Air Force vs. Louisville: Keys to a Falcons Win, How to Watch, Odds, Prediction
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
What should we expect from the First Responder Bowl
BOWL: Air Force Falcons (9-3, 6-2 Mountain West) vs. Louisville Cardinals (6-6, 4-4 ACC)
WHEN: Tuesday, December 27th — 1:15 PM PT/12:15 PM MT
WHERE: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Fort Worth, Texas
STREAMING: Fans can sign up to receive a free one-week trial of Fubo, which includes ESPN, by following this link.
RADIO: The Air Force broadcast can be found in and around Colorado Springs on 740 AM (KVOR).
SERIES RECORD: This is the First Meeting Between Air Force and Louisville
ODDS (as of 12/27, via Caesars Sportsbook): Louisville -1.5
SP+ PROJECTION: Louisville by 0.7
FEI PROJECTION: Air Force by 4.9
Bowl Season is in full swing, and while many teams have already settled up their hardware, Air Force looks to earn some of their own in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl against the Louisville Cardinals.
The Mountain West is 4-1 in Bowl matchups this season. With some quality Bowl wins in the books for the conference already, the Falcons are just one of two teams facing a ‘Power 5’ Conference opponent (Utah State defeating Oregon State being the other). Standing between the Air Force Academy and their 14th Bowl victory (13-13-1 all time record) are the Louisville Cardinals of the ACC.
While the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) more closely resembled a ‘Group of 5’ than a ‘Power 5’ Conference in 2021, the Cardinals will be no cakewalk for the Falcons. Louisville’s resume may look a little underwhelming with a lack of marque victories and a 6-6 record, but they bring a very balanced offensive attack that will test the Air Force defense.
Averaging over 200 yards both on the ground and through the air, the Cardinals are the only such team to do so over the last three seasons. At the epicenter of that balanced production is dual threat quarterback, Malik Cunningham. Sitting just over thirty yards away from a 1,000 yard rushing campaign to compliment his 2,734 pass yards, the Falcons are going to have their hands full with Cunningham.
If Troy Calhoun and crew want to add the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl hardware to their mantle, it’s going to require strong performance on both sides of the ball. A win isn’t going to come easy, but it can be had, and here are a few key areas to help bring that victory to fruition.
Three Keys to an Air Force Victory
1. KEEP cunningham on ice
The Falcons feature one of the top rated defenses in the country (5th in Total Defense). On Tuesday, don’t expect them to simply lean on the defense to grind out a win. While the defense has proven more than capable of stifling the opposition, Malik Cunningham and Louisville will be a different animal than this team has has seen.
Enter the Diesel led Falcon offense. The key to mitigating Cunningham’s damage does not sit solely with the defense. In fact, it’s equally as important that the Air Force offense continue doing with they do. Featuring the nations top rushing attack, the Falcons need long sustained drives, capped off with tuddies. The emphasis on long drives being a factor to keeping Louisville’s offense out of rhythm, and Malik Cunningham further removed from the games involvement.
The Cardinals pass defense has been more suspect this season than their run defense. But that can be a product of their schedule, and ultimately, they have not faced this kind of triple-option attack. The Falcons ball miser offense’s ability to salt away the clock will be a critical factor in this games outcome.
Ground game 𝙨𝙩𝙧𝙤𝙣𝙜 💪 pic.twitter.com/zpA4aCwpIk
— Air Force Football (@AF_Football) December 24, 2021
2. TEST THE RECORDS (RUSH YARDS AND TURNOVERS)
Speaking of team rush yards, the Cardinals defense currently surrenders around 150 yards per game. But an interesting fact; as a team they are undefeated (2-0) when allowing 200 or more rush yards in a game. While this is probably nothing more than a nuance statistic, it stands out because normally a team that surrenders 200 yards to a conventional offense is particularly vulnerable to a team with Air Force’s capability on the ground.
Another record that is not as surprising as it is reinforcing, is that under Scott Satterfield, the Cardinals are 1-9 when they fail to force a turnover. The Falcons may not lose every fumble that the offense puts on the ground. but a very concerning trend is their propensity to allow the pigskin to play in the dirt. With the kind capability of Louisville’s offense, along with the obvious challenges that befall Air Force when trailing, it is critical they aren’t careless with the football. In case your wondering, Louisville is 61st nationally in turnover margin, while Air Force is 29th.
The last key that needs to be considered is probably going to be the most difficult, and unquantifiable. When you have a quarterback that is capable of hurting a defense through the air and on the ground, it changes the way defenses approach you. In particular, it changes they way you try and bring pressure. Something the Air Force front seven have done a great job of.
Unlike any other quarterback they’ve faced this year though, Malik Cunningham can turn attempts at pressure into huge chunks of impromptu scramble yardage. This is not a passing attack from Louisville that is designed to settle in the pocket, while the quarterback goes through reads and exploits matchups. It’s the kind of offense that is very comfortable “just making plays” being led by Cunningham.
Air Force would be wise to hold their designed rushing lanes and confine Cunningham to the dimensions of the pocket. It’s not going to be possible to do that for an entire game, but on those 3rd and medium to long range downs, you cannot lose sight of that scrambling ability.
As mentioned earlier, the Falcons are no strangers to facing elite playmakers from opposing offenses. Literally, at every skill position, the Air Force has seen some of the best players in the country at their given position. And more often than not, they’ve been able to win against those teams.
I’m not trying to submit Malik Cunningham’s name to the Heisman voter ballot, but you simply can’t ignore the kind of dynamic plays he’s capable of making. This is such a critical area of focus to me because despite playing some of this years greatest talents, the Falcons simply have not played against a quarterback with kind of playmaking ability on the ground that they will face this week.
Thankfully this defense is loaded with talented defenders at positions which will be critical in helping mitigate Cunningham’s damage. In particular the front seven has played well all season long, and will need to continue to on Tuesday if they are to win this game. Compound that with a lot of special seniors like Tre Bugg, Corvan Taylor, Jordan Jackson and Demonte Meeks, and it’s hard to bet against this defensive unit.
This man 𝗖𝗔𝗡 𝗥𝗨𝗡!
Brandon Lewis with 4⃣1⃣ yards for a touchdown! pic.twitter.com/ibKUirEjtm
— Air Force Football (@AF_Football) November 26, 2021
At the end of the day, I expect both sides of the ball to do there thing. The offense is going to get their behind the best offensive line unit (sorry, Joe Moore Award got it wrong) and running attack in the country, and this defense just seems to make plays. With success on the ground, don’t be surprised if an explosive play to one of the most prolific big play guys in the country, senior do-it-all weapon Brandon Lewis, is the difference or even seals the deal.
Air Force wins the 2021 SERVPRO First Responders Bowl!
Air Force 31- Louisville 24