California-Air Force Preview
An intriguing matchup of teams with contrasting styles should make the Armed Forces Bowl an entertaining affair.
What promises to draw far more attention, however, is the potential final collegiate game for California quarterback Jared Goff.
Goff leads the Golden Bears' high-powered passing attack into a meeting with Air Force and its ball-controlled ground game Tuesday in Fort Worth, Texas.
There are many that feel Goff will be the first quarterback selected in April's draft provided he decides to skip his senior season. He has many of the attributes NFL teams crave with a 6-foot-4 frame, strong arm and the ability to extend a play.
Goff was a second-team all-Pac-12 selection and broke many of Aaron Rodgers' passing records as Cal's career leader in yards (11,733) and touchdowns (90).
This was another outstanding season for Goff, who broke his own school records for passing yards (4,252) and TD passes (37), and closed the regular season with a school-record 542 yards and five scores in a 48-46 win over Arizona State. He became only the ninth Pac-12 quarterback to throw for 4,000 or more yards in a season.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun had high praise for Goff.
"Remarkable player. Tremendous arm. Accurate passer. A guy that gets it down the field," he said. "A guy that's got great, great feel in the pocket. He makes in-rhythm throws, yet at the same time it's the things that he does that drives you absolutely nuts that are out of design and create a little more space and bigger plays."
It's no surprise the Golden Bears (7-5) chose to throw the ball often with Goff at the helm, ranking sixth in the country with 513 attempts. That became more of a necessity with tailback Daniel Lasco limited to eight games and 331 yards in an injury-riddled campaign after he rushed for 1,151 last season.
Also making that an easy decision is the group of receivers Goff has at his disposal. Cal is the only team in the nation boasting six players with at least 35 receptions, 450 yards and two touchdowns. Bryce Treggs (41 catches, 813 yards, 6 TDs), Kenny Lawler (47, 583, 10) and Trevor Davis (38, 653, 2) headline that group.
All that offense, though, wasn't enough to prevent Cal from an inconsistent season, one that started with five consecutive wins before quickly heading downhill.
The fast start put the Golden Bears in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009 and they moved as high as No. 19 before allowing 141 points during a four-game losing streak in conference play. Cal did rebound to win two of its final three, overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit behind Goff's stellar performance in the finale.
That win assured the Golden Bears of finishing over .500 for the first time since 2011.
"That's a very, very consistent program and that's where we want to go," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said of Air Force. "That's where we'd like to be that year in and year out you're going to bowl games."
One way to limit Goff's effectiveness is to keep him off the field, and Air Force's offensive style could go a long way toward that. The Falcons feature the country's No. 2 rushing attack with 322.1 yards per game and rank 21st in time of possession.
"We certainly haven't seen anything like this in a long time," Dykes said. "They do a tremendous job running their offense. They're very precise in what they do. Really good football teams have an identity. And this team definitely has an identity."
Jacobi Owens is the team's leading rusher with 1,013 yards and 5.4 per carry, becoming the fourth player in school history with two 1,000-yard seasons. Air Force led the nation with six players rushing for 100 or more yards in a game.
Karson Roberts was not among that group though he is one of 12 quarterbacks in the FBS to run, pass and catch a touchdown this season. He ranks second on the Falcons with 674 rushing yards and is tied for the team lead with nine TDs on the ground.
Playing at a neutral site will be a challenge for Air Force (8-5), which won all six of its home games while losing five of seven on the road. Its latest road contest resulted in a 27-24 defeat to San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference title game Dec. 5.
It was the second straight loss for the Falcons following a five-game win streak that saw them average 38.4 points with road victories over Hawaii and Boise State.
Air Force has already faced one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Michigan State's Connor Cook, who threw four touchdowns in the Spartans' 35-21 win Sept. 19.
This will be Air Force's fifth Armed Forces Bowl appearance after losing three of the first four. The Falcons have a 3-4 bowl record under Calhoun, including last season's 38-24 victory over Western Michigan in the Potato Bowl.
California has won six of eight meetings with Air Force, overcoming a 21-0 deficit for a 42-36 victory in the 2007 Armed Forces Bowl in the most recent.