Rice vs. Air Force, 2012 Armed Forces Bowl preview: Ground games, ahoy!

Gregory Shamus

Who needs things like "passing" and "defense"? Either Rice or Air Force will win the Armed Forces Bowl with the old-fashioned ground game. Dec. 29, 11:45 a.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Connor Dietz (QB, Air Force, Sr.) and Cody Getz (RB, Air Force, Sr.). Yeah, you're not watching this game for the defenses. Despite losing more starters than any FBS team this side of Boise, and despite fielding a pretty awful defense, Air Force made its sixth bowl in six years under Troy Calhoun, thanks mostly to the patented option game. Connor Dietz and Cody Getz combined to rush 27 times per game, gain 1,899 yards and score 14 touchdowns; they are the primary pivot points for another fun option attack that still finds ways to get the ball to four other rushers at least 4-5 times per game as well.

You know what you're getting from Air Force at this point -- the Falcons rush 87 percent of the time on standard downs and 74 percent of the time on passing downs (second-most in the country on both accounts), and while Dietz will occasionally dial up a play-action pass to either Ty MacArthur, Drew Coleman or Dontae Strickland (combined: 72 targets, 50 catches, 969 yards, seven touchdowns), he's still going to only throw about 10 passes per game. Win or lose, Air Force is going to run the ball, and run the ball, and run the ball.

Taylor McHargue (QB, Rice, Jr.) and Charles Ross (RB, Rice, Jr.). Rarely does Rice come into the game as the pass-happy team on the field. The Owls rush 62 percent of the time on standard downs (41st) and 47 percent on passing downs (12th), mostly from the Pistol, preferring to put Taylor McHargue in as few must-pass opportunities as possible. He gets some easy first-down throws -- typically to either Jordan Taylor (673 yards, 8.3 per target, 59 percent catch rate) or Sam McGuffie (523 yards, 7.2 per target, 67 percent catch rate, and yes, this is the same Sam McGuffie who transferred from Michigan, like, 13 years ago) -- but he will use his legs frequently on second- or third-and-long.

McHargue brings an interesting, dual-threat skill set to the table, and he makes for a useful backfield with backs Charles Ross, Turner Petersen and Jeremy Eddington, all of whom are at least 6'1 and at least 220 pounds. Rice is big and strong (with solid speed considering the size), and the Owls will attempt to push around and overpower the typically undersized Air Force front seven (average weight on the Air Force defensive line's two-deep: 248 pounds; average linebacker: 220).

Alex Means (OLB, Air Force, Sr.). There's a reason why four of the five players to watch here are on the offensive side of the ball: The defenses aren't very good. But the defender most likely to make a big play in this game is probably Means, a pretty big (6'5, 240 pounds) senior from Minnesota who led the Falcons' defense in both tackles for loss (11.0) and passes defensed (11). He is active and diverse in his skill set. Meanwhile, Rice has a couple of active linemen -- end Cody Bauer and nose tackle Hosam Shahin -- who are big and talented and will have their discipline tested by the funky Air Force offense.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. You like run games, right? Because you're going to get a lot of it. The spread is the typical underdog offense of choice for a lot of college football, but both of these teams reached six wins with run games both old-school (Air Force's Flexbone) and new (Rice's pistol/veer). This game will bring plenty of uniqueness to the table, even if the overall quality is questionable.

2. Rice is big and weird. The Pistol formation was designed to get runners going downhill in a hurry. When those runners are enormous, it makes for an interesting attack. McHargue is 215 pounds, all three primary running backs are big, sophomore wideout Jordan Taylor is 6'5, 210, and senior tight ends Vance McDonald, Luke Wilson and Taylor Cook, all at least 6'5 and 250 pounds (Cook is 6'7), combine to see about seven targets per game. This could be an extremely awkward matchup for the aforementioned small Air Force defense, especially if the Falcons only have so much of a speed advantage.

3. It kicks off at 10:45 a.m. local time. What else are you going to be watching then?

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Rice vs. the option. Of course. It is just a different experience. We're always tempted to refer to defense's against-the-run numbers to figure out how they will handle the Flexbone (in this case, Rice's numbers aren't good: 91st in rushing yards allowed per game, 109th in yards per carry allowed), but that only tells you so much of the story. Good option attacks like Air Force's use your strengths against you, and active, aggressive players like Bauer and Shahin are going to be forced to go against their instincts quite a bit..

It does probably bear mentioning, by the way, that Rice's defense has improved quite a bit since the season began. The Owls got torched by both good offenses and bad early on -- UCLA, Kansas, Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Houston averaged 44 points and 559 yards per game against Rice -- but allowed more than 17 points just three times in their final seven games. Granted, the opponents got worse for the most part, but Rice did hold Conference USA champion Tulsa to 28 points in a tight loss and only got truly torched once after September (by pass-happy Tulane). Again, that doesn't mean a lot heading into a game with Air Force, but still, you'd rather have improved than regressed, right?

2. Air Force vs. Second-and-long. On a play-for-play basis, Air Force's passing game is pretty dangerous. The trio of receivers mentioned above (McArthur, Coleman, Strickland) average a whopping 13.5 yards per target, but of course they do; whenever Air Force passes, it is a surprise, even on passing downs. Still, the offense grinds to a halt when the Falcons fall behind schedule. It is the nature of this offense. Rice's job will get much, much easier if the Owls can do what they really haven't done all year: hold an opponent to minimal first-down yardage. If Air Force is allowed to dictate the schedule and leverage itself into consistently manageable to-go yardage, Rice's defense will be both gassed and dominated by the third quarter.

3. An offense that can't pass versus a defense that can't defend the pass. Rice's offense ranks 108th in Passing S&P+, and Air Force's defense ranks 118th. These are distinct weaknesses for both teams, but in theory one unit will win this battle. If McHargue is able to move the chains with McGuffie and the tight ends and perhaps strike deep once or twice with Taylor, Rice will be in excellent shape. But if the Owls are falling into passing downs and going three-and-out, they will probably put too much pressure on their defense to win.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Rice by 3.6.
Bill's Pick: Air Force by 7. This one is basically a tossup, but in the end I think the Falcons' option game works consistently enough to outscore the Owls.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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