The Air Force Academy (10-3) broke records as they changed strategy, and added an air attack, to hold off the Louisville Cardinals (6–7) in the First Responder Bowl in Dallas, 31–28, on Tuesday.
AFA quarterback Haaziq Daniels was involved in all four of the Falcons touchdowns, passing for a career-high 252 yards completing nine of 10 passes, and two passing touchdowns. He also ran for two touchdowns; carrying the ball 15 times for 29 yards, of the team total 170 yards.
AFA averages 66 rushes per game in their triple-option offense, and led the FBS with 340.8 rushing yards; they had the second-fewest passing yards of 82.5 per game.
AFA top WR Brandon Lewis caught touchdown passes of 64 and 61 yards; finishing with five receptions for a career-high 172 yards. He set the AFA record for the most receiving yards this season and the most ever in the Academy’s 28 bowl apearances.
Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, FBS QB rushing leader, matched Lamar Jackson by eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards for the season; as he gained 63 yards on 12 carries. He also passed for one touchdown, on 21 passes for 207 yards; and scored his 20th rushing touchdown.
AFA opened the scoring with a 74-yard drive that was set up byDaniels’ 40-yard pass to Caleb Rillos, eventually leading to Daniels’ 5-yard touchdown run at the 2:01 mark of the first quarter.
The Falcons struck again early in the second quarter with a 3-play 73-yard drive culminating in a 61-yard bomb to Brandon Lewis for a 14–0 lead.
Louisville countered with its first touchdown on a 65 yard-drive capped off by a one yard run by Trevion Cooley with 9:24 remaining in the 2nd quarter.
AFA would score two more touchdowns on back-to-back drives of 75 yards; while Louisville would add a second touchdown off of a 100-yard kick-off return by Jawhar Jordan to finish the scoring for the half 28–14.
The Cardinals came close to a comeback with two more touchdowns in the second half; the first with four seconds remaining in the third quarter after Cunningham connected with Tyler Harrell for a 34-yard catch and run to make it 28–21.
The Cardinals defense adjusted to hold off the Falcons, until a 17 play, 66-yard drive, that took 9:36 minutes and culminated in a Matthew Dapore 26-yard field goal with 5:28 left in the game. It extended the lead to 31–21.
Cunningham got Louisville within three points, 31–28, on a 22-yard scoring run with 2:57 remaining in the game; but the Falcons were able to move the chains and keep Louisville from another possession.
The Falcons only passed for 50 yards in their last game, completing three of five attempts; this was a much different game plan. “We practiced hard this week coming into the Bowl,” said Daniels. “Trust in our coaches, trust that the routes are going to be ran right, and for (me) to deliver the ball right.”
Louisville was missing three players from illness; including redshirt freshman running back Jalen Mitchell, who led the team rushing with 722 yards.
The Cardinals won’t be missing Cunningham next year as he had already made the decision to return. “I wanted to go out for my last year with a better record than we did,” said Cunningham. “We have a lot of players coming back and I want to develop more as a quarterback, which I did this year, but take it to another level.”
Cunningham and the Cardinals will kick-off next season away to meet USF on Sept. 10; and Air Force will host Northern Iowa on Sept. 3.