When the University of South Alabama first reached a postseason game in 2014, no other new football program had made it to a bowl as quickly as the Jaguars. As momentous an accomplishment as that was, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl was just 170 miles up Interstate 65 in Montgomery.
The logistics will certainly be different this week. USA must travel more than 1,500 miles to take part in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl in Tucson. The Jaguars face the Air Force Academy at 4:30 p.m. Central time on Friday, Dec. 30.
The Falcons won their last five games to complete the regular season 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the Mountain West Conference. South Alabama is 6-6 overall and finished with a 2-6 mark in the Sun Belt.
“We’ve enjoyed following the progress of these talented football teams all season long and have been so impressed with their performance and their growth on the gridiron,” said Ali Farhang, chairman of the bowl committee. “Coaches Troy Calhoun and Joey Jones and these young men have a lot to be proud of, and we’re really looking forward to the energy and spirit that both teams will bring to our bowl.”
Jones said his players are ready for another long trip. The team already played at Idaho in the regular season.
“I think the intensity level has ratcheted up some this week because they know it is getting closer to the game,” Jones said prior to leaving Mobile. “They know we have to have a great week of practice because next week is going to be a lot of polish getting ready for the game, so these will be the last three physical practices that we have starting tomorrow.”
Jones and his staff said they are not making too many changes going into the bowl game.
“We’ve pretty much got it all in and are trying to go over it all again,” said Jones, who is 48-41 in his eight years in Mobile. “The coaches did a great job of segmenting it during the first few practices. Defensively we are not going to do a lot because we have to be able to run and tackle; we are going over the different things they are going to see from each look. Offensively we have it all in with a simplified game plan, we just have to execute.”
Season to remember
The 2016 season will be one USA fans will not soon forget. The Jaguars became the only league program to beat a Southeastern Conference school, winning at Mississippi State. South followed that with a victory over San Diego State, which was ranked 19th in the Associated Press poll at the time and went on to capture the Mountain West championship.
Helping to accomplish these milestones were 10 players who were selected to the All-Sun Belt Conference team. Seniors Gerald Everett and Randy Allen, along with junior Jeremy Reaves, were named first-team.
Wide receiver Josh Magee and punter Brandon McKee both earned second-team honors, while linebacker Roman Buchanan, safety Kalen Jackson, running back Xavier Johnson and wide receiver Kevin Kutchera received honorable-mention notice. Junior linebacker Darrell Songy was the Jaguars’ representative on the All-Newcomer Team.
Everett becomes the only two-time first-team all-Sun Belt selection at South. As a tight end, he led the Jags for the second straight year with 49 receptions and 717 yards to go with four touchdowns. He will play one more game in Mobile, as he was selected to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
The all-star honor was a first for Allen. He emerged as one of the top defensive linemen this year, with 64 total tackles including 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Allen also forced three fumbles.
Reaves earned a berth on the second-team roster last season as a defensive back. He followed up this year with 77 total tackles and three interceptions.
Falcons flying high
Air Force is the third Mountain West opponent South will face in the program’s eight seasons of competition. In the 2012 finale, the Jags lost at Hawaii. In 2015, they won at San Diego State before completing the sweep this fall at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“This is a great location,” Air Force Academy head coach Troy Calhoun said of Tucson. “How many people would love to be in the state of Arizona in late December in a bowl game? This is a great, great place; again with how great they are with the military and to play an excellent opponent. We’re playing a squad that beat an SEC team and beat our conference champion earlier this year.”
Calhoun is an Air Force alumnus. In his 10 seasons in Colorado Springs, his teams have a 76-53 record and have appeared in nine bowl games. The Falcons are 11-13-1 in postseason action.
The star of this team has been senior safety Weston Steelhammer. He has been named an All-American by the Associated Press (third-team) and The Sporting News (second-team). A three-time all-conference pick, Steelhammer leads the Falcons in tackles with 74 and has 4.5 tackles for a loss. The NCAA’s active career leader with 17 interceptions, he was also a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which recognizes Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.
Steelhammer had nine teammates join him on the all-Mountain West squad. Senior defensive lineman Ryan Watson was on the first-team roster, while seniors Jalen Robinette (wide receiver) and Brodie Hicks (defensive back) and junior Luke Strebel (kicker) made the second-team. On the honorable mention list were seniors Haji Dunn Jr. (linebacker), Colin Sandor (offensive lineman) and Dylan Vail (offensive lineman) plus junior Tim McVey (kick returner).
Jaguar fans making the trip have two events set for Thursday. A downtown block party on Toole Avenue is scheduled for 3-8 p.m. local time, while the JagNation Central Party follows at HiFi Kitchen & Cocktails from 8 p.m. to midnight.
On game day, the JagNation Tailgate will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time at the UofA Mall. Pregame ceremonies will get underway at 2:45 p.m.
For those unable to make the trip to Arizona, the game will be broadcast on the American Sports Network. Carrying the game locally will be WJTC-TV 44. The contest can also be heard on 99.5-FM The Jag. For the most up-to-date bowl information, visit www.usajaguars.com.