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First Responder’s Bowl Preview

An intriguing match between Air Force and Louisville

NCAA Football: UNLV at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Air Force will travel to Dallas on Tuesday, December 28 to face the Louisville Cardinals on the campus of SMU for a 2:15 PM CT game. The game will be televised on ESPN.

Per DraftKings, Air Force +1.5 points. O/U is 55.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.

This game will be the first meeting between the two teams. The last time Louisville met a Mountain West team in a bowl game was in 2000 when they defeated Colorado State 22-17 in the Liberty Bowl. The last time Air Force met an Atlantic Coast Conference team was in 2010 when they defeated Georgia Tech 14-10 in the Independence Bowl.

The game will pit the Falcon’s nation’s leading rushing attack against perhaps the nation’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in Malik Cunningham, and the result will almost certainly depend on which team can contain the opposing team’s strength more effectively.

Scouting the Cardinals

Senior quarterback Malik Cunningham arrived on the scene in Louisville the year after Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson departed for the NFL. He has now amassed 7885 yards and 61 touchdowns passing, and 2556 yards and 37 touchdowns rushing in his career. He has announced that he will return next year as a super senior, and is considered a dark horse candidate for the Heisman.

I became aware of Cunningham earlier this year when he racked up 303 yards passing and 224 yard rushing against Duke, accounting for 7 touchdowns and destroying my college fantasy football team almost single-handedly. He was only the second college quarterback ever to total more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing in a single game.

Watching highlight film of Cunningham reveals a QB with the speed and elusiveness of a top running back and an accurate arm that is able to complete passes at a high rate (~62%). He runs on designed keepers, RPO’s, scrambles, and read options with enough regularity to account for about a third of Louisville’s rushing attempts, which is equivalent to Brad Robert’s percentage for the Falcons. Cunningham is also the go-to player for putting the ball in the end zone with 19.

In the passing department, he has an accurate arm, completing 62% of his passes with only 6 interceptions in 316 attempts. His favorite target is 3rd team All-ACC tight end Marshon Ford. The Falcons will need to look out for deep threat Tyler Harrell, who averaged over 31 yards per reception. Louisville will be playing without two starting receivers, Jordan Watkins who transferred to Mississippi, and Justin Marshall who entered the transfer portal.

On defense, the Cardinals have demonstrated a knack for getting into the opponent’s backfield with 77 TFLs, tied for 38th in FBS. The player to watch is 2nd team All ACC Yasir Abdullah who has 14.5 TFLs and 9 sacks. The best playmaker in the defensive backfield is 2nd team All ACC Kei’Trel Clark, who came up with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defended this year in only 8 games. Clark is questionable for the bowl game due to a leg injury.

Overall, Louisville has not been very effective against the rush, ranking 75th in FBS with 157 yards per game. Kentucky rolled to 362 yards rushing in Louisville’s final game of the season. They have not faced an option attack since 2018 when they faced Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech and lost the game 66-31, allowing 542 yards on the ground.

Air Force Updates

As of now, it looks like the Falcons will be mostly healthy for the bowl game. Other than Kyle Patterson and Kalawaia Pescaia, all players that missed the last game should be back. Micah Davis is practicing again which helps the Falcon depth and explosiveness.

Brent Briggeman of the Colorado Springs Gazette had a nice article about the excitement among the team to get the chance to go against a P5 team. Given the results of the bowls for Utah State, UAB, UCF, and Army, there seems to be a pattern of a lack of seriousness among P5 teams that are matched against G5 teams. One can only hope that pattern continues.

Prediction

The current line in Vegas has Louisville favored by 1.5 points and the over/under at 55 points.

It seems to me that Louisville is not likely to be able to stop the Falcon rushing attack. Malik Cunningham is too talented to be stopped for long. I expect an offensive battle with the Falcons coming out on top 35-31.