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Air Force slows down WSU using ground attack in Cheez-It Bowl win

Air Force running back Kadin Remsberg (24) runs between Washington State linebacker Jahad Woods (13) and Skyler Thomas (25) in the second half during the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, in Phoenix. Air Force defeated Washington State 31-21. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — The Cheez-It Bowl between the Air Force Falcons and Washington State Cougars Friday night at Chase Field in Phoenix figured to go one of two ways.

Either Washington State would utilize the Air Raid offense to make Air Force’s dynamic run game turn into a negative with the clock winding down late, or Air Force would play keep away and run out the clock for the victory.

The latter proved to be the case as Air Force had possession of the ball for 43 minutes, a Cheez-It Bowl record, to Washington State’s 16 minutes in a 31-21 victory.

Air Force set the tone early with their first drive taking up 12 minutes and resulting in a touchdown.

“With the type of offense we run, we want to grind our opponents down,” Air Force running back Kadin Remsberg said in a press conference after the game. “Taking all that time off the clock definitely plays a mental factor in the game.”

Four of Air Force’s five scoring drives took at least six minutes off the clock, with the only outlier being a two-minute drive after recovering a fumble deep in Washington State territory.

This kept Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon, the FBS leader in passing yards, watching on the sideline for a majority of the game. He ended the game completing 28 of 42 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns, below his average of 435 yards per game.

“We didn’t want to be in a track meet,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said.

What kept Air Force chewing up the clock was their ability to convert on fourth down.

The Falcons converted all five of their fourth down attempts, including a conversion on the Washington State 3-yard-line for a touchdown by Remsberg that gave Air Force a two-possession lead with under five minutes to go in the game.

Calhoun said it was a bit of a gut decision to go for it, but added a field goal would only put Air Force up by six and give Washington State the ball in better field position. A fourth down stop would still have Washington State deep in its own territory.

Air Force’s ability to move the ball, chew up clock and convert on fourth down forced Washington State to keep up.

Even though the Cougars are known to go for it on fourth down, Washington State’s decisions to attempt fourth down conversions in the red zone mostly ended badly.

The Cougars opened the game moving the ball effectively and reached the Air Force 2-yard-line. However, they came away with nothing after going for it on fourth down and failing.

Washington State did respond in their second drive of the game, scoring a touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the Air Force 2-yard-line.

However, they tried again down by ten points at the start of the fourth quarter and failed to convert on fourth-and-goal at the Air Force 5-yard-line.

That failure loomed large as the Cougars defense forced Air Force to punt on the following drive, only the second time all night, and the offense responded by scoring a touchdown.

Due to the decision to go for it on fourth down at the goal line and failing to convert, Air Force still held a three-point lead.

“The rate they were eating the clock up, I felt like we were struggling stopping them, so I felt like it was worth it,” Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach said, adding he thought a touchdown would have put Washington State in control to possibly win the game. “I’d believe we’d get it. We have all year for the most part.”

“Kind of stuck with what got us here,” he added.

The Cougars ended up going two-for-five on fourth down conversions.

Air Force responded to the Washington State touchdown with seven-points of their own to regain ten-point lead.

The defense forced Washington State to turn the ball over on fourth down again in the following drive, ending the game.

It was a big day for Remsberg, who rushed for 186 yards to go along with his key touchdown in the fourth quarter.

He took home the offense player MVP of the bowl and achieved over 1,000 yards rushing on the season.

While he was the top rusher of the season for Air Force, Remsberg was just behind Taven Birdow in snaps within Air Force’s triple-option rushing attack that includes Remsberg, Birdow and Timoth Jackson.

Each had over 700 yards on the season.

One could also include quarterback DJ Hammond III with the trio, who scored two rushing touchdowns on the night and capped his season with over 600 yards on the ground.

Calhoun said he looked to get Remsberg more involved in the bowl game.

“We were very intentional coming into this game wanting to involve Kadin (Remsberg),” Calhoun said. “All week long he looked like he was quick and fast.”

The victory is the 11th of the season for Air Force, their best record since going 12-1 in 1998. It is also the second win in an Arizona bowl game for Air Force, as they beat South Alabama in the 2016 Arizona Bowl.

Washington State ends the season 6-7, but it’s the first time in school history the Cougars have appeared in five consecutive bowl games.