Locked and loaded: Baylor football readies for chilly Armed Forces Bowl

Fifth-year senior tight end Ben Sims (8) celebrates a 14-yard touchdown catch from sophomore quarterback Blake Shapen during a conference game against No. 23 University of Texas on Nov. 25 at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics.

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Ice-cold weather conditions, a rival’s stadium and lots of rushing yards.

Those are three things Baylor football fans can expect when the team meets the United States Air Force Academy’s football program in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Thursday. The game is set to kick off at 6:30 p.m. from Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth — home of the Bears’ Big 12 rival, No. 3 Texas Christian University.

The forecast is not a desirable one, as warnings of dangerous wind chills and temperatures well below freezing are expected. The impending weather already canceled pregame activities, including the giant American flag that is typically presented during the national anthem, which has become a prominent part of the Armed Forces Bowl.

With fewer than 24 hours until kickoff, the current forecast is predicting wind chills as low as 15 below zero.

In terms of battling the frigid conditions, Baylor (6-6, 4-5 Big 12) head coach Dave Aranda told reporters on Wednesday that “it is the mindset going into it” that really matters. He said that approach is how you are able to handle it and overcome the freezing wind chills.

“There have been games in all of our past with our players where you can’t feel your fingers anymore,” Aranda said. “You can’t say the words you want to say because your mouth doesn’t work anymore, and your toes are cold. Meanwhile, there is a great opposing force coming at you unrelenting.”

The third-year head coach added that “this is the ‘who wants it [the] most’ bowl” and that “we have to fully attack that and put our best effort” to take down Air Force (9-3, 5-3 MW Mountain).

“We have so much respect for our opponent and seeing how the coaches and players in how they move and treat people,” Aranda said. “It is humbling to me to be in a game and sit next to a coach that I greatly respect and a team that plays the way that you wish more teams play — tough, physical and do their talking with their actions. What a challenge for us.”

Baylor’s opponent, the Falcons, enter Thursday’s contest with the nation’s best rushing offense in the country. Head coach Troy Calhoun continued to give high praise to who his group is matched up against.

“We are honored to represent the US Air Force Academy and to play against such a great school,” Calhoun said. “They have done an amazing job. They are big and move well and are exceptionally well prepared. What a test it will be for us. We get to play football this time of year, and we are so thankful.”

The Falcons are making their sixth Armed Forces Bowl appearance, the most among any school. Thursday marks the third all-time meeting between the two programs — the last one coming in 1977 when the Bears won 38-7 in Waco.

While Air Force averages 390.9 yards per game on the ground, Baylor only allows 183. In their last four games of the season, the Bears allowed three 100-yard rushers, but they only allowed one prior to that.

“The further you study and prepare, I mean my goodness, [you see] how gifted they are,” Calhoun said. “They have tremendous size and have a great deal of experience. They are very electric. The other part that is impressive is just how they have been able to win over the last eight years.”

With two rush-first teams, both of these squads rank well in time of possession. The Falcons are the No. 1 team in the country in that regard (36:16), while the Bears are top in the Big 12 and 17th nationally (232:28).

Aranda said with a laugh that either team may not get its second possession until the second quarter due to how extensive drives have been all season. Fifth-year senior tight end Ben Sims fed off that and mentioned that it puts pressure on the offense to execute.

Sims said since possessions will be hard to come by, he and the offense need to cash in as much as possible.

“We’ve never experienced a game like that,” Sims said. “But I think it’ll be interesting for sure, playing a team that is dialed in on their offense enough to control the game. It’s really important for the offense to limit our mistakes and kind of go about being as perfect as we can, because we know our opportunities can be limited.”

While Baylor’s defense tries to stop Air Force’s triple option offense, Aranda will serve as defensive coordinator following his staff changes from earlier this month. Aranda said that “it is a lot of work” to be back in the role he hasn’t been in since his days with Louisiana State University.

Fifth-year senior linebacker Dillon Doyle said Aranda is “super detailed” as the defensive coordinator and that “it’s a real joy to learn from him and his knowledge and his skill set.”

“Obviously, it’s a transition because he’s a different style coach,” Doyle said. “All the analogies he gives you guys in the media, he gives probably threefold in position meetings. There’s really a lot to learn from him. He’s just a great football coach and a great person. I’ve always looked up to him since I committed here, and it’s just been really great to learn from him.”

Aranda said that the Bears will be without the services of junior defensive lineman Siaki “Apu” Ika and fifth-year senior cornerback Mark Milton, due to their decisions to opt out. Doyle said Ika has already begun training for the NFL Combine.

Regardless, the group is looking to cap off its season on a winning note, which would end the season above the .500 mark. A loss would, in turn, make it the opposite. Meanwhile, the Falcons are hoping to win their fifth-straight game against a Power Five opponent.

“I think the biggest thing about a bowl game is that’s what you carry into your offseason,” Sims said. “So, winning your bowl game means a whole bunch. We talked about last year with the Sugar Bowl, how important that would be to finish off that season with a win. And then going into this bowl season, how important it would be to not only finish with a win, but to finish with a winning record.”