Air Force senior left offensive tackle Matt Rochell will make his 39th straight start with one final chance to demonstrate he measures up against Power 5 school recruits.
The Falcons (8-5) face Cal (7-5) of the Pac-12 on Tuesday in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.
Such a matchup is somehow a fitting way to finish a successful career for a player that was lightly recruited out of high school. Rochell did’t fit the profile of a Power 5 school when recruiters from such colleges stopped by campus at McDonough (Ga.) Eagles Landing Christian to visit with his teammate, Justin Thomason, who is a senior defensive tackle at North Carolina.
The same was true of his younger brother, Isaac Rochell, a junior defensive tackle at Notre Dame. From his own family experience, Matt understood the difference between an Air Force and Notre Dame recruits can be only an inch or two and 30 or 40 pounds.
Matt is a 6-foot-3, 270-pounder now, but he was only about 230 in high school. Thomason and his brother are only an inch taller, but they were 40 pounds heavier in high school. They both play at 280-plus in college.
“Our coach would bring by recruiters from North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to meet with some guys at my school,” Matt said. “Only the smaller schools would come to see me. It’s a crazy process. I remember when I came home from Air Force and I saw all the recruiting material mailed to my brother. He had stacks.”
But Matt’s high school coach, Jonathan Gess, also felt the elder Rochell had potential to play at a larger school than the ones showing up on campus to take a look at him. Gess had played at The Citadel and felt Rochell was a good prospect for a service academy. He steered him toward the Air Force Academy.
“I didn’t know anything about Air Force, but I committed almost immediately on my recruiting trip,” he said. “Some people said I committed prematurely, but I had wanted to get away and experience something new. I saw it as a great opportunity. I liked the idea of having a job when I graduated.”
Air Force thrives on over-achievers that need time to develop. Rochell fit the personality and took advantage of the time table and rosters that are larger than the 85 scholarship limit at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. He spent one year at the U.S. Air Force Prep School before he was admitted to the academy. He played in five games as a freshman in 2012 before earning a starting job for the season opener his sophomore year. He’s started every game since then.
“You have to go where you fit in the best,” Rochell said. “If you go to a bigger school you might not fit in. You get sold on the hype, you go there and you’re miserable. You go where you’re good fit and you can have a great experience. That’s what I got at Air Force. I’m happy for my brother. That’s what he got at Notre Dame.”
Rochell and his teammates up front will need to clear running room for the Falcons to control the ball against Cal, which has more big-play ability with its passing game led by NFL quarterback prospect Jared Goff. Air Force averages 322.1 yards rushing a game, while Cal yields 203.5. Cal averages 368.8 yards passing game, while the Falcons give up 190.4.
Air Force will be trying to break a two-game losing streak despite winning the Mountain West Mountain Division title. The Falcons clinched the division with one game remaining but were upset by New Mexico in the regular-season finale. That cost the Falcons the home-field advantage in the Mountain West championship game that they lost at San Diego State.
“This game has a lot of meaning to me as the last one of my career,” Rochell said. “We played here my freshman year (33-12 loss to Rice in 2012) so it’s been great to see the growth of the program since then. We’re excited to play a great team. We’re excited to play.”