Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

    Famous Idaho Potato Air Force (9-3) vs. Western Michigan (8-4) Dec. 20, 5:45, ESPN Here’s The Deal: Call this the Turnaround Bowl for two good programs

    December 18, 2014

    Famous Idaho Potato

    Air Force (9-3) vs. Western Michigan (8-4) Dec. 20, 5:45, ESPN
    Here’s The Deal: Call this the Turnaround Bowl for two good programs that fell off the map last year, but came back roaring. Now, the potential is there for these two to come up with a terrific early bowl season shootout.

    A complete and utter disaster in P.J. Fleck’s first season as the head man, Western Michigan couldn’t do anything right in 2013, going 1-11 – and being lucky just to get that one win over UMass – with a horrendous offense, no defense, and too many blown opportunities. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and that turned out to be the case as the Broncos grew up on both sides of the ball with an ultra-efficient passing game and a stunningly good defense leading to a terrific bounceback year, losing to Purdue to start the season, dropping a game to Virginia Tech and losing in overtime to Toledo. Ripping off a six-game winning streak, WMU got right back in the conference title hunt before losing to NIU, and now it gets a chance to close out strong and become the hot MAC team going into 2015.

    Air Force floundered a bit in 2012 with a 6-7 season and a bowl game disaster against Rice, but that was nothing compared to a nightmare of a 2013 going 2-10 with wins over Colgate and Army. The program pulled up out of the nosedive with a fantastic year – at least after a gag against Wyoming early on – winning eight of its last ten games including victories over Boise State and Colorado State. The defense improved by leaps and bounds, the offense was far more effective, and despite having problems with the two tremendous defenses on the schedule – losing to Utah State and San Diego State – everything went back to normal. Now there’s a chance at the program’s first double-digit win season since 1998.

    Can the bowl be any better? Three of the last four Famous Idahos have been complete and utter wipeouts after going through a string of terrific games that were among the best games of the respective bowl seasons. Can Western Michigan be any better in a bowl game? The Broncos are 0-5 all-time in bowls, with the last appearance a 37-32 loss to Purdue in the 2011 Little Caesar’s, and the first a 28-12 downer to New Mexico in your 1961 Aviation Bowl. This is Air Force’s first bowl appearance since losing to Rice 33-12 in the 2012 Armed Forces. The Falcons have lost five of their last seven.

    Why Air Force Might Win: Western Michigan lost four times this year, and they happened to be the four games when the defense gave up the most rushing yards allowing 308 to Virginia Tech, 234 to Toledo, 226 to Purdue and 196 to Northern Illinois. Air Force averages 272 rushing yards per game.

    – The Falcons lost star running back Jacobi Owens to a foot injury, and while there were problems against San Diego State, the attack kept on rolling against Colorado State. There are several options to play around with the Next Man Up theory really working. QB Kale Pearson was lost with an ankle injury against Colorado State, and while the Falcons lost, the running game still cranked out 242 yards without its top two runners, Owens and Pearson.

    – Field position is always a big deal for Air Force, and it should go through stretches when the field is tilted the other way because of the punting game. The Falcons don’t have much of a punt return game, but WMU’s return game is non-existent averaging 1.07 yards per try. The Air Force punting game is terrific, averaging over 39 yards per try.

    – The Falcons never, ever seem to beat themselves, getting flagged a miniscule 43 times on the year for just 419 yards. How good have they been at not getting flagged? Nine of the sins were committed in the opener against Nicholls State, and 26 of the 43 came in the first six games. Over the last six, Air Force has been nailed more than three times in a game just once.

    – WMU has to keep an eye out at all times for First Team All-Mountain West star Weston Steelhammer, a dangerous safety who came up with six picks to go along with 51 tackles and five tackles for loss and three sacks. Three of the picks came against Boise State, and he intercepted one in each of the last three games.

    Why Western Michigan Might Win: Air Force is a ball control team, but Western Michigan is every bit as strong, doing an amazing job all season long of converting on third downs and ripping off long drives with an average time of possession of over 33 minutes a game. If WMU wins the time battle, it’ll probably win.

    – The defensive front and the linebackers are active, aggressive around the ball, and great overall against the run. There might have been problems with the better ground games over the first part of the season, and late against Northern Illinois, but for the most part, the run defense has been terrific. With time to prepare, it might have the Air Force ground attack figured out, especially if Falcon quarterback Kale Pearson isn’t right with an ankle injury.

    – The Broncos have something special in freshman running back Jarvion Franklin. He might have worn down over the course of the year and was banged up late, but now he has time to get healthier and fresher after running for 1,525 yards and 24 scores, hitting the 100-yard mark in seven of the first nine games. He should look different.

    – The WMU punt return game is a problem, but the kickoff returns have been terrific averaging 25.5 yards per try with a touchdown. Freshman receiver Darius Phillips has turned into a nice target catching 29 catches for 45 yards and two scores, but he has taken off as a returner averaging over 26 yards per pop with the kick-six against Eastern Michigan.

    – With one of the most efficient passing games in America, WMU might have had a few problems with interceptions over the last few weeks, but for most part, it’s been scary-good. Zach Terrell hit 90% of his throws against Eastern Michigan with four scores, and on the year has averaged 70% of his passes for 3,146 yards and 23 scores. The offense can do a little of everything.

    What’s Going To Happen: Western Michigan has been terrific, and it has everything in place to pull off the victory if the balanced offense gets humming early, but the Air Force running game will work. The Broncos will be a bit out of sorts with their offense on the sidelines more than usual, while the Falcons will find a groove right away.

    Prediction: Air Force 34 … Western Michigan 27

    Line: Western Michigan -1 o/u: 56.5

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