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High-powered offenses with contrasting styles set to meet when Washington State takes on Air Force in Cheez-It Bowl

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 8, 2019

When Cheez-It Bowl public relations director Scott Leightman introduced the teams participating in this year’s Arizona showcase during a teleconference Sunday afternoon, he teased an “offensive explosion” between Washington State and No. 24 Air Force, who each enter the postseason averaging more than 34 points per contest and should give the other plenty to think about as bowl prep takes place over the next three weeks.

Of course, standards aren’t too high for a bowl game that produced just two touchdowns and 17 points when Cal and TCU met at Phoenix’s Chase Field last year. There were more interceptions (9) than Cal points (7) in TCU’s narrow victory and both teams finished the game with backup quarterbacks behind center.

Nonetheless, the 2019 game, scheduled for Dec. 27 at 7:15 p.m. PT (ESPN), should be a refresher for anyone still waiting to get their offensive fix.

The Cougars and Falcons have no problem getting into the end zone, but while the Cheez-It Bowl may be an offensive marathon between teams that respectively rank 11th and tied for 22nd nationally in points per game, it’ll also be an appropriate example of the old adage that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

In Pullman, Mike Leach is known for his simple but potent Air Raid schemes, which have produced the nation’s past two passing leaders in Anthony Gordon and Gardner Minshew. The Cougars have thrown for 5,332 yards this season – 303 more than second-place LSU, even though the Tigers have played one more game.

In Colorado Springs, Troy Calhoun has shown the same dogged determination and unwavering attitude toward the triple option, a run-first scheme that often forces the defense to focus on three ball-carriers on a single play. The Falcons have attempted just 114 passes this season – second-fewest in the country – but they’ve rushed for 37 touchdowns and rank third in the country at 292.7 yards per game.

So, while Leach and Calhoun may never swap playbooks, the coaches have plenty of mutual respect for the other’s strategy.

“Other than this bowl game, being American and everything, I always rooted for Air Force,” Leach said. “But the opportunity to play a great rushing team like them, an option team, we’re excited about that.”

Despite the stark contrasts in how the Cougars and Falcons move the football, Leach actually believes they draw on similar concepts, both striving to distribute offensive touches evenly.

“If I didn’t throw the ball, I’d run the option,” Leach said, “and why I admire the option is I always felt like our brand of football really kind of started with the wishbone, because what the wishbone always did such a good job of is distribution. All the skill positions touch the ball and it’s pretty good at stretching the field from side to side.”

Calhoun, the longtime Air Force coach, has plenty of background knowledge when it comes to the Cougars, and he’s spent decades following Leach’s career, crediting the offensive guru for his work at Oklahoma in 1999 as an offensive coordinator.

“Oh goodness, what a challenge it is,” Calhoun said. “And it’s been that way ever since really … Mike, he’s just done a sensational job even going back at Kentucky, even prior to that. He’s just been incredible. He’s the one that truly launched Oklahoma back into such a prominent program and the job he did at both Texas Tech and certainly just an amazing job he’s done at Washington State.

“The production, the quality of their execution and really the difficulty in trying to assimilate what they do. It is going to be a gigantic challenge.”

The Cheez-It Bowl will mark the first meeting between the Pac-12 Cougars (6-6, 3-6) and the Mountain West Falcons (10-2, 7-1). Air Force carries a seven-game win streak into the postseason while WSU is coming off a 31-13 loss to Washington in the Apple Cup.

WSU has played in the bowl game once before, and so has Leach, but the appearances were separated by 14 years. The Cougars’ only trip to the Cheez-It Bowl, then named the Copper Bowl, came in 1992 when WSU beat Utah 31-28 in Tucson, Arizona.

In Drew Bledsoe’s final game as a collegian, the WSU quarterback completed 30 of 46 passes for 476 yards – a school record at the time – and threw two touchdowns to Phillip Bobo, who finished with seven receptions for 212 yards. Even after rushing out to a 21-0 lead, the Cougars needed a 22-yard field goal from Aaron Price late in the fourth quarter to seal the program’s third bowl victory.

In 2006, the game had been moved to Tempe and renamed the Insight Bowl when Leach’s seventh Texas Tech team earned a berth and staged the biggest comeback in bowl history. The Red Raiders overcame a 31-point deficit in the third quarter to edge Minnesota 44-41 in overtime, with current USC offensive coordinator and former WSU assistant Graham Harrell nabbing Offensive MVP honors. Antonio Huffman, who was Leach’s longtime Director of Football Operations at WSU, was the defensive MVP and current Cougars interim co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath had five tackle.

The Cougars, who appeared in the Sun Bowl (2015), the Holiday Bowl (2016, 2017) and the Alamo Bowl (2019), are attempting to finish with a winning record for the fifth consecutive year under Leach with what would be their third postseason victory under the eighth-year coach.

The Falcons are playing in their 10th bowl game under Calhoun, who’s been at the helm since 2007, and have a 4-5 postseason record since the 53-year-old took over.

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