With a combined three victories in 2013, fans of Air Force and Western Michigan probably didn’t expect a return to the postseason to happen this quickly.
The Falcons and Broncos are each coming off the best single-season turnarounds in the history of their programs and will meet Saturday in Boise for the 17th edition of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Air Force (9-3) is making its 24th bowl appearance, an impressive feat considering its 2-10 finish last season, and joined Ole Miss as the only teams in the nation to notch two victories against 10-win programs.
The Falcons, who went 5-3 in the Mountain West after going 0-8 in 2013, handed MWC champion Boise State (11-2) its only conference loss Sept. 27 and also beat No. 21 Colorado State (10-2) in their regular-season finale Nov. 28.
“It’s a new defense. It’s a new year,” linebacker Jordan Pierce said after the Falcons had five interceptions against Boise. “People try to compare us to last year, when we went 2-10 and our defense didn’t play too well.”
The turnaround for Western Michigan (8-4) was just as impressive after the Broncos went 1-11 in 2013. They started 2-3 before winning six of their final seven games and will now appear in a bowl for the sixth time.
The seven-victory upswings tied TCU for the nation’s best.
“First of all, how cool is it that two of the top turnarounds in college football get to play each other?” Mid-American Conference coach of the year P.J. Fleck said to Western Michigan’s official website.
Air Force is 10-12-1 in bowl games dating to the 1959 Cotton Bowl, while Western Michigan has dropped all five of its postseason appearances.
The Falcons will now have played in seven bowls in coach Troy Calhoun’s first eight seasons – they’ve won two so far – while the Broncos at one point waited decades between appearances. Their first two were in 1961 and ’88 before the most recent three came from 2007-11.
Most of the focus in this matchup will be on the running game. Air Force had the seventh-best ground attack in the FBS with 272.2 yards per game, while Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin ran for 1,525 yards and 24 touchdowns – tied for third-most in the nation and tops among freshmen.
The Falcons are in good position to slow Franklin given they ranked second in the MWC with 140.3 rushing yards allowed per game, but the Broncos are nearly as effective (142.7).
Franklin will be looking to break out after putting up relatively quiet numbers over the final three games. After piling up 648 yards and 10 touchdowns over four games from Oct. 11-Nov. 1 – all victories – he had 195 yards and only two TDs during a closing 2-1 stretch. His best game was a 211-yard effort in a win at Idaho on Sept. 13.
Running back Jacobi Owens led the way for the Falcons with 1,082 rushing yards, though not to be overlooked were three other backs – Shayne Davern (419), Devin Rushing (336) and D.J. Johnson (250) – who contributed at least 250. Quarterback Kale Pearson was second with 758 yards for Air Force, which had nine players score at least one rushing TD.
Pearson ran the triple option cleanly with 1,513 passing yards and 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions, giving him a season rating of 162.5. He may find some opportunities against the Broncos, who allowed 229.3 passing yards per game, but Pearson averaged fewer than 15 pass attempts per game.
Zach Terrell was much more active for Western Michigan, finishing with 3,146 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for an even higher rating of 167.0. His 9.53 yards per pass were the best in the MAC and ranked third in the FBS behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota (10.17) and Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson (9.79).
Air Force was second-worst in the MWC at 256.0 passing yards allowed per game and will surely have to step things up in the secondary against Terrell, who has a lethal pair of receivers in sophomores Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman. Davis led the MAC with 12 TDs and was second with 1,232 yards while Braverman was second in the conference with 79 receptions and sixth in yardage (912).
While this marks the first meeting between these schools, Western Michigan has faced a service academy, splitting two games against Army in 1985 and ’93. The Falcons are 2-1 against teams from the MAC, with the loss coming versus Toledo in the 2011 Military Bowl.
“It’s an honor ever to play against a service academy,” Fleck said. “You talk about a true team – Air Force, Navy, Army … when those teams play, they play for their country, they play for each other. Our team can learn a lot from this (Air Force) football team.”