Date: Friday, December 30th
Time: 4:30 pm CT
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Stream: Campus Insiders
Radio: 99.5 The Jag
Betting Line: Air Force -14, O/U 56
Live Stats: Stat Monitor
Series History: First Meeting
South Alabama (6-6) meets Air Force (9-3) in the Arizona Bowl today in this year’s only bowl game that is not being broadcasted on a major television channel. Instead you can find the action on Campus Insider’s live stream or your American Sports Network affiliate. This game will mark South Alabama’s second appearance in a bowl game after losing 28-33 to Bowling Green in the 2014 Camellia Bowl. Air Force will be playing in their 42nd bowl game which ranks 25th out of 129 programs.
Air Force Outlook
Head coach Troy Calhoun has helped his program rebound from a two win season in 2013 with aplomb. The Falcons won 10 games in 2014, eight games in 2015, and have already claimed nine wins this year. Air Force has leaned on their highly efficient offense to lead them to victory in 2016. Averaging 34.3 points per game, the Falcons move methodically down the field on the strength of a trio of senior running backs in D.J. Johnson, Jacobi Owens, and Shayne Davern and an offensive line that excels in run blocking.
While Air Force runs the ball more than most teams they’re able to provide home run plays through the air when the situation calls for it. Senior receiver Jalen Robinette is a huge target at 6’4”, 215. He’s caught 33 catches for 835 and five touchdowns this year. Junior tight end Ryan Reffitt only has eight catches on the year but he has been targeted 23 times and must be accounted for. The speedy Ronald Cleveland has only caught four passes on the year but he’s averaging a staggering 40.5 yards per catch.
It speaks volumes of the Air Force rushing game that they’ve been able to score so freely this year despite quarterback Nate Romaine completing just 41.7% of his passing attempts. He’s hit on 45 passes for 1,206 yards and a 10:4 touchdown to interception ratio. Sophomore Arion Worthman took over starting duties later in the season but has only attempted 29 passes. Worthman has also rushed for 627 yards and six touchdowns.
Air Force’s defense is active and destructive, led by the appropriately named Weston Steelhammer (!!!). The 6’2”, 200 pound safety has totaled 58.5 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack, six interceptions, and four pass breakups in his senior campaign. The Falcons’ defense is incredibly experienced as 11 of their top 12 tacklers are seniors. Linebackers Haji Dunn Jr., Jacob Onyechi, and Ryan Watson all live behind the line of scrimmage, totaling 28 tackles for loss and 15 sacks among the three of them.
South Alabama Outlook
I’m convinced the Jaguars have been the most perplexing and inconsistent program in the Group of Five this year. USA started their season with a road win over an SEC program which had the country buzzing about USA’s chance at their first Sun Belt title. South Bama would go on to lose to bad Georgia Southern, ULL, and ULM teams with close wins over FCS Nicholls State and Georgia State. They also blew out a then-ranked San Diego State and nearly upset conference champion Troy. It’s December 30th and I still don’t really know how good or bad this team is.
Despite the injuries, South Alabama is highly talented program. Running back Xavier Johnson is the Jaguar’s most dependable weapon, having rushed for 787 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Dami Ayoola and Tyreis Thomas spell Johnson as bigger body backs. Both average just over four yards per carry.
Sophomores Dallas Davis and Cole Garvin have both spent time under center but Davis earned the starting spot early in the season. Davis would go on to pass for 2,461 yards while providing a running threat out of the pocket, taking off 61 times for 414 yards and two touchdowns.
USA’s air game is led by a strong group of seniors. Tight end Gerald Everett has hauled in 717 yards and four touchdowns. Kevin Kutchera is the Jaguars’ most explosive wideout as the 6’3” target is averaging 18 yards per catch. Wide receiver Josh Magee has caught 44 passes for 668 yards and Tyrone Williams has pulled in 26 passes for 296 yards.
South Alabama’s defense is one of the most active in the nation thanks in part to the impressive contributions of senior defensive end Randy Allen. With 49 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, two pass break ups, and three forced fumbles, Allen is a wrecking ball that smashes through the opposition to wreck havoc.
Cornerbacks Jeremy Reaves and Jalen Thompson have turned in good seasons in the secondary. Reaves has picked off three passes and deflected four while Thompson has hauled in four interceptions and six break ups. The Jags’ defense is adept in forcing fumbles which has translated into a +1 turnover margin despite Davis throwing 11 interceptions this season.
If South Alabama shows up and plays as strongly as they did against Mississippi State and San Diego State then they could blow out Air Force. I could also see them getting run out of the stadium by Air Force’s strong rushing attack. While I would love to see USA celebrate their first bowl win I just don’t see them competing in a shootout or suddenly finding a strong rush defense in time to shut down Air Force’s ground game.