DOWN AND DIRTY: 5 Observations from the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Baylor v. Air Force

Dec 22, 2022; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Air Force Falcons quarterback Haaziq Daniels (4) runs with the ball against the Baylor Bears during the first half in the 2022 Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DOWN AND DIRTY: 5 Observations from the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Baylor v. Air Force

Air Force took control of the game from the first series, and head coach Troy Calhoun secured his fifth 10-win season at his alma mater with a 30-15 win over Baylor. The Falcons were the more aggressive team and controlled play with strong defense, a diverse running game, and a stellar performance from quarterback Haaziq Daniels.  The Falcon signal caller made key plays with his arm and legs throughout the game. Daniels rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown and added 103 passing yards and another score, completing four of his seven attempts. Baylor scored just before the half to draw within two points, but Air Force scored 21 unanswered points to draw away for good in the second half.

Arctic Blast: A huge story in this game was the weather. The epic cold front that has blown across the nation this morning dropped temperatures in Fort Worth, Texas to the single digits with a wind chill around zero. 

The game may have been the coldest bowl game ever played, and the environment seemed to be a major factor in almost every facet of the game.

The front also brought gusting winds that threatened to play havoc with Baylor’s passing game and fed directly into the hands of the Air Force ground game.

A perfect fit: Air Force is something of a contradiction. On one hand, they run an old school ground and pound offense that features a bruising running game. By formation, they are a prototypical service academy that looks to possess the football and run option plays because they are not able to block the more athletic defenders that other teams will throw at them. 

Tonight, the old-school approach worked to perfection as the Falcons’ offense rushed more than 50 times for almost 300 yards and controlled the clock for the overwhelming majority of the game. These body blows also opened the passing game, and Air Force was able to take advantage for several big plays, including a 15-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to extend a lead.

On the other hand, the Falcons incorporate spread concepts and regularly spurn the punt and go for conversions on fourth down.  On their opening drive, Air Force converted on 4th down to extend a drive that would lead to the endzone and a 6-0 Falcon lead. 

This combination of old school toughness and new age analytics is a big part of why Troy Calhoun has had so much success at his alma mater over the years.

Winning in the trenches: Baylor had a hard time blocking Air Force all night long. The Bears were only able to rush for 29 yards, and quarterback Blake Shapen was under duress for much of the night. 

Baylor was unsuccessful on its first 10 third-down conversions as the Falcons refused to allow the Bears to gain any offensive rhythm whatsoever.

The Falcons are known for their unique offense, but the Air Force defense deserves notice as well. In the regular season, Air Force was ranked No. 28 in total defense, and the Falcon front seven proved themselves fully capable of shutting down a Big 12 offense. 

The extra man: One of the things that makes playing a service academy difficult is the fact that they often present a unique offense scheme that is difficult to prepare for and, thus, hard to stop. This idea was perfectly illustrated tonight by quarterback Haaziq Daniels.

A player like Daniels and his ability to run with speed and power makes him a player that must be accounted for by opposing defenses, and the option scheme employed by Air Force makes controlling a dynamic runner like Daniels much harder.  

There is no difference in the concept of the option and the trendier RPO offenses. There is a threat to run in the middle, the quarterback can keep it and run, or he can toss it out wide. 

The difference is the picture presented by more condensed formations, motions, and post-snap movements that defenses are not accustomed to seeing.  You can bet that Dave Aranda and his staff worked on the Air Force attack in bowl prep, but you just can’t simulate the speed and power a skilled operator like Daniels brings to bear.

The last part of the equation that makes Air Force so difficult to defend is Daniels’ throwing ability.  The second dimension of a passing attack that can cause real damage makes stopping an option attack almost impossible. Daniels may not throw often or for much yardage, but he is able to throw effectively, creating big yardage plays, picking up big first downs, and creating doubt in the minds of defenders about where they are under attack.

Be ready, don’t get ready: The Baylor Bears did not seem as ready for a contest as the Air Force Falcons. Maybe Baylor was disappointed to be playing in this game instead of a major bowl game like last year. Maybe the cold weather hurt focus and created an environment the Bears simply could not overcome. Maybe Air Force is a really talented team with a good coaching staff that has designed a scheme that perfectly fits the team they have recruited. Whatever the reason, Baylor was never able to really get on track, and the game was not as close as the score would indicate.

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