First Responder Bowl: Air Force, Louisville Set to Battle

The First Responder Bowl features an electric dual-threat quarterback against the nation's #1 rushing attack. Who emerges on top?
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The First Responder Bowl pits two teams who love to run the ball, setting up for an interesting battle. The Air Force Falcons enter at 9-3 having come up just short of an appearance in the Mountain West Conference Championship. Louisville meets the Falcons, sitting at 6-6 after winning just three of its final eight games, following a 3-1 start. They fell badly to Kentucky in their regular-season finale. The Cardinals are listed as slight favorites in the contest, with the current line leaning towards Louisville by one-and-a-half points.

In the age of opt-outs, this bowl game remains unaffected. Neither Air Force nor Louisville has had any players withdraw from the contest. Barring any COVID-related effects, the First Responder Bowl will be a pure throwback to what bowl season used to be.

First Responder Bowl Preview: When Air Force has the ball

There are no secrets about what Air Force wants to do. It has the nation’s best rushing offense, and it’s not particularly close. The Falcons run on about 93% of their offensive snaps and average 338.9 yards on the ground per game. Next best is Army, with about 70 yards less per contest. The rushing attack starts with workhorse Brad Roberts – he averaged about 106 yards per contest and ran for 13 touchdowns in 2021. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels complements Roberts with 698 rushing yards on five yards per carry. He’s found paydirt on nine occasions. Emmanuel Michel and DeAndre Hughes each have notched over 400 rushing yards.

On the rare occasion that the Falcons take to the air, Daniels has been decent. He tossed five touchdowns to just three interceptions on 46% passing. His clear top target is Brandon Lewis; Lewis reeled in 16 catches for 447 yards and a touchdown. Micah Davis and Dane Kinamon each hauled in two receiving touchdowns. Davis is one of four Falcons with 500+ all-purpose yards.

Defensively, Louisville needs to be much better against the run. It’s in the lower half of rush defenses, giving up over 150 yards per game on the ground. Against Air Force’s patented triple-option attack, Louisville must lean on Yasir Abdullah. He led the Cardinals in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (nine) in 2021. CJ Avery, Jack Fagot, and Ashton Gillotte are also key members of the Louisville defense who must be disciplined against the Falcons.  The secondary will be rarely needed, but Kei’Trel Clark should take on the Brandon Lewis assignment. With three interceptions in 2021, Clark is not easy to beat if Air Force needs their aerial attack.

First Responder Bowl Preview: When Louisville has the ball

Louisville is a little more balanced than Air Force, but the Cardinals do prefer to run the ball. Doing so on a touch under 60% of their snaps. Louisville has the 12th-ranked rushing offense in the country. Its passing offense is pretty middle-of-the-road, ranking 63rd in the country. The offense begins and ends with quarterback Malik Cunningham. The signal-caller threw for 2734 yards this season, with 18 touchdowns to six interceptions. He completed 62% of his passes. On the ground, Cunningham remains the primary threat, leading the Cardinals with 968 yards and 19 touchdowns. When Cunningham is on, Louisville is difficult to stop. They’ve scored 28+ on eight occasions this season; in their final two ACC games of 2021, the Cardinals notched 41 and 62 points.

When Cunningham isn’t running the ball, it’s Jalen Mitchell adding another threat on the ground. He ran for 722 yards at just under five yards per clip, tacking on five touchdowns. He’s a viable receiving threat, with 12 catches for 121 yards. However, if Louisville seeks yards via the passing game, they have a bevy of playmakers. Marshon Ford leads all receivers with 47 catches and 530 yards. However, Jordan Watkins and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce are the next two most frequently targeted receivers. They each have four touchdown receptions. Tyler Harrell only has 14 receptions on the season, but five of them have been for scores.

Air Force, meanwhile, boasts a strong defense. The Falcons gave up just 19.1 points per game in 2021. Only two teams surpassed 21 points against the Falcons. Their three losses came by a combined 17 points – with one of those defeats in overtime. Air Force ranks 8th in stopping the run, allowing just 100.3 yards per game on the ground. And the defense is no slouch against the pass – ranking 14th in that department. Vince Sanford leads the charge with 17 tackles for loss and nine-and-a-half sacks. He also forced four fumbles. Corvan Taylor has three interceptions to lead the Falcons’ secondary.

Air Force Key To Victory

Air Force gave up more than 24 points in regulation to only one opponent in 2021 – Utah State. The Falcons surrendered 448 passing yards in that game and five passing touchdowns. Utah State had two 100-yard receivers in the contest. So for Air Force, to maintain its normal defensive success, the defense wants to shut down Louisville’s passing game. Blanketing Ford and Watkins are key to Air Force’s game plan. If the Falcons do this and keep the Cardinals to under that 24-point mark, their run game should do enough damage to the Cardinals.

Louisville Key To Victory

Louisville’s success needs to happen defensively. In five of its six wins, the Cardinals gave up less than 23 points. Despite a great offense, the Cardinals are not built for a shootout. And against an Air Force offense that will control the clock, keeping the Falcons off the board is critical. So for Louisville, it’s pretty simple. Stop the run. Even if the defense can take away one of the three elements of the triple-option attack, that is huge for the Cardinals. Stopping Air Force on the ground entirely is a near-impossible task. But keeping them under 250 yards or so is a good barometer for the Cardinals. If Louisville does this, it will stand a chance of emerging victorious in the First Responder Bowl.

The First Responder Bowl features an electric dual-threat quarterback against the nation's #1 rushing attack. Who emerges on top?

Photo courtesy of the First Responder Bowl.