The Air Force Falcons answered the call. That is the highlight of this week’s service academy football weekend in review.
At halftime of Saturday’s Mountain West Conference Mountain Division game against the Wyoming Cowboys in Colorado Springs, the Air Force football team had to be highly annoyed and disappointed.
For the first 26 minutes of the first half, this game was a total butt-kicking. Air Force started the game with a touchdown drive lasting over eight minutes, the perfect drive coach Troy Calhoun dreams of every night when he goes to bed. Air Force built a 14-0 lead, and the margin could have been greater if not for a fumble deep in Wyoming territory. The Falcons were smothering the Wyoming offense. The Cowboys barely gained any yards or first downs in those first 26 minutes. Air Force had Wyoming pinned to its 2-yard line. The Falcons had a good chance to get the ball back, score, and run away and hide from the Pokes by halftime.
Then came the demons from the Utah State game.
Air Force blew an 11-point lead and wasted a good day of work by allowing mammoth home-run plays in the last several minutes of regulation against the Aggies a month ago. Against Wyoming in the first half, that same pattern played out. Air Force overran a gap and allowed a 75-yard run when the Pokes were on their own goal line. Wyoming scored a touchdown to halve its deficit. Air Force couldn’t generate anything on offense. Wyoming got the ball back and passed the ball downfield in a two-minute, hurry-up offense to tie the game just before intermission.
The first 26 minutes were a distant memory. The final four minutes of the first half completely wasted what the Falcons had worked so hard to achieve. Trudging to the locker room at halftime, Air Force didn’t have a lead in a game it had largely dominated.
What kind of team were we going to see in the second half? Would Air Force continue to have crippling situational breakdowns which would waste the steady quality of the team on both sides of the ball, or would the Falcons tighten up and sharpen their focus, doing the things which had marked their two strong wins over Florida Atlantic and New Mexico the previous two weeks?
We got our answer, and to Calhoun’s immense relief, it was the right one.
The defensive breakdowns came to an end in the second half. Wyoming never did break free, never did find a bust or a miscommunication or a badly-played tackling angle from the Falcons. Gaps weren’t overrun. Assignment football and lane integrity returned. Air Force kept its eye on the ball – and the ballcarrier – and shut out Wyoming in an authoritative display which re-created the first 26 minutes. Instructively, the last four minutes of the game didn’t feature any lapses. The offense left some points on the table, but 10-second half points were more than enough for a 24-14 win which kept the season moving in the right direction. Air Force could have slumped its shoulders and could have spent the third quarter thinking about how the game got away late in the first half. Instead, this team turned the page and learned from its mistakes. It solved problems instead of allowing that horrific four-minute stretch before halftime to hijack its performance in the second half.
This was an imperfect but very mature win, marked by a strong and steely response to in-game adversity. It’s exactly the kind of grow-up win a coaching staff likes to see in early October. Hopefully, Air Force will be able to use this game to make sure that it can play a complete 60-minute game on a more consistent basis – not 56 minutes, but all 60.
Those four minutes just before halftime need to make Air Force even tougher for the road ahead, especially against a Boise State team which just beat BYU on the road.
The Navy Midshipmen played well on Saturday, but not well enough to beat a team which is 6-0 and challenging Cincinnati for AAC supremacy. The SMU football program has improved under coach Sonny Dykes. It is true that Dykes failed to maximize his resources at California with Jared Goff in the Pac-12, but at SMU, he has flourished. The Ponies showed what they were made of by coming back from a 21-7 deficit to win 31-24 against the Midshipmen in Annapolis.
Navy’s offense is no longer the doormat it was early in the season. Big-play passing and timely runs gave Navy a two-touchdown lead. The floor for this offense is a lot higher than it was in September. That’s real progress, and it shouldn’t be ignored. However, Navy does suffer from the fact that its offense hasn’t been able to produce complete games this season. One good half – it was the same against Houston – hasn’t translated into 60 full minutes of production. SMU’s potent offense was able to immediately respond after falling behind by 14 points. Navy’s defense came up with huge takeaways, including an interception in the end zone, but SMU’s offense is too good for Navy to completely stymie for a full game.
The bigger picture on this contest is that when Navy had Malcolm Perry, or Keenan Reynolds, or any of its other elite triple-option quarterbacks, the Mids would score in bunches and win this game 41-31. Without that extra edge on offense – scoring merely in the 20s – Navy simply isn’t likely to win these kinds of games. The offense has to be able to score in the mid-30s, as it did versus UCF, to have a real chance.
The team is fighting hard. Everyone is making SOME plays… but not enough to beat quality teams such as SMU.
This week, Navy has a short turnaround and a Thursday night game at Memphis. We will see if the offense can play at least three strong quarters and score in the 30s, which will be needed to win.
Air Force has its big game against Boise State. The Mountain Division championship goes through the Broncos, who are coming off what is clearly their best performance of the year. Air Force has to be ready to match Boise State’s toughness in the trenches. The Broncos were able to stand up to BYU and deliver.
Army faces a big test when it plays the Wisconsin Badgers. It’s true that this is a down year for Wisconsin, but facing those farm-grown offensive linemen will be one of the bigger challenges for Army’s offensive and defensive lines this season. Coach Jeff Monken and his staff will relish this opportunity to see how the Black Knights measure up against one of the hefty, muscular programs in college football.