Three plays into the second half of the Armed Forces Bowl last Saturday, Air Force looked well on its way to a much-needed postseason victory and a therapeutic springboard into 2013. Even after a slow start against Rice, the Falcons owned a 14-7 lead, had taken the second-half kickoff and quickly had moved past midfield. One more touchdown, and Air Force would have enough momentum.
Instead, the Falcons imploded. Collapsed. Shut down. For the game's final 29 minutes, Air Force managed exactly one first down, 27 yards and obviously no points, while Rice rolled up 12 first downs, 331 yards (for a total of 503, to the Falcons' 214) and 26 points for a disturbing 33-14 rout.
To someone who has been observing Air Force football since 1977, it was shocking — and it should set off major alarms inside the AFA program. This wasn't a matter of being overwhelmed by an opponent with much more talent, speed and playmaking ability. Rice isn't anywhere close to other teams that have beaten the Falcons in recent years.
Instead, this was another instance of Air Force — in a significant game — inexplicably sliding into a trance. It happened two months ago at Army, when the Falcons committed five turnovers and played abysmal defense in a 41-21 loss. The malaise returned in different forms during defeats at San Diego State and Fresno State, though both of those opponents were clearly better.
The bowl disaster looked like Army all over again. And it left a sobering list of concerns for AFA head coach Troy Calhoun and his staff to ponder. Calhoun talked about Air Force needing to do something about its size disadvantage. From this view, that's just one of many issues.
For starters, when November arrived, this AFA team had no spark, no spirit, no aggressive leadership. The offense lacked consistency, making far too many mistakes. The defense often appeared confused, slow-reacting, tentative. The play-calling and strategy, on both sides of the ball, became increasingly predictable.
We may never know the whole story. But something has seemed amiss with AFA football the past two seasons, which have added up to 13-13. We do know that disciplinary issues have been an undiscussed factor — but perhaps more influential than anyone will say. There was the lengthy drug investigation that led to former running back Asher Clark being dismissed from the academy just a week before graduation last spring. Then five players (most of them likely starters) were removed from the team this past summer for unspecified reasons.
Yes, Air Force had a young team in 2013. But Calhoun built his program, starting in 2007, with the idea of stockpiling cadet-athletes who focus more on academics at first, then emerge in their junior and senior years. Sure, there would be exceptions for gifted athletes, but not many. Air Force's 2011 team had 28 seniors, but underachieved. This season, fewer players responded when their opportunity came.
Calhoun and staff have to re-evaluate. The likely quarterback, junior-to-be Kale Pearson, looks speedy but too small (5-foot-9, 175 pounds at most) — probably a better change-of-pace guy. Beyond him, there's nobody with experience.
The returning runners must learn to avoid fumbles. Most receivers are graduating. The defense must learn how to tackle again, while replacing all four starting linebackers. And it doesn't seem like the extra bowl practices helped any of that.
One last, ominous point: Later last Saturday, Navy lost its bowl game to Arizona State in another blowout, 62-28, meaning the Midshipmen and Falcons fell by a combined 95-38. Several times through the years, the college game has evolved enough that the service academies have slipped behind, forcing them to adapt, and that might be occurring again now.
Three decades ago, the triple-option brought Air Force back, then the others. More wrinkles and innovations have helped since then.
Figuring out what's next could be Troy Calhoun's biggest challenge yet.