A fantastic Friday of football comes to a close with the Cheez-It Bowl (yes, that’s what it’s called) between the Washington State Cougars of the Pac-12 and the Air Force Falcons of the Mountain West. Kickoff is scheduled for 10:15 EST on Friday, December 27 at Chase Field in Phoenix. The game will be televised on ESPN.
According to this year’s college football bowl odds, the Falcons are favored by 2.5 points. The over/under for the game is set at 67 points.
This isn’t exactly the season Mike Leach had in mind for Washington State one year after going 11-2. After sweeping their non-conference schedule, the Cougars proceeded to go 3-6 in Pac-12 play, barely qualifying for a bowl game. At several points during the season, Leach held nothing back in his criticism of his players, creating headlines with petty insults.
Despite going winless in five games against bowl teams, Washington State is going to a bowl for the fifth straight season and the sixth time in eight seasons under Leach. Considering the Cougars had a decade-long bowl drought before Leach took them to a bowl in 2013, the Wazzou fanbase should be happy with any bowl game.
Meanwhile, it was a banner year for the Air Force football program. After back-to-back 5-7 campaigns under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons made huge strides, going 10-2, winning 10 games for the third time in Calhoun’s 13 seasons. Boise State and Navy, both ranked teams, were the only teams to beat the Falcons this season.
Calhoun is now set to lead Air Force into a bowl game for the 10th time in his 13 seasons. The Falcons are just 4-5 in bowls during that span and haven’t beaten a power-conference team in a bowl since 2010. However, after knocking off in-state rival Colorado earlier this season, the Falcons should be motivated to get a second win over a Pac-12 opponent to cap off what has been a special season at the Air Force Academy.
Honestly, I’m a little torn about this game. So often, bowl games come down to motivation, and it’s a safe bet that Air Force will be motivated to play. I can’t say the same about Washington State with the frustrating season they’ve had. The Cougars may just want to get the season over with as soon as possible. But I’ll give Leach the benefit of the doubt when it comes to motivating his team. If Washington State comes to play, I think they’ll win.
Say what you want about Washington State’s flaws and all of their issues this season, but Leach’s air-raid offense is tough to defend. Once again, the Cougars led the country in passing yards, with quarterback Anthony Gordon amassing over 5,200 yards through the air. Gordon had 45 touchdown passes while completing over 40 passes to seven different receivers. When running back Max Borghi, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry, had a productive game to give the Wazzou offense a little bit of balance, the Cougars were almost impossible to stop.
On the season, the Cougars averaged 39 points per game. Even in the games they lost, the Cougars were usually able to put plenty of points on the board, with half of their losses coming by four points or less. There were only three teams that held Washington State under the 30-point plateau: Utah, Cal, and Washington, all top-notch defensive teams. All three teams are among the best defensive teams in the country.
My point is that it takes a special kind of defense to slow down Leach’s air-raid offense. While I give Air Force a lot of credit for giving up less than 20 points per game, I’m not sure the Falcons have the talent on defense to keep the Cougars under wraps for 60 minutes. The closest offense the Falcons faced this season to what they’ll see against Washington State was the Hawaii offense that threw for over 400 yards against them. While they won that game, the task against the Cougars will be far greater.
Of course, the Falcons play a completely different style of offense. Air Force runs the triple-option, albeit with a little more passing than most teams. It will certainly be a challenge for the Washington State defense to prepare to face an offense that’s unlike anything they’ve seen this year. That style was good enough for Air Force to average 34 points per game on the season. However, they rarely faced quality defensive teams. Admittedly, the Cougars aren’t a good defensive team either. But Washington State does have better athletes than most of Air Force’s Mountain West opponents, so it may not be easy for the Falcons to get their triple-option rolling.
All things considered, this figures to be a high-scoring game. However, I trust Washington State’s passing attack more than the Air Force running game to win in a shootout. While the Falcons have had a special season, the Cougars have more talent. As long as Washington State is properly motivated to play, I think they’ll eke out a close win.