The Falcon’s 31-28 win over Louisville in the First Responder’s Bowl didn’t unfold the way most fans expected. I was thinking the Falcon’s would be able to run the ball well and eke out a 35-31 victory. I got pretty close on the score, but yards came slowly on the ground, and it was the passing game that provided all the fireworks. The ground game had some intermittent success moving the ball, particularly later in the game, but it was the passing game that worked flawlessly.
The Passing Game and Haaziq Daniels
Daniels has been inconsistent so far in his career. When he throws with confidence, his accuracy and decision making is much better. He does better after getting a couple completions, as he did against Wyoming and Army. Against San Diego State, his first pass was excellent but was dropped by Micah Davis. He proceeded to throw a damaging interception, and did poorly the rest of the way.
In this game, OC Mike Thiessen dialed up a very well designed pass on the first play of the second drive. The Falcons lined up with Brad Roberts and DeAndre Hughes in the slot positions and no one behind Daniels. Dane Kinamon and David Cormier were at wideout positions. The Falcons had not used the formation this year that I remember, and it was probably a surprise for the Cardinals. Watch what happens when the ball was snapped.
Daniels ✈️ Rillos for a 4⃣0⃣ yard gain! pic.twitter.com/c7qiPpzyZX— Air Force Football (@AF_Football) December 28, 2021
Hughes wheels around tight end Caleb Rillos. After he does, Rillos breaks to the outside behind Hughes while Kinamon runs straight up the field and Hughes angles toward the center of the field. The defenders follow Hughes and Kinamon, leaving the sideline wide open for an easy completion and a 40 yard gain.
After this, Daniels went on to complete 9 of 10 passes for 252 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions, aided by a Louisville defense that was daring the Falcon’s to beat them with the pass, and a receiver in Brandon Lewis with speed and moves that the Cardinals weren’t expecting. His only incompletion was when Daniel’s intentionally threw a pass away under pressure. His performance reminded me of DJ Hammond’s game against New Mexico in 2019, when he completed 9 of 10 for 327 yards and 4 TDs. In the future the Falcon’s might consider letting Daniels throw more often early in the game to let him build his confidence on a few shorter passes.
Measured by yardage and points allowed, this game was the second or third worst performance by the Falcons defense on the year, but a closer look reveals a better story.
Firstly, one of the touchdowns was the long kickoff return allowed by the special teams.
Secondly, the Falcons held the Cardinals below their average of 31.6 points and 446 total yards.
Thirdly, the Falcons were strong when they needed to be. Louisville was only able to convert on 1 of 3 red zone opportunities. In the first quarter, the defense stopped a Louisville drive in the red zone forcing a field goal attempt that was missed. In the third quarter, Camby Goff and Trey Taylor came up with a big stop on a fourth down at the 1 yard line. The Falcons have been good on red zone defense all year, ranking 16th in the country.
Tre Bugg also made a great play on coverage of Louisville’s big play receiver Tyler Harrell in the endzone with 7 seconds left in the first half that denied a Cardinal score.
On a secondary note, it was interesting that the starting inside linebackers for the game were Alec Mock and Bo Richter. Demonte Meeks was injured for the game, and TD Blackmon spent most of the game on the bench. Mock and Richter had started the Nevada game and looked good helping cover Nevada’s excellent receivers. Richter had an interception against Nevada and broke up the pass that halted the Cardinal’s drive that ended in the missed field goal. Both are sophomores who should only get better next year.
The Kicking Game
Freshman kicker Matthew Dapore has nailed his last four field goal attempts of the season, one of them for 49 yards. That may not sound very impressive if your team has a kicker like Jonah Dalmas or Matt Araiza, but given last season and the first half of this season for the Falcons, it’s a welcome development. In this game, the three points from that field goal provided the final margin of victory. If Dapore can continue that success over his next three years, it could contribute to a victory in some of the close games that the Falcons generally have every year.
Seniors’ Last Game
For this game, only 5 of the 22 starters were seniors, and each has been a major contributor to the Falcon’s success throughout the season and in this game.
DL Jordan Jackson has been a handful for opponents with his ability to get into the backfield and clog up the line of scrimmage, often while occupying two blockers. He contributed 4 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and .5 sack in this game.
CB Tre Bugg was the team’s best coverage DB this year with 10 PBUs, and has always been excellent on open field tackling. In this game he had 4 tackles and the one PBU in the end zone at the end of the first half.
S Corvan Taylor has been a playmaker the last two years with 5 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. He was second on the team against Louisville with 8 tackles.
WR Brandon Lewis has been the most explosive offensive player on the team the last two years, averaging 8.9 yards per rushing attempt and 23.3 yards per reception. In this game he had 3 carries for 18 yards and 5 receptions for 172 yards and 2 TDs.
RG Hawk Wimmer was named 1st team All Mountain West this season, after backing up Nolan Laufenberg and Kyle Krepsz last year. The Falcons would regularly run behind his blocking when they would need a few yards in short yardage situations.
Thanks for reading this season, watch for my next article taking an early look at how the Falcons will replace the departing seniors and fill out the depth chart for next year.