Saturday, December 29

The Armed Forces Bowl: soldiers-in-training vs hippies

I’m kind of glad to see the Armed Forces Bowl actually …y’know, have a team from the armed forces playing in it. My theory is that’s going to be a one-time thing, a fluke spawned by Air Force having a pretty good year. It’s not like it happened before – the only team even kind of close to a service academy is …Houston? Maybe? With the head coaching change at Navy, it may be a little while before we see any team other than Air Force in a bowl, so it’ll balance out. Maybe.

Can someone explain to me why the second-place team from the Pac-10 plays on the 27th of December but the 5th-place team plays on the 31st? I don’t care about bowl prestige and/or whether or not people actually care about the bowls; it just looks really goofy to see a possible BCS contender serving as the functional opening act of bowl season. It’s like throwing a middleweight championship match on as the first bout of a card and having an amateur match at the #2 fight.

California (by Coach Pendley)

If I was going to preview this team properly, I’d write about 3,000 words on their season history and their players and about 25 on actual strategy. It’s impressive to see a team basically self-destruct on itself without really any impetus; they held an excellent win over Oregon (which seemed bigger at the time than what it turned out to be), but that was about it once the second half of the season rolled around. Lose to USC, lose to Arizona State, lose to Stanford – heck, by the Transitive Property of Football, they’re worse than Notre Dame! That’s got to sting a bit.

Still, it’s not like they’re not talented on both sides of the ball. QB Nate Longshore is an excellent talent; he’s a drop-back pocket passer who theoretically has a good grasp on head coach Jeff Tedford’s offense. He ended up throwing for over 2,500 yards and 16 TDs, but the 13 picks were a killer – including 10 in the losses. In addition to that, his ratios bit it over the last three months of the year; from September on, he threw 9 TDs to 11 INTs.

RB Justin Forsett probably does miss his old backfield mate Marshawn Lynch a bit, but Forsett excelled in limited duties last year and he’s done an excellent job stepping up to the plate this year as well. He finished 2nd in the Pac-10 with 1,406 yards rushing and 13 TDs, and unlike Longshore, didn’t totally tank once September rolled around; he averaged 5.14 ypc in October.

WR Desean Jackson looked like a Heisman contender early in the season (helped on by his punt return TD against the Vols in the season opener for both teams), but nagging injuries derailed his productivity. Heck, WR Lavelle Hawkins finished with more yards (841 to 681), more yards per catch (12.19 to 11.35), and more receptions per game (5.8 to 5.5) than Jackson.

As for the Cal rush D, it was like the rest of the team – good in September (3.62 ypc), horrid in November (4.98 ypc). The passing game was a little more respectable; it actually showed an improvement as the year went on, but while the yards per attempt stayed virtually constant (hovering around 6.4 yards per attempt), the number of attempts went way down – probably because teams were gouging them on the ground.

Hell, even their turnovers followed the same path - +11 in September, -5 in October, -6 in November, -1 in December. Red zone opportunities were way down (24 in September was more than the other three months combined) as was TD conversion percentage (70% in September to around 55% at all other times). So yeah, the gameplan should be pretty obvious – play like it’s September, not November.

Keys to Victory:
1: Shake off the second half. There’s a reason this team opened at 5-1, and it will do the Golden Bears a world of good to remember why they were that good to open the season. Yeah, I suspect that the losing probably snowballed a bit as the season wore on, but that’s one of the many reasons why the bowl games are so far after the end of the year. Cal is unquestionably a more talented team than Air Force; if they play like it they’ll win handily.

2: Play against either the new offense or the old offense, but not both. Air Force’s new head coach Troy Calhoun is trying to install more of a spread-based offense, but he has old HC Fisher Deberry’s personnel in starting roles. As a result, Air Force’s offense is kind of a mix of the two schemes – dangerous when working, but likely to be only firing half the time. (Only a handful of offenses can do both at once, West Virginia’s chief among them.) Cal can’t defend both the spread and the option at the same time, so if they focus against one and only one at a time, they’ll limit Air Force’s effectiveness. It’ll likely be easier for them to defend against the option and leave the corners on an island. Playing, say, a modified Cover-3 and sending a corner across to challenge the option is only going to result in headaches for the defense.

That’s about it, really. If Cal plays like they should they’ll win the game, but their defense has to play smart too – easier said than done.

Air Force (by Coach Lawrence)

After bring bowl eligible every season from 1994 through 2003, Air Force had suffered three straight losing seasons coming into 2007. Following a weird win over TCU and consecutive losses to BYU and Navy, that academy’s season looked like it could go either way. The Falcons rose to the occasion, winning 6 of their final 7 including being the last team who was able to defeat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. At 9-3, this is their best regular season finish since 1998, when the Falcons won the Oahu Classic bowl to finish 12-1.

As we’d expect from a service academy, Air Force relies on a complex triple option offense. Three players, including QB Shaun Carney, average 9+ carries and 44+ yards per game. The leading rusher is wingback Chad Hall, at 17.5 carries and 118 yards a game. Overall, AFA runs the ball an average of 55 times per game, with just over 16 pass attempts to compliment that. As we’d also expect, the Falcons are a little undersized on the defensive line (avg wt 260) and get high productivity from the linebackers and secondary – 4 LBs and 3 DBs combine to be the leading seven tacklers. But the defensive performance is adequate, giving up 131 ypg rushing and 226 ypg passing.

As far as meaningful statistics, look no further than the offensive rushing totals. In nine wins, 333 yards/game and 5.7 ypc... in three losses, 194 ypg and 4.4 ypc.

Keys to Victory
1) Open up the offense. Without much of a passing game, it’s difficult to move the ball down the field 5 yards at a time. The triple option needs big plays, and Chad Hall is the man to provide those IF he can find space. Forcing the defense to play everything honestly will give him more opportunities to bust a big one, as they will be keying on him.

2) Don’t give up the deep ball. It’ll be tempting to send 8 to try to stop Forsett, but quick TD passes to Jackson and Hawkins are exactly what the AFA doesn’t need. When you’re a running team, you don’t want to give up quick scores which can really put pressure on your offense to respond.

3) Proper fundamentals and decision-making on the toss. Running option is of course a big risk of turnovers... and the AFA has fumbled 6 times in 3 losses compared to just 7 times in 9 wins. Frankly, that’s damn impressive to run the ball 55 times at all and average less than one fumble per game (in their victories), but to do that while running that many option plays is just amazing. Even their overall total – 13 fumbles in 12 games – is impressive considering the offense. Keep it up.