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2011 Military Bowl Preview

Toledo Rockets vs Air Force Falcons

You might think that a late December bowl played on a Wednesday afternoon in a stadium no longer used for NFL football will be a complete and total dud.

You would be wrong to dismiss the 2011 Military Bowl in such fashion.

When the Toledo Rockets play the Air Force Falcons at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., a fascinating football chess match could emerge, satisfying pigskin connoisseurs across the country.

Don’t look at the outer labels of these teams when assessing the Toledo-Air Force matchup. It’s true that the Mid-American Conference is the tenth-strongest league in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ahead of only the Sun Belt. However, the team from Toledo that is making its way to the nation’s capital city is much more accomplished than its MAC identifier or its 8-4 record would initially indicate. Coach Tim Beckman has done high-quality work with a team that fell apart on defense in the one game it couldn’t afford to lose, a home date with MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois earlier this season. When Toledo lost that 63-60 shootout, it lost leverage in its division and thereby was denied in its quest for a conference championship… a conference championship Northern Illinois won the other night in Detroit over Ohio University. In the rest of its 2011 schedule, however, Toledo has performed with distinction.

The Rockets have four losses to their credit, and all of them were noble in some way, even the shootout loss to a distinguished Northern Illinois squad. One of Toledo’s losses, in fact, shouldn’t have been a loss. The Rockets watched Syracuse miss an extra point late in regulation, which should have set up the Rockets for a game-winning field goal attempt on their subsequent drive. Yet, the Big East replay booth inexplicably upheld a call on the field which signaled that the kick was good. Toledo did kick a field goal on its ensuing drive, but instead of producing a 30-29 win, the three-pointer merely created overtime at 30-all. Syracuse won the game 33-30 in overtime, creating one of the bigger on-field controversies of the 2011 season.

Toledo’s other losses had their share of nobility: The Rockets lost by five points at Ohio State and were denied in the Buckeyes’ red zone on the final play of regulation. Toledo also pushed Boise State hard before committing a devastating red-zone turnover midway through the third quarter to lose hope of an upset. Toledo is still viewed by many observers as the most complete team in the MAC. Again, its defense simply fell apart on the one night when it needed to be remotely competent. That’s why the Rockets are here and not in the Bowl against Sun Belt champion Arkansas State.

On the other side of the divide, it might be similarly easy to view Air Force as a ho-hum team this year, and frankly, the Falcons have not had their best season under head coach Troy Calhoun. A 7-5 campaign with home-field losses to Wyoming and San Diego State certainly ranks as a subpar season in Colorado Springs. However, Air Force retained the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy this season and played Boise State on relatively even terms for four hard-fought quarters on the smurf turf of Idaho. This is still a fun team to watch with quarterback Tim Jefferson directing an offense that gives defensive coordinators dozens of different looks per game, often changing formations before the snap. If you love thoughtful and creative uses of personnel, Calhoun – like Beckman from Toledo – loves to mix things up. This game will be a delight to watch from a play caller’s perspective. It will offer a seminar on how to throw defenses off balance with shifts and other pre-snap realignments.

The records suggest this is not an interesting game. If you look beyond the outer layers of Toledo’s and Air Force’s profiles, however, you’ll see that there’s much more to these teams than meets the eye.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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