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Drawing from his own experience, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit cautions Washington State not to take Air Force lightly in Cheez-It Bowl

ESPN College GameDay co-host Kirk Herbstreit waits for a break during the telecast from The Junction prior to Mississippi State playing Auburn in an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct 11, 2014. No. 3 Mississippi State beat No. 2 Auburn 38-23. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)

PHOENIX – Kirk Herbstreit was a redshirt freshman backup quarterback for Ohio State in 1990 when a seven-win, 24th-ranked, heavily-favored Buckeyes team took on unranked Air Force in the Liberty Bowl.

Ohio State gained an early 5-0 lead in Memphis but relinquished it in the second quarter and Air Force, less-talented at almost every spot on the field, took control to fashion a 23-11 upset of the Buckeyes at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

That should be a cautionary statement for WSU ahead of tonight’s Cheez-It Bowl against Air Force. The Falcons may look different than they did nearly two decades ago, but they’re using many of the same supposed shortcomings – talent deficiencies, a weaker conference and less prestige – to fuel them in tonight’s 7:15 p.m. PT game at Chase Field in Phoenix.

“I’ve learned the hard way through playing Air Force in a bowl game, they will be fired up and ready to go,” Herbstreit said Thursday. “Wazzu, that’s the question, will they care, will they be interested in kind of that second-tier bowl game? I have no idea, I haven’t studied the film. I would go with Air Force in an upset in that game.”

Herbstreit’s in the Phoenix area for a college football game of much bigger consequence and dropped by the JW Marriott Camelback Resort Thursday morning along with ESPN colleagues Chris Fowler and Tom Rinaldi for a media availability session two days ahead of the College Football Playoff semifinal matchup between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson.

So, while he hasn’t done extensive homework on a game pitting six-win WSU against 10-win Air Force, the prominent ESPN commentator and College GameDay analyst is enough of a college football guru that he was able to offer some insight into a game that’ll serve as somewhat of an appetizer to Saturday’s heavyweight Fiesta Bowl duel.

“I’m a big believer in, who cares about being in a bowl game,” Herbstreit said. “In a disappointing year, people underestimate the prep to go into the game. It’s one thing to turn on the game and watch it and be happy or sad. What you don’t see is what goes on behind closed doors. Hanging out at a hotel, getting ready to play for two weeks. One team is amped up, this is their Super Bowl. The other team’s like, what time’s the game? They’re just going through the motions. And then you get exposed on national TV.”

“So for me, looking at the game on paper, as much as Washington state has the ability to score, they have got to guard against – especially after the way their season ended in the Apple Cup – a letdown and just going through the motions. Because the team they’re playing, 100 percent will be locked in, executing.”

The Falcons were 2 1/2-point favorites on game day.

Herbstreit said he’s been impressed with the play of WSU’s redshirt senior quarterback Anthony Gordon, who stepped into the shoes of Gardner Minshew and Luke Falk before him, yet still managed to produce a handful of records within Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. Gordon set the program record for touchdowns in a single game when he threw for nine earlier this year in a 67-63 loss to UCLA and in WSU’s regular season finale against Washington, the first-year starter became the first Pac-12 signal-caller to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a single season.

The trajectory of Herbstreit’s career was similar to that of Gordon’s. He didn’t start for the Ohio State until his senior season, but excelled once he won the job, leading the Buckeyes to eight wins and an appearance in the the Citrus Bowl, where they lost 21-14 to Georgia.

“I feel like every year, whoever is lucky enough to be Mike Leach’s quarterback is going to throw for a zillion yards,” he said. “Gordon’s had a good year and it’s unfortunate they’ve had a year where, with that offense it’s like a break goes one way for you or against you and you’ve got to play complimentary football.”

Once the Cheez-It Bowl is finished, Gordon will change gears and begin preparing for the NFL. The Pacifica, California, native said Wednesday he’s yet to decide where he’ll spend three months training leading up to the NFL Draft, but Herbstreit believes the country’s leading passer will have a legitimate shot to play pro football, like both of his predecessors.

“There have been quarterbacks in the past who’ve done a nice job in transitioning to the league,” he said. “And also I think in the NFL, the game is changing. The style of offenses are changing. I think it fits more now to that style of quarterback coming out of that style.”

Herbstreit also reflected on College GameDay’s trip to Pullman last year. Despite Ol’ Crimson’s run of consecutive appearances on the popular pre-game show – now at 242 – the GameDay crew hadn’t been to Pullman before No. 25 WSU hosted No. 12 Oregon last season.

It was a festive scene across the street from Martin Stadium, where thousands of crimson-clad fans gathered – many of them the night before – to watch Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Rece Davis, Desmond Howard and David Pollack preview an eventual 34-20 win for the Cougars.

“Just seeing that crowd, it was remarkable,” Herbstreit said. “I’ve done it for 24 years, that was one of the most unique settings because it was 6 a.m. local for the start of the show. … I flew in really late that night and they were there at 2 in the morning. It was just such an incredible celebration, just such a memorable show. I hope we get back there.”