DALLAS – Air Force changed its strategy Tuesday for the First Responder Bowl, taking inspiration from its name and trying out its passing game. It worked.
Haaziq Daniels threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more to give Air Force a 31-28 win over Louisville.
Daniels completed 9 of 10 passes for a season-high 252 yards, leading a triple-option offense that came into the game averaging an FBS-best 340.8 rushing yards and the second-fewest passing yards at 82.5 per game.
The Falcons (10-3) didn’t throw a pass in their final game of the regular season, a 48-14 win over UNLV, and took a streak of 94 straight rushes from scrimmage into their second possession Tuesday.
“I figured we’d (pass) more then we did in the last game,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun joked. “I just think sometimes you get in games, you make adjustments.”
Louisville coach Scott Satterfield lamented his shorthanded secondary getting beat on man-to-man coverage. The Cardinals (6-7) were missing defensive back Kenderick Duncan (injured) and Greedy Vance, who is transferring to Florida State.
“Anytime you play a team like this, they’re going to take a shot,” Satterfield said. “They connect – they’re going to come back to it again.”
Senior Brandon Lewis had touchdown catches of 64 and 61 yards for the Falcons, finishing with five receptions for a career-high 172 yards. That’s the most receiving yardage for an Air Force player this season and the most ever in the Falcons’ 28 bowl games.
“I feel like I could have been doing this all season,” Lewis said. “I’m just happy that I did do it in my final game.”
Matthew Dapore kicked a 26-yard field goal with 5:28 left to give the Falcons a two-score lead.
Louisville’s Malik Cunningham threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Harrell and ran for a 22-yard touchdown with 2:57 to play. Jawhar Jordan returned a kickoff 100 yards and Trevion Cooley had a 1-yard run for the Cardinals’ other touchdowns.
Cooley, a freshman, had 92 yards rushing for Louisville. Redshirt freshman Jalen Mitchell, who led the Cardinals during the season with 722 rushing yards, was out with an illness.
Louisville’s James Turner had a 44-yard field-goal attempt sail left in the first quarter, and the Cardinals were stopped on fourth-and-goal at the Falcons’ 2-yard line early in the third quarter when Cooley was tackled by Camby Goff and Trey Taylor.
“We ran the play probably three of four times, which, it worked every single time up until that point,” Cooley said. “It was my job to really punch it in.”
Daniels ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Air Force a 7-0 lead and a 1-yard score in the final minute of the second quarter to put the Falcons ahead 28-14.
Air Force: The No. 6 overtime loss to Army prevented the Falcons from winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2016 instead of settling for a three-way tie. They recorded double-digit wins for the fourth time in Calhoun’s 15 seasons.
Louisville: The Cardinals had their second straight losing record. Tuesday’s loss was the fourth by one score. “If that one play is made (in those games), it’s a totally different season,” senior linebacker C.J. Avery said.
With Air Force beating Louisville and Houston defeating Auburn earlier Tuesday in the Birmingham Bowl, Power Five programs are 0-5 in bowls against teams from the Group of Five or independents.
Cunningham (13 of 21 passing for 207 yards, 12 carries for 63 yards) became the second Louisville quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,031), and the 100 touchdowns he’s responsible for are second to Lamar Jackson’s 119. Cunningham will return for his fifth season in 2022. . Air Force senior fullback Brad Roberts had 20 carries, giving him a school-record 314 career rushes.
Air Force: The Falcons will begin the 2022 season on Sept. 3 against Northern Iowa at home and then host Colorado to Colorado Springs the following week.
Louisville: The Cardinals will open at UCF on Sept. 10 and face South Florida before jumping into ACC play.