A pair of 6-6 teams square off in the 10th annual Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, as the Rice Owls battle the Air Force Falcons at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
Qualifying for a bowl game was the last thing the Owls thought would be possible during the first half of the season, as they came out of the gates a very sluggish 2-6, which included disappointing home losses to Marshall (54-51 in 2OT) and Texas-San Antonio (34-14). Somehow though, Rice was able to pull off the improbable as it closed out the season on a four-game win streak, becoming bowl eligible with a 33-24 victory at UTEP in the regular-season finale.
"There can't be a more emotional 6-6 team in the country," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue, whose team is 5-4 all-time in bowl games. "I think it's because of the journey we had to take to get here."
Air Force will be participating in its fourth Armed Forces Bowl in the last six years, but it is not nearly riding as high as Rice is coming into the game. Following a three-game win streak in October, the Falcons were sitting at 5-3, but they faltered down the stretch with losses in three of their last four games, including at Fresno State in the finale (48-15). Still, head coach Troy Calhoun has led his team to the postseason in each of his six years at the helm.
"It's more than an honor to have an opportunity to be a part of this bowl game," Calhoun said. "I just thought, if we could ever get to (a bowl game), it'd be a pretty good ending. (We) want to play well and also enjoy all the festivities all week."
Air Force has won five of the six previous meetings between these two programs. From 1996-98, the teams were briefly rivals in the Western Athletic Conference.
The Rice offense has been effective all year long, scoring 31.8 ppg on greater than 421 ypg, and much of that is thanks to its impressive dual-threat under center.
McHargue's passing numbers alone would make him a solid signal-caller in Conference USA, as he is completing just under 60 percent of his throws for 2,178 yards with 11 touchdowns to go along with only five interceptions. What makes him special however, is his ability to take off and run, as he has amassed 628 rushing yards while punching the ball into the end zone 11 times on the ground.
McHargue rarely plays favorites when it comes to his receivers. Sam McGuffie (523 yards) leads the team with 49 receptions and five touchdowns, and while Jordan Taylor has put together a fine campaign with 48 receptions and 673 yards, he has yet to score.
Sharing the load in the backfield is Charles Ross (743 yards, 4 TDs) and Turner Petersen (510 yards, 5 TDs), who have combined for more than five yards per carry. Petersen sat out the UTEP game with a hamstring injury, but he is expected to play in this contest.
The Owls' Achilles' Heel has been the sporadic play of their defense (31.3 ppg), which has allowed 24 points or fewer six times while giving up 47 points or more on four occasions.
The good news is that Rice gets contributions from numerous sources on defense, as seven players have recorded at least two takeaways. Paul Porras and Cameron Nwosu were the team's top tacklers with 86 and 82 stops, respectively, and Cody Bauer (12 TFL, 5.5 sacks), Shahin Hosam (8.5 TFL, 5 sacks), and Jared Williams (seven TFL, 5.5 sacks) are all effective pass- rushers.
The Air Force offense has had a relatively modest season when it comes to scoring (28.5 ppg), but it has the ability to break out in any given game thanks to the nation's second-ranked rushing offense (nearly 329 ypg).
The Falcons have attempted an incredible 756 rushes this season, which have resulted in 5.2 ypc. Leading the way is Cody Getz with 1,213 yards and 9 touchdowns, but Jon Lee (543 yards, 4 TDs), Wes Cobb (491 yards, 8 TDs), Ty MacArthur (419 yards, 2 TDs) and quarterback Connor Dietz (658 yards, 5 TDs) have all had their fair share of rushes.
Dietz is not called upon to put the ball in the air much -- he has attempted just 108 passes in 12 games -- but he has completed 62 percent of those tosses for 1,127 yards, 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
Most of Air Force's completed passes are for big yardage, as MacArthur (411 yards, 2 TDs), Drew Coleman (326 yards, 3 TDs) and Don Strickland (232 yards, 2 TDs) all average at least 17 yards per catch.
The Falcons have done a decent job keep their opponents from scoring a ton (28.7 ppg), but the defensive unit has trouble getting off the field on third down, allowing teams to convert 47 percent of its attempts.
Austin Niklas is one of the Mountain West Conference's best tacklers, making 114, with 6 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. Alex Means (89 tackles, 11 TFL) and Steffon Batts (71 tackles) each have 2 interceptions, but as a team the Falcons have forced just 13 turnovers.