The First Responder Bowl featured the most prolific rushing attack in the nation against a below-average rush defense. So go figure the Air Force Falcons utilized their 129th-ranked passing offense to find victory on Tuesday afternoon. Falcons’ quarterback Haaziq Daniels was 9 of 10 passing for a season-high 252 yards and two touchdowns. Despite a limited three yards per carry, Air Force led throughout and survived Louisville, 31-28. The Falcons finished 10-3, riding an elite defense and a young offense. Louisville finished with six losses in their final nine games to fall to 6-7. Here were five key moments that led to Air Force claiming their tenth victory of the season in the First Responder Bowl.
Air Force’s Brad Roberts notched 77 yards on the ground to lead the ground attack. Receiver Brandon Lewis torched the Cardinals for five catches and 172 yards. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Jackson led the defensive effort with 2.5 tackles for loss. Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham finished 13-21 for 207 yards and a touchdown, with 63 rushing yards. Running back Trevion Cooley notched 92 rushing yards and a score.
First Responder Bowl Key Moments
Louisville Misses Early Field Goal
After the two teams traded punts to start the contest, Louisville garnered some offensive momentum. Cooley delivered a 22-yard burst to kickstart the drive. Then, on 3rd and 15 from midfield, Cunningham scampered 34 yards, giving Louisville a first down in the red zone. However, the Cardinals faltered there. Two incompletions, a holding call and a stuffed run backed Cunningham and Co. up ten yards, forcing a 44-yard field goal attempt. Kicker James Turner couldn’t split the uprights, and the game remained scoreless.
Falcons Take To The Air
The main storyline in this one figured to be whether Louisville’s suspect run defense could stop the nation’s top rushing attack. By that measure, the first half was a decent success. Air Force managed just 93 rushing yards on 3.6 yards per pop. However, the Falcons found unexpected success through the air. Despite attempting about just under eight passes per game in 2021, Air Force threw the ball seven times in the first half. Daniels completed six of them for 199 yards.
After their initial punt, Air Force decided to open their second drive with a pass. Daniels found Caleb Rillos with space on the left side, and Rillos took it for a 40-yard gain. From their, the Falcons scratched out the final 34 yards on nine plays, and Daniels scored on a keeper to take the early lead. After the Falcons forced a three-and-out from Louisville, they struck again, this time on three plays. This time, on first down, Daniels found Lewis on a crossing route, and the receiver went untouched for a 61-yard score.
Louisville’s offense heated up, but they couldn’t stop the surprisingly strong Air Force passing attack. After the Cardinals cut the lead in half, the Falcons took to the air once more. Lewis took a long pass and then beat two defenders with aggressive cut-backs to reach the end zone from 64 yards out. And after the Cardinals responded with a kickoff return for a touchdown, Air Force had yet another answer. This time, the Falcons didn’t need a huge play. Rather, Daniels went 3-4 for 34 yards on the next drive and polished it off with his legs. His one-yard touchdown run gave Air Force a 28-14 halftime advantage.
Air Force Makes A Goal-Line Stand
After forcing a punt to start the half, Louisville began their efforts to make it a one-possession game. The Cardinals went 78 yards in 14 plays…but they needed 80. Cooley’s 13-yard run brought the Cardinals to midfield, and Cunningham completed on 3rd and 10 to keep the drive alive. However, with goal to go, Louisville faltered. At the 2-yard line, on fourth down, Louisville went for the end zone. Trey Taylor and Camby Goff stuffed Cooley. That left Louisville in dire straits, running out of time to mount a comeback.
Air Force’s 9-minute drive
Louisville did eventually make the score 28-21, scoring in the final seconds of the third quarter. Thus, the Falcons had two goals with their next drive: take time off the clock and restore their two-possession lead. Over 17 plays and 66 hard-earned yards, Air Force did just that. Louisville forced consecutive third downs, with six and 14 yards to go, respectively. But, Daniels converted both of his final completions of the afternoon. After the second conversion, Air Force ran the ball ten straight times. They clawed out 40 yards to reach the Louisville 9-yard line and used another seven minutes of precious clock to do so. After all that, kicker Matthew Dapore punctuated the drive with the dagger – a 26-yard field goal that extended the lead to 31-21.
Roberts and Daniels ice it
Illustrating the importance of Air Force’s final score, Louisville scored relatively quickly on its next drive. Cunningham ran it in from 22 yards out to finish a six-play, 70-yard drive. But, ultimately, it was too little too late. The Falcons needed two first downs to run out the remaining three minutes, and on the strength of Roberts and Daniels’ legs, they did just that. After an onside kick recovery, Roberts ran twice for 13 yards to force Louisville to burn their timeouts. Then, on first down, Roberts churned ahead for nine yards, and Daniels moved the chains with a two-yard effort on second down. That was enough for Air Force, who then took a knee and watched the final seconds tick away on their First Responder Bowl victory.
For Air Force, it’s their fourth 10-win season since 2014. The Falcons improved to 4-1 in their last five bowl game appearances. Louisville is trending a different way; the Cardinals are 2-4 in their past six postseason efforts, and this loss gives them their third losing season in four years.
Main Image courtesy Henry Herald