Ohio State may prefer roses, but Air Force is happy to be anywhere, especially in Memphis on Thursday night for the Liberty Bowl.
"Oh, I think Ohio State is a great team," Air Force quarterback Rob Perez said. "They're 17-point favorites, right? I'm surprised we're not worse underdogs than we are. But we'll go in there and give it our best shot. I know to beat them our offense is going to have to have a great night."Ohio State (7-3-1) missed out on its chance to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1984 when a fourth-and-1 play in the final minutes failed and Michigan held on for a 16-13 victory in the regular-season finale. That sent Iowa (8-3) to the Rose Bowl, Michigan (8-3) to the Gator Bowl and Ohio State to the Liberty Bowl.
"The program was on the verge of catapulting back into the national limelight," Ohio State quarterback coach Ron Hudson said. "We would have been 8-2-1 and in the Rose Bowl, but we just came up a yard and a half short."
Many residents bristled at comments by Ohio State quarterback Greg Frey and other Buckeyes who griped about spending Christmas week in Memphis. But Ohio State finally has a reason to get excited.
"When you turn on the TV and see a commercial where a couple of guys are promoting Air Force to beat Ohio State, sure it gets you going," Frey said. "I know they're just trying to sell tickets, but I would like to beat Air Force in a big way."
Ticket sales for the Liberty Bowl have been sluggish due to the current cold snap and a lack of interest in two out-of-state schools.
Bowl officials said last week only 37,000 tickets had been sold, much lower than last year's record attendance of 60,128 when Mississippi beat Air Force 42-29.
The Falcons (6-5) are the hosts here by virtue of winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy for service academies.
Perez, a junior who took over the job as Air Force's starting quarterback in the Falcons' seventh game against Notre Dame, will be the key, coach Fisher DeBerry said.
"I guess that what he's given us more than anything else is consistency, and more of a threat of a big play," DeBerry said.
Perez started the preseason listed at third string and battled sophomore Jarvis Baker for the starting spot after Ron Gray injured his knee in the fourth game.
Perez replaced Baker against Navy and rallied the Falcons to a 24-7 victory. He rushed for 103 yards on 21 carries a week later in a loss to Notre Dame, then led Air Force over Army and Texas-El Paso to seal the Liberty Bowl bid.
Buckeye coach John Cooper, whose team arrived Saturday, said he hopes the extra time and the practice for the Liberty Bowl will push the Michigan loss out of his players' minds.
"We weren't too excited about it, I have to admit that," Frey said. "But I think we have passed that point now. Reality has set in. We're here now, and we've got a job to do."