South Alabama is seeking the first bowl victory in program history. The Jaguars will have to beat a hot Air Force team to get it.
The Falcons (9-3) are looking to end the season on a six-game winning streak when they play the Jaguars (6-6) in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium.
"For us seniors, if you can't get excited for your last game, something is wrong with you," said defensive back Weston Steelhammer. "We have a great, quality, opponent. We have a chance to win ten games. That hasn't bee done too many times in school history.
It would be Air Force's seventh 10-win season in academy history. The Falcons start ten seniors on defense.
"I think this is probably the oldest team that we've had," said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose team beat then-No. 19 Boise State to end the regular season.
"I think maybe we've had squads that perhaps were more talented, but we have 32 seniors and as you go through each one of those guys, there are some major and significant contributors in a variety of roles."
But South Alabama won't be a pushover. The Jaguars went 4-0 in non-conference games, opening the season with a win at Mississippi State and posting a home victory over eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State.
The Jaguars struggled in the Sun Belt, going only 2-6, but beat New Mexico State in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible and advance to the postseason for the second time in the program's eight-year history. South Alabama lost to Bowling Green in the 2014 Camellia Bowl.
"We're excited about the practice we're getting, and the kids have taken advantage of it," said Jaguars coach Joey Jones. "We've had some real good practices. They realize one of our goals is to go win a bowl game, and they still have that opportunity ahead of them."
"We have a chance to do something legendary, something that hasn't been done in this program's history," said safety Devon Earl.
To achieve that goal, South Alabama will have to stop an Air Force triple-option attack that averages 322.8 rushing yards per game, third in the nation.
The Falcons didn't much miss a beat after starting senior quarterback Nate Romine missed the final month of the regular season because of an ankle injury. Sophomore Arion Worthman took over and ended up as one of four Air Force players with more than 600 rushing yards.
"Arion is enormously bright," Calhoun said. "I mean, a super, super bright guy with some really strong leadership skills."
Worthman is averaging 100.5 rushing yards per game. Running back Jacobi Owens had a team-high 785 yards. Running back Timothy McVey averaged 8.3 yards per carry and has 10 rushing touchdowns.
South Alabama allows 212.1 rushing yards per game, ranking 98th in the nation.
In addition to running the ball well, Air Force is able to stop the run. The Falcons are ranked 15th nationally, allowing 118.0 yards per game on the ground.
"We're going to have to sling the ball around," said South Alabama quarterback Dallas Davis.
Davis is completing 57.8 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He will have to be wary of three-time All-Mountain West safety Weston Steelhammer, who has six interceptions this season and 17 for his career to tie the school mark.
South Alabama's leading rusher is Xavier Johnson, who has 787 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Close games have been a hallmark of both teams. Air Force is 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. South Alabama is 4-4 in those situations.
This is the second year of the Arizona Bowl. Nevada beat Colorado State 28-23 last season.The game can be seen on CW Tucson.