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Takeaways: Air Force holds on to beat Louisville in the First Responder Bowl

The Falcons rode a strong first half to beat the Cardinals in a battle of the birds.

NCAA Football: First Responder Bowl-Air Force at Louisville Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was unexpected.

No, not the fact that Air Force won. Not the fact that the game was close, either.

In fact, this game had nail-biter written all over it. Instead, what was surprising was the way that the Falcons earned their victory — through the air.

I sat down to preview this game with the fine folks from the Louisville Sports Illustrated site, and we both agreed that it would be a fast and furious rushing festival. So, if you had told me that Haaziq Daniels and the Air Force offense would pass for more yards than they would rush for, I would have expected a certain defeat.

Instead, Daniels rolled out to the tune of 9-for-10 for 252 yards and a pair of monster touchdowns to Brandon Lewis. We’ll have plenty of time to dig into the best moments, and here’s how the action went down.

Louisville took the ball to begin the action, and there were no surprises out of the gate. Malik Cunningham and Trevion Cooley took turns rushing, eventually reaching the Cardinals’ 47-yard line. Cunningham lost a few yards and fumbled the ball, which Louisville was lucky not to lose.

Following a Cardinals punt, the Falcons had their first crack and went nowhere with the ball. Carson Bay launched a 46-yard punt to give Louisville its second shot on offense. Trevion Cooley broke off a 22-yard run, followed by a fumble and a Malik Cunningham run to set the Cardinals up on the Air Force 16. A holding penalty pushed them back before James Turner ultimately missed his 44-yard field goal try.

Air Force took over and promptly marched down the field for a 10-play, 74-yard drive that ended in a Haaziq Daniels touchdown run – his first of the day. The Cardinals came back out and found no success with a pair of Cunningham incompletions, and suddenly Air Force had a chance to open its lead.

It took just 57 seconds for the Falcons to open a 14-point gap, thanks to a 61-yard pass from Haaziq Daniels to Brandon Lewis, his favorite target of the day. For as fast as Air Force scored, Louisville took its time on the ensuing possession. The Cardinals took 11 plays to travel 65 yards before Trevion Cooley punched his way into the endzone.

Now, Air Force had a chance to recapture its two-score cushion with nine minutes left before halftime. Brad Roberts notched a pair of runs before Daniels took to the skies again for another 64-yard touchdown pass. Once again, Lewis was on the other end, but it was his effort after the catch that found paydirt.

Unfortunately, the advantage lasted just 12 seconds, as Jawhar Jordan took Matthew Dapore’s kickoff back 100 yards for a score of his own. It turned out not to matter, as the Falcons trotted back onto the field with just over five minutes left in the second quarter. Daniels led his squad on a masterful 11-play, 75-yard campaign that ended in his second rushing score of the day.

Most of the action took place in the first half of this year’s First Responders Bowl, but the second half was enough to make Air Force fans nervous. The two teams traded possessions to start the third quarter before Louisville put together a 51-yard drive to trim the lead to 28-21.

The score seemed to bring the Falcons back to life, as Haaziq and the gang rattled off a classic 17-play drive. It drained over nine minutes off the clock before Matthew Dapore connected his 26-yard kick to give Air Force its final score of 31.

Determined not to go quietly, Cunningham and the Cardinals took just 6 plays to travel 70 yards down the field to the endzone. The Louisville quarterback kept the ball for himself, breaking off a 22-yard score. Now, all Air Force had to do was maintain possession for a hair under three minutes to secure the victory.

The Falcons put together four rushes to secure a pair of first downs and force the Cardinals into using their timeouts, followed by a trio of kneel-downs to secure the final victory.

Air Force finished with a 31-28 victory over the Louisville Cardinals, good for its tenth win of the season, and the first trophy since the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl victory over Washington State.


Putting the Air in Air Force

As I said above, if you told me that the Falcons would pass for more yards than they ran for, I’d have expected a loss. After all, this is the number one rushing attack in the nation. Instead, Haaziq Daniels managed over 25-yards per completion with a pair of massive scores. Brandon Lewis caught both efforts, and his effort after the catch is what likely secured the win for Air Force.

Daniels also hit Caleb Rillos once for 40 yards and Dane Kinamon three times for the same total. Of course, the depleted Louisville secondary may have played a role in the newfound passing prowess. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons implement more passing going forward (but they probably won’t).

Double digits

This was a season of “almost there” for the Falcons. They nearly made the Mountain West title game, they nearly secured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, but now Air Force has its silverware. More importantly, the Falcons have achieved ten wins for the fourth time under head coach Troy Calhoun, and the second time since 2019. Air Force has just eight losses since the start of the 2019 season, with nearly half coming in a pandemic-depleted season.

Group of Five teams are also 5-0 against Power Five opposition this bowl season, in case you were wondering.

Riding the hot start

There’s been no secret to Air Force’s success this year. Any time the Falcons can avoid an early hole, they tend to win. The 14-point lead proved to be enough of a cushion against Louisville, despite the Cardinals finding second-half success. If Air Force can continue the hot starts and control the time of possession, they have the fire power to keep up with teams from almost any conference.

What’s next?

Nothing! Well, at least not until spring practices roll around. After that, Air Force will kick off its 2022 season on September 3 against Northern Iowa. In the meantime, happy holidays and enjoy the rest of bowl season!