Saturday. That was a season low for the Falcons. Rice also registered 24 first downs to Air Force's 12. The Falcons recorded just two first downs in the second half.
Stat of the game 2: The Falcons owned the nation's No. 2 rushing attack, averaging 328.8 yards per game, but registered only 166 yards against the Owls, which were allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game. Rice's rush defense stepped up in the second half, as the Owls allowed just 24 rushing yards in the final two quarters.
Unsung hero of the game: Jackson gave the Owls a nice spark in the second half, but he also got a lot of help from wide receiver Jordan Taylor, who caught nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
What it means for Rice: The Owls finished the season winning six of their final seven games and claimed its first bowl win since its last postseason appearance in 2008. It was only the second bowl win for Rice in the past 57 years.
What it means for Air Force: The Falcons ended the season losing four of their final five games, turning the ball over 17 times during that span. Air Force has lost two straight bowl games. For the first time since 2005, it lost to Army and Navy, lost its bowl game and had a losing season.
1. Keep that momentum going: Rice enters today's game on a four-game winning streak and having won five of its past six games. Remember, this was a team that started the season 1-5 and was just getting eaten up by opposing rushing attacks. From that low point, the Owls completely transformed when it came to stopping the run, allowing teams to average a measly 116.2 yards over the final six games and giving up just nine total rushing touchdowns. The Owls outscored opponents by 80 points during their final five victories and averaged 432 yards of offense during their four-game winning streak. How well that rushing defense plays will be crucial against Air Force, which ranks second nationally in rushing offense (328.8 yards per game) and has 37 rushing touchdowns on the season. If the Owls can contain that triple-option rushing attack, they'll have a good chance to get a win in their first bowl game since 2008.
2. Hold on to the ball: The Falcons might be able to run the ball down other teams' throats, but they have really struggled in the turnover department of late. During its first eight games of the season, Air Force turned the ball over just 12 times. But during the Falcons' 1-3 finish, they handed the ball to opponents 14 times. With how well Rice is playing right now, and with how efficient the Owls have been on offense, Air Force can't afford to turn the ball over and expect to win. With the way the Falcons can run the ball, and given how much Rice struggled earlier in the season to stop the run, it could be a major advantage for the Falcons if they can just keep feeding running back Cody Getz, who became the first player in school history to register three 200-yard rushing games in a single season, and have quarterback Connor Dietz make plays with his feet to keep that option attack going. Grinding it out will wear Rice down.
3. Act like you've been there before: This is Air Force's sixth consecutive bowl game, while Rice is making its first trip to the postseason since 2008. That year, the Owls throttled Western Michigan 38-14 in the Texas Bowl. For the Owls, it's all about not getting cold feet and letting the nerves take hold. They had to work extremely hard to get six wins after the 1-5 start, so it's not the time to let the bright bowl lights intimidate them. As for Air Force, the Falcons have a ton of bowl experience, but the confidence might be lacking after such a bad end to the season. This team has to realize that it has been here before. It knows how to handle the magnitude of the final game of the season. Rice hasn't been in this situation in a while, so the Falcons will have the advantage when it comes to nerves today.
Who to watch: Air Force senior running back Cody Getz. Air Force enters the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl with the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, averaging 328.8 yards per game. The main reason for the Falcons' ground success has been the play of Getz. He has 1,213 rushing yards and nine touchdowns despite missing two games this year because of an ankle injury. Getz became the first player in school history with three 200-yard rushing games in a season and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. He must be licking his chops at the thought of playing against a Rice defense that is tied for 91st nationally in run defense, giving up 192.8 yards per game.
What to watch: Can Rice put pressure on Air Force's backfield? The Falcons have been very good at protecting quarterback Connor Dietz this season. Through the first nine games of the season, Air Force's offensive line didn't allow a single sack. What might have been more impressive about that is that the Falcons' line did it without starting center Michael Husar, who went down in the season opener. Air Force is tied for second nationally in sacks allowed (seven). Rice ranks 47th nationally in sacks this season with 26 on the year. The Owls are averaging 2.17 sacks a game, and defensive linemen Cody Bauer and Hosam Shahin have combined for 10.5 sacks on the year.
Why watch: Who doesn't like culture clashes when it comes to offense? Air Force has that challenging triple option, but Rice owns a much more balanced offense. The Owls are averaging 201 rushing yards and 219 passing yards per game. Although Air Force has been very deadly running the ball, the Falcons really struggled down the stretch because of costly turnovers. Air Force finished the season with a 1-3 run, turning the ball over 14 times in the process after turning it over just 12 times in the first eight games. Rice comes in red hot, winning five of its last six games, including its last four. In the final six games of the season, the Owls allowed an average of only 116.2 rushing yards. Watching this Rice defense try to contain Air Force's potent rushing attack should be fun.
Prediction: Air Force 31, Rice 27. Rice might have all the momentum on its side after such a good end to the season, but Air Force finally got a substantial break and thus got some much-needed rest. The Falcons played for 10 consecutive weeks, and you could tell this team was hurting for a break. That break has come, and, although the Owls have been very good against the run lately, Air Force's triple-option attack will be just too much for Rice in the second half.
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