A bowl game sponsor can be a funny thing. It may have nothing to do with the contest itself, but there is always something projected from the sponsor, particularly if it is a title sponsor. The Foster Farms Bowl always seemed like bottom-of-the barrel because it was called “The Chicken Bowl.” In the case of the Cheez-It Bowl, it seems that bowl importance and title sponsor are in perfect harmony.
Cheez-Its are fun. Kids love them, and adults like me love them. I bought a bag of them before I boarded this flight to Phoenix, as I have done many times on many flights. I’m also wearing a Cheez-It Bowl shirt with a WSU helmet presented on a pile of the delicious cheese-flavored crackers.
This matchup between the Air Force Falcons and Washington State Cougars should be fun. It’s the triple option against the Air Raid. It’s a team that runs the ball 85 percent of the time against a team that throws the ball 85 percent of the time.
When Air Force has the ball…
The triple option can be a scary thing to defend. The WSU defense has seen option-style offenses throughout the season, but more of the spread option variety. Defending the triple option requires discipline, something the Coug defense has seemed to lack.
It doesn’t help that Air Force is running a very good version of the triple option. The Falcons are seventh nationally in rushing success rate, staying ahead of the chains on nearly 52% of runs. That’s led to a nation-best average of 5.5 yards to go on third down.
This isn’t a quarterback-heavy run offense like we’ve seen at Navy recently. In fact, there isn’t really one player that dominates the carries for Air Force. Junior Kadin Remsberg leads AFA with 872 yards on 155 carries. Timothy Jackson and Taven Birdow both topped 700 yards, and quarterback Donald Hammond III logged 106 carries for 491 yards.
One element Hammond does bring to AFA is a cannon of an arm that helps the Falcons make big plays in the passing game. In fact, Air Force leads the country in yards per pass, as well as explosive rate on pass plays. Even with Hammond’s poor accuracy—just under 53 percent—Air Force is ninth in passing success rate and 12th in success rate on passing downs.
However, that doesn’t mean Air Force is slinging it much on passing downs. The Falcons throw the ball on long situations at the fourth-fewest frequency. Even on 3rd and 7, expect a run out of these guys.
We don’t need to dive too much into WSU’s defensive statistics to see how it matches up against Air Force. The Cougs are bad at pretty much everything, and they have been dreadful defending the run and giving up big plays in the passing game. It would be shocking if Air Force didn’t move the ball with regularity.
When WSU has the ball…
There were three defenses that slowed down the Air Raid this season: the Utah Utes, California Golden Bears, and Washington Huskies. The latter two seem to have figured out some sort of magic to prevent Leach’s offense from doing its regular damage, while Utah was just an elite defense this season.
The Air Force defense is about average overall—56th in SP+. However, they have primarily had success against the run—20th in yards per rush allowed and 31st in rushing success rate allowed.
When facing the pass, AFA has not done as well. The Falcons sit at 66th in yards per pass allowed and 85th in passing success rate allowed. I don’t need to tell you, WSU is very good at throwing the ball and has destroyed shoddy pass defenses this season.
In terms of explosive plays, Air Force is very good at preventing explosive runs (6th nationally) but only a little above average in preventing explosive passes 54th.
This combo of solid run defense and not-so-solid pass defense has led to some success in the redzone, where Air Force is 20th in touchdown rate allowed. WSU needs to avoid the red zone troubles that plagued it against Washington, but it might potentially be tough to run in these situations.
However, there is one situation where the Cougs should look to run—goal to go from the one-yard-line. AFA is 120th nationally in stuff rate. It doesn’t give up big runs, but it also rarely gets into the backfield. Passing to set up short yardage situations may prove to be an effective way to move the ball.
Overall, the Cougs should be able to pass the ball on Air Force. Getting a couple explosive plays could be game-changing, and so will converting short yardage situations into first downs and touchdowns.
The Bottom Line
Points should be scored, and scored frequently by both teams. As my podcast partner Jeff has pointed out many times, this is typically where WSU has done its best—strength on a weakness. The Cougs have a shot in any game against a suspect passing defense.
Now, will the WSU defense be able to hold down Air Force at all? Or will they let them engage in long drives that bleed clock, occasionally interrupted by getting burned on a rare pass play? Probably.
Wazzu needs to get in the backfield and force Air Force into passing situations. We know that Air Force has been good in those, but Hammond has been inaccurate and if he misses on a third down after a TFL, suddenly that’s a stop for the Cougs.
I don’t expect that to happen often. I also don’t expect this to be a wildly high score, because Air Force and its opponents average just 10 possessions per game. The Cougs will have to be efficient with their chances, and hope a few gambles pay off.
Avoiding turnovers would be good, too. This should be a tight one, and turnovers will be backbreaking. Hopefully a few things break right for Ol’ Wazzu and we come home in possession of all the Cheez-Its.