Dallas, TX – Tuesday’s matchup in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl was the first meeting between Air Force and Louisville. It was only the second time the Cardinals played a bowl game in Texas and the first time in sixty-three years (1958 Sun Bowl vs. Drake). For Air Force, it was their eighth bowl game in Texas, but their first First Responder Bowl in school history. Again, it was an offensive show from an unlikely source as the Falcons used the air rather than the ground game to withstand the Cardinals 31-28.
Air Force is not known for its passing attack. The Falcons finished the 2021 college football season with less than 1,000 passing yards (the only other team was Navy). Air Force also entered Tuesday, throwing fifteen total passes combined in their last three games. However, the aerial game plan was an aspect of Air Force’s game that Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield figured would happen. “We did not play good on the perimeter on the outside on those throws, but I want to give [Air Force] credit,” Satterfield said after the game. “We were playing man-to-man, and our guys have got to win, and their guy won.”
The afternoon started slowly for both offenses but picked up on Louisville’s second possession. The Cardinals took it down the field for forty-one yards but stalled the drive ending with a 44 yard missed field goal by Louisville’s James Turner. “It gives up confidence going into our drives when we can rely on our defense,” Air Force-wide receiver Brandon Lewis told me after the game when I asked him about holding Louisville scoreless after the first three drives. “We don’t start overthinking things [and] we can stick to our game plan.”
Immediately after the missed field goal Haaziq Daniels threw his first pass of the game, a forty-yard completion to Caleb Rillos resulting in a Daniels five-yard touchdown run, putting Air Force up 7-0. After another Louisville punt, the Falcons gained more momentum on a Brandon Lewis touchdown catch making multiple Cardinals miss. Air Force ended the first half by scoring a touchdown on their final four possessions. However, Louisville’s special teams kept them in the game with a 100-yard kickoff return by Jawhar Jordan to cut the Falcons’ lead back to seven (21-14). Haaziq Daniels closed the half with a one-yard touchdown run capping off a near-perfect offensive half for Air Force.
“There’s an identifier that brings you to the pathway to the ball, and we didn’t identify. Usually, when that doesn’t happen, there tends to be a lane there. They’re darn good with the return game,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said after the game regarding the kickoff return by Jordan in the second quarter.
The second half was all about ball control. After Air Force punted, Louisville took the ball down the field on a near-seven-minute drive that the Cardinals wound up turning the ball over on downs at the Falcons two-yard line. “We ran that play probably three or four times. Which it worked every single time up until that point,” Louisville running back Trevion Cooley said after the game on the fourth-down call. The Cardinals’ defense forced another punt and then, in ninety seconds towards the end of the third, crawled back within seven points on a Tyler Harrell 34 yard pass from Malik Cunningham. However, the kicker for the Cardinals was that a nine-minute drive followed by Air Force, resulting in a red-zone field goal, extending the lead by two scores. Louisville answered with a touchdown but couldn’t get the ball back as Air Force picked up two first downs to close the game.
Haaziq Daniels threw ten passes all afternoon and completed nine. “I figured we would do it more than we did in the last game,” Calhoun chuckled after the game. Daniels set a bowl record for highest completion percentage in a First Responder Bowl (ninety percent). “It’s a good feeling for all the work you put in before and all season. It’s a good feeling when it shows,” Daniels, the bowl MVP, told me after the game.
Meantime it was a slow start for Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham, but he finished the afternoon with 207 yards, and the team finished just under 200 rushing yards. “It wasn’t in sync, and we weren’t clicking early in the game,” Satterfield said. “When we came back in the game and started settling in, we were able to make some plays throwing the football, and then we settled in in the throwing game.”
It was a great moment for both teams and their seniors who experienced a bowl game in 2021 where many schools haven’t been able to due to COVID, transfers, and opt-outs. “It was an amazing opportunity,” Louisville linebacker CJ Avery told me after the game. “I wouldn’t take any opportunity that I get to step on the football field for granted. I love the game of football, and I’m sad that some of those guys didn’t get to play their last game. I did, and I’m grateful for that.”