SHREVEPORT, La. — Georgia Tech and Air Force often have the advantage of sneaking up on opponents, thanks to their run-first, triple-option offenses that seem like dinosaurs in today’s college football world.
There will be no ambushes in Monday’s Independence Bowl, though. The Yellow Jackets and Falcons instead might feel like they’re looking into a mirror.
Georgia Tech (6-6) is the nation’s top rushing team, averaging 327 yards per game, while Air Force (8-4) is right behind at more than 317 yards per game. There are some subtle differences to each team’s scheme — both coaches agree that Air Force likes to take a zone-read approach — but there’s no doubt that there will be very few surprises.
“There’s probably more similarities than there are differences,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “The bottom line is it doesn’t really matter what you do, it really comes down to execution.”
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun agreed, but said with both teams so familiar with each other, it might come down to which team is able to strike through the air at the perfect moment.
“The key part is what happens in the passing game,” Calhoun said. “How efficient are you going to be when you do end up throwing the football? And then defensively, how well do you defend the big play?”
In that regard, it appears the Falcons would have an advantage.
Georgia Tech will be playing without its star quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who is out with a broken right arm. The veteran is the most prolific running quarterback in ACC history, and even though his completion percentage (37.1 percent) wasn’t pretty, he had thrown seven touchdown passes this season.
Now it’s up to Tevin Washington, who completed 20 of 48 passes for 376 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions this season.
Air Force has a more balanced offense. Tim Jefferson has completed 52.2 percent of his passes for 1,342 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also rushed for 769 yards and 15 touchdowns.
But the Yellow Jackets’ real issues come from self-inflicted wounds. Earlier in the week, four players were ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game. The most costly include leading receiver Stephen Hill and starting safety Mario Edwards.
Then on Sunday, Johnson announced that three players — defensive end Anthony Egbuniwe and defensive backs Michael Peterson and Louis Young — will miss the first half of Monday’s game for a curfew violation. Egbuniwe’s 59 tackles are fifth on the team.
Though disappointed, Johnson said the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t use the issues as a crutch.
“We’ve got guys who can still play,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to show up to play. We don’t have any excuses. One man’s misery is another man’s opportunity”
Starting defensive tackle Jason Peters agreed.
“I think we’re mature to handle the situation,” he said. “That’s something we can’t control. We’ve got to have some young guys step up.”
Calhoun said the Falcons’ gameplan might change slightly to take advantage of a particular matchup because of Georgia Tech’s personnel issues, but there wouldn’t be any major strategy adjustments.
“They’re going to have a darn good football player out there no matter who it is,” Calhoun said.
While Georgia Tech has suffered through a disappointing season, barely qualifying for the program’s 14th straight bowl appearance, Air Force sees the game as an opportunity to prove itself against a program from a conference that automatically qualifies for the Bowl Championship Series.
The Falcons nearly knocked off Oklahoma on the road earlier this season before losing 27-24. This time around, leading receiver Jonathan Warzeka wants to finish the job.
Air Force also figures to have the homefield advantage — Barksdale Air Force Base is located just miles away from Independence Stadium.
“I’d say we’re pretty evenly matched across the board,” Warzeka said. “I think it comes down to who wants it more. We’ll give our best and they’ll give our best and it’ll probably come down to a few plays here or there.”