The Navy Midshipmen had the week off. Army had a light week. The featured game of the past weekend in service academy football involved the Air Force Falcons.
Air Force has endured a bumpy ride over the past several years. In some seasons, Air Force rises to a considerable height. In other recent seasons, the Falcons have been kicked to the curb. After losing to Army in overtime, the Falcons had to decide what kind of team they wanted to be and how they wanted this season to be remembered. They had a win over Navy already under their belt, but full possession of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy eluded them when the Army game slipped away.
Air Force, at 6-3, still had a chance to forge a nine-win regular season, giving the Falcons a chance to win 10 games this year when including their bowl game in the picture. That’s a significant team goal, and the journey began with a trip to Fort Collins for the in-state rivalry game versus the Colorado State Rams.
On paper, this was a game Air Force should have won. Then again, on paper, the Utah State game is a contest the Falcons should have won as well. Few people anticipated it at the time, but that game – a 49-45 loss to the Aggies – has proved to be decisive in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division race. Utah State hasn’t faltered. New coach Blake Anderson has the Aggies atop the division. Due to the head-to-head tiebreaker over Air Force, USU is likely to win the division and advance to the Mountain West Championship Game.
Air Force can’t control what happens the rest of the season, but it could control whether it allowed another winnable Mountain West game to get away.
On this night, the Air Force offense stepped up and answered the call.
For good portions of this season, the Air Force offense has been a half-step off balance, and a few plays short of delivering a solid, well-rounded, 60-minute performance. The Falcons have been almost there, almost where they want to be, but not quite right. A fourth-down failure here, or a missed long ball in a crucial juncture of a game, have limited the Falcons’ scoring output. An offense which expects to score in the 30s if not the low 40s has been stuck in the mid-20s for much of the season, and sometimes lower (as was the case against Army and San Diego State).
Even when Air Force won key Mountain West games over Wyoming and Boise State, the offense managed just 24 points. The potential for greatness existed, but a handful of plays which make the difference between ordinary and wonderful cut against the Falcons.
In this game against Colorado State, Air Force’s offense was no longer off balance. The pieces of the puzzle fit. They snapped together and clicked in a 35-point display against CSU.
The offensive line and the running game – contained by both Army and San Diego State – roared to life in Fort Collins. Air Force amassed 388 rushing yards, the bust-out display Troy Calhoun had been waiting for. Air Force topped 500 yards of total offense and finished drives, scoring 21 in the first quarter and 14 more in the third to put the boot on the Rams’ throat. The fourth-down failures of previous games were washed away on Saturday night in the Rockies. Air Force went 4 of 4 on fourth downs. The 7-of-16 third-down conversion rate was essentially an 11-of-16 clip due to the subsequent fourth-down successes. That’s the steadiness and clutch-situation quality the coaching staff was looking for.
The Air Force defense was typically solid, coming up with a red-zone interception and other timely plays to keep Colorado State at arm’s length for most of the night. The great thing about this game is that the defense finally played a game in which its own margin for error was large. Any small defensive slip-up was punished against Army and San Diego State due to the offense’s inability to get the Air Force Academy off the ground.
Air Force might not win the Mountain West’s Mountain Division championship, but a 10-3 season coming off a disrupted 2020 pandemic year would be a strong achievement if the Falcons can attain it.
Air Force travels to Reno this Friday for a challenging game at the Nevada Wolf Pack. Nevada just lost a very tough game to San Diego State, so Jay Norvell’s team will be intent on bouncing back.
Army, which just defeated Bucknell, 63-10, prepares for UMass, one of the worst teams in college football. The Black Knights need another stress-free game before they face an intriguing challenge on Nov. 27 against Liberty and former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze.
Navy, which had the past weekend off, encounters East Carolina this upcoming weekend. The Pirates are no slouch, having attained bowl eligibility. That said, ECU is a far more manageable opponent than the tough teams the Midshipmen have recently faced: Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and SMU. Navy needs confidence and momentum not just to build belief before the Army game, but to reshape the program and its sense of what is possible heading into 2022.