Air Force’s Running Attack Ascends Past James Madison 31-21 in the Armed Forces Bowl

FORT WORTH, TX - DECEMBER 23: Air Force running back Emmanuel Michel (4) celebrates after pivotal first down in the fourth quarter of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium on December 23, 2023 in Fort Worth TX. Air Force beat James Madison 31-21. Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

Ft Worth, TX- Saturday was the first meeting between the schools. In addition, the nineteen wins between James Madison and Air Force tied for the second-most wins between the schools in an Armed Forces Bowl (2017 between San Diego State and Army had 19, and 2003 had Boise State and TCU combine for 22 wins). Both schools started the season 8-0. James Madison was an overtime loss away from an undefeated season, while Air Force dropped their last four to end the season.

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun gets a celebratory soaking from defenseman Bo Richter (8) at the conclusion of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News)

“It’s been a crazy year to go 11-1 in the regular season after the second year transitioning to the FBS. The adversity we had was that the coaching staff that departed went to Indiana. You can ask for a better finish, but as a team, we finished the way we wanted to, which is to be together,” Phoenix Sproles said.

James Madison entered the afternoon, allowing 61.5 rushing yards per game in 2023 (best in NCAA). However, the Air Force prides itself on their running attack, averaging 275.8 rushing yards/per game this season. “Bring the best, and let us show you what we got,” Running back Emmanuel Michel said after the game as they ran for 203 yards on 35 carries in Saturday’s win. “We’re just competitors that way. The diesels (offensive line) really just took that challenge and took it head on and just opened lanes for me and other guys that carried the rock today.”

Quarterback Zac Larrier responded when I asked about James Madison as the best run defense in the NCAA entering Saturday. “It’s not like we took it personal and that they were number one, but we definitely did take it personal that we weren’t number one in rush yards on the year.” The Liberty Flames averaged 302.9 rushing yards a game this season.

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: Air Force running back Emmanuel Michel (4) breaks free for a 31-yard run during the third quarter. Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

It was the Falcons’ offense that pushed forward to start. The first run went for 54 yards by Emmanuel Michel, and the drive ended on eight carries for 86 yards with a touchdown for Air Force to put them up 7-0. It was only the fourth time in 2023 that James Madison’s defense allowed 80 or more rushing yards in a game. Senior lineman Jamree Kromah talked about the defense’s preparation against the rushing attack of Air Force and how the scout team tried to replicate it in getting ready for the Falcons.

“Later in the game, as we got adjusted to the speed and everything, trust our training, you kind of saw a lot of positive things in our defense,” Kromah said. “The only thing affected us is the explosives. Yet it has arisen but would lead them to scoring the ball is explosive plays.”

On the ensuing possession for James Madison, the Dukes went down the field in seven plays and 75 yards, ending with Phoenix Sproles’ 18-yard catch in the corner of the end zone from Jordan McCloud. McCloud threw for 62 yards on the touchdown drive, ending the first quarter even at 7.

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: James Madison quarterback Jordan McCloud (2) is sacked by Air Force linebacker Bo Richter (8) during the fourth quarter. Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

In the second, James Madison drove inside the Air Force 25, but McCloud threw a floating pass intercepted by Johnathan Youngblood, ending the Dukes’ threat and setting up Air Force’s second touchdown. Air Force went down the field in seven plays and 76 yards, culminating in another Michel score, but it was a 51-yard run by John Lee Eldridge to the Dukes’ 5-yard line that set up the 1-yard score. Both teams punted in their next two possessions as the Falcons’ defense got to McCloud throughout the quarter.

“At some point, naturally as a quarterback, you want to be able to take three and a reset and know it’s one-to-two in terms of your progression, and there’s a rhythm that you want to have as a quarterback,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said regarding the pressure on McCloud throughout the game. “Then all of a sudden, things are a little closer to you, or somebody’s moving you off the spot. Now you’ve disintegrated that rhythm.

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: James Madison receiver Elijah Sarratt (13) looks to avoid Air Force defensive back Jayden Goodwin (16) during the first quarter. Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

Then the Falcons did something they only did twice in the first half: throw a pass. Zac Larrier threw a deep slant to Jared Roznos for a 42-yard touchdown to close out the half and put Air Force up 21-7 at the break. In 2023, the Falcons averaged 88.3 passing yards/game, while James Madison ranked the tenth worst passing defense in NCAA this season (267.1 yards/game).

James Madison’s defense stepped up to start the second half. After Air Force couldn’t convert a 4th and 2 at midfield, the Dukes stormed down the field in five plays, which capped with a Kaelon Black end zone catch by McCloud (Black was wide open in the corner) to cut the Air Force lead back to 7 at 21-14.

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier (9) pitches the ball to Falcons running back John Lee Eldridge III (not shown). Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

Air Force followed the Dukes’ score by doing their specialty and running down the field in 9 plays and 75 yards. Larrier threw twice, but Michel’s 31-yard up-the-middle carry set up the “tush-push” touchdown by Zac Larrier. On the next drive, the Air Force ate up the clock, which resulted in a Matthew Dapore field goal. The drive lasted 17 plays and just under 10 minutes to extend the Air Force lead to 31-14.

In the final minutes, McCloud found Sproles in the end zone for his second touchdown, but James Madison couldn’t recover the onside kick; therefore, Air Force ran out the clock to secure the win. “I’m in complete ahh of our guys,” Calhoun said. “Our players [and] coaches, it’s amazing what they do as far as being able to handle that kind of academic load [and] all their military demands and still able to play competitive football.”

FORT WORTH, TX – DECEMBER 23: James Madison quarterback Jordan McCloud (2) throws a third quarter touchdown. Photo by Jeff Dahila / fi360 News

“I’m frustrated at the loss,” James Madison interim head coach Damian Wroblewski said. “I’m proud of the team, aggravated at our execution at times and consistency of execution. But I’m also thankful and joyful that I got to spend three weeks leading these guys.”

Saturday was Air Force’s fifth straight bowl win, and their last three came in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Especially being here, and I know we recruit out of Texas a lot. [But] being able to show out and show some guys how we play the game and show them what brand of football we play and allow them to make a decision out of high school [and] show them what we got, it’s good. It’s good to let them see us play, and then the new generation will come in, and a lot will be from Texas.” Linebacker Bo Richter talked about the Air Force upperclassmen’s success in bowl games in the DFW area.