Troy Calhoun has exceeded some people's expectations as Air Force's coach.
After becoming the first academy graduate to become the Falcons head coach, the team was coming off three consecutive losing seasons. He was told by some it'd be an accomplishment to get to one bowl over the next five years.
"We only had five starters coming back into the season, three back on offense two, back on defense and I remember about the first two weeks we were in August, we were a long, long ways away from being a Bowl team," said Calhoun. "When we earned this chance, we knew we were going to a special place and we have been fortunate to come to Fort Worth."
Now, Air Force (6-6) will makes its school-record sixth consecutive bowl appearance on Saturday, against Rice (6-6) in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
"I think you are going to see one heck of a football game. I think probably the real test for us is just the size differential. These guys are thick, they are bright-eyed kids also and that's probably your No. 1 concern, just up front not getting overwhelmed with how much bigger they are," Calhoun said.
Regarding the size differential, it's something the players at Air Force have become accustomed to.
“The size thing, you just gotta really trust your techniques. Following your assignments is really important. It’s not something we focus on week-to-week because we usually face guys who are bigger than we are. It’s not something we can let get into our heads because we can’t do much about it. We play efficient, we try to play smart and that helps us," said Air Force defensive lineman Nick DiJulio. “Technique, strength, mobility is a big part of that. Being a little smaller, you are usually a little quicker and that helps when you are facing bigger guys.”
Having the upper-hand in size is not something Rice is familiar with either, however.
“I was laughing, because I think that’s the first time we’ve ever heard that," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. "The vast majority of the time when we line up against somebody we’re significantly smaller than they are. But that’s something that Air Force faces week in and week out. I’m sure Michigan was a lot bigger than them and Air Force almost beat them (losing 31-25). They’re used to playing undersized. They use leverage well. But we’re going to rely on our offensive line. They’ve done a great job for us all season, and we expect the same this week."
Like Rice, which had to win its last four games just to be bowl eligible, the Falcons want to finish with a winning record.
"We sure want to compete and we think it will be a very competitive game. We know the type of young men that the Air Force Academy attracts: They are going to fight you for 60 minutes, and you'd better be able to go toe to toe with them because it's not going to be over until the zeros hit on the clock," said Rice head coach David Bailiff.
The Armed Forces Bowl returns to TCU's Amon Carter Stadium this year after stadium upgrades required the game to relocate to SMU's Ford Field.
In the stands watching the two teams go head to head will be members of the wounded warrior project--including Bedford-resident Steve Mccarty who served in Iraq from Sept 2006 to April 2007.
"It gives me something different to do it's not every day that you get to go to a bowl game," Mccarty said. "It takes your mind off of everyday trials and tribulations of being a wounded veteran."
The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl kicks off at 10:45 a.m. Saturday and is the first of three bowl games to be played in DFW. The Heart of Dallas Bowl will be played New Year's Day at the Cotton Bowl in Fair Park and the Cotton Bowl will be played Jan. 4 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Game Preview Stats:
Rice (6-6) vs. Air Force (6-6), 11:45 a.m. EST (ESPN)
Line: Air Force by 3
Series Record: Air Force leads 5-1
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Both teams are trying to finish with a winning record. Rice is going for its fifth victory in a row to end its 101st football season. This is only the Owls' third bowl game in 51 years. Air Force is playing in its school-record sixth consecutive bowl game, and fourth Armed Forces Bowl (1-2) in that span.
Rice defense against Air Force offense, which is second nationally with 329 yards rushing per game. So how much do the Falcons run the ball? They have only 17 pass attempts in their last three games, including none in one of those games. Rice is 91st nationally in rushing defense, allowing 193 yards per game. The Owls gave up at least 333 yards rushing in three of the first four games, but no more than 148 the last four games and held Tulane to 0 yards on the ground.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rice: K Chris Boswell has an NCAA-leading six field goals of at least 50 yards, and 11 in his career are most among active kickers. Boswell tied an NCAA record with three 50-yard kicks in the regular-season finale. His 19 field goals overall are a single-season Rice record.
Air Force: QB Connor Dietz graduated from the academy earlier this month and will play as a commissioned officer (second lieutenant). He has completed 67 of 108 passes for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns, and has rushed for 658 yards with five touchdowns in his only season as the starter.
FACTS & FIGURES
Ken Hatfield coached at both schools, at Air Force from 1979-83, and Rice from 1984-2006. ... Jamael Thomas and Jared Williams, fifth-year senior defensive linemen for Rice, have been teammates since the seventh grade. ... This is the 10th Armed Forces Bowl, and the game is back at its original home on the TCU campus. It was played at SMU the last two years while the TCU stadium was completely redone. ... Rice is 13-20-1 at Amon Carter Stadium, and Air Force is 1-7 there. Both used to be conference foes with TCU, and this is the Falcon's fourth bowl game there.
NBC 5's Andres Gutierrez contributed to this story.