A few themes emerged after a very positive Week 3 in the world of service academy football.
Theme No. 1: This might be a year in which all three service academies are very good.
Theme No. 2: None of the three service academy teams have played a bad defensive game yet.
It is true that none of the three academies have won a high-end game against a top-tier or even second-tier opponent – the Colorado team Air Force defeated this past Saturday is probably going to finish in the middle of a mediocre Pac-12 Conference – but it remains that the academies are all taking care of business and have delivered noticeably encouraging performances anchored by their defenses.
It could be a special year for the academies, after several seasons in which one team’s rise coincided with another team’s misfortune. Navy had lived well for most of this decade, but when Army took control of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy series, Navy lost its edge and Air Force also stumbled. It has been rare in recent years for all three academies to play well in the same season, but that enticing possibility looks more realistic after Week 3.
Let’s start in Boulder, where Air Force grabbed the signature academy win of Week 3 over the University of Colorado in overtime, 30-23.
Paul Klee of the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote a column with powerful reportage on what this win meant for the Falcons.
It is worth sharing some of the reactions from victorious Air Force players, who spoke about the significance of beating Colorado in the first AFA-CU game played in Boulder since 1973.
“We have a band of brothers who we’re playing with right now, but we’re playing for the guys before us,” said offensive lineman Nolan Laufenberg about the Air Force players who didn’t get a chance in past decades to play and win in Boulder.
“This is our state!”, pronounced quarterback Donald Hammond III. “We viewed this as a state championship game. All we have to do is beat CSU (on Nov. 16) and we run the state.”
“I think it’s a brotherhood thing. I think everybody’s going to feel this win,” fullback Taven Birdow said.
“These guys in here, there’s a reason they go fight for the First Amendment,” Calhoun said. “However well an F-16 or an F-35 pilot may fly, they want to execute the next mission,” Calhoun said. “That’s no different than us. We want to execute the next snap.”
Air Force was fired up to play this game, but there is a huge difference between wanting to win and doing the things needed to actually finish the job. Air Force trailed by 10 points in this game but came back against a Colorado team which had completed a 17-point comeback against Nebraska a week earlier.
Air Force ran the ball well but delivered important passing plays in big situations. The defense was not flawless, and it did falter in the fourth quarter on two long Colorado touchdown drives, but in truth, Air Force’s defense had only three bad possessions on Saturday. It was excellent for the rest of the game, including the overtime period in which it stopped the Buffaloes.
Air Force allowed a modest 325 yards, outgaining Colorado by 119 yards (444-325). Over 200 came on CU’s three touchdown drives.
Air Force’s defense had one central flaw: It could not get off the field on CU’s three long drives. The Buffaloes went 11 of 19 on third downs for the game. If Air Force can improve its third-down defense, this season could become special.
AFA gets to test that third-down defense this coming Friday in a showcase Mountain West Conference (and division) game against MW Mountain Division rival Boise State. The Mountain West has been the best Group of Five conference through three weeks. If Air Force can beat Boise on the road, the Falcons would legitimately enter the Group of Five championship conversation, which means a New Year’s Six bowl bid is in play.
Army and Navy did not register the same high-profile win Air Force notched, but the Black Knights and Midshipmen had to like what they saw in Week 3. Their defenses were on point in lopsided wins. Army easily handled UTSA on the road in San Antonio, while Navy whacked East Carolina in its AAC opener.
Army moved past the heartbreaking double-OT loss at Michigan, thanks to a defense which has been outstanding in every game it has played this season. Army’s ability to remain locked in on defense is a highly encouraging development for the rest of the season. As well as Air Force has played, Army still looks like the toughest out in service academy football because of its defense. Expect more strong defense this week when Army plays Morgan State.
Navy, for its part, has regained a measure of the offensive competence which was missing for much of the 2018 season. Yes, East Carolina is not the best or truest measurement of how good an offense is. Nevertheless, Navy clobbered the Pirates, which a good team manages to do. Malcolm Perry looked comfortable under center, a necessary foundational aspect of a positive 2019 season. Navy gets this coming week off in preparation for a huge game at Memphis on September 26.