For three quarters of football last Thursday night at Falcon Stadium, Air Force looked like so many Falcon teams through the years.
Hungry and hustling on defense, opportunistic on offense, kicking a favored opponent — in this case, San Diego State — squarely in the teeth.
Air Force carried a 20-6 lead into the final quarter, impressing a national TV audience and looking nothing like the team that had tasted only one victory all year. And then it all came apart. San Diego State awakened, the Falcons ran out of energy and emotion, and the result was a 27-20 win for the Aztecs.
But even in defeat, blowing its second double-digit lead in three games, Air Force could find some hope. Maybe not for this year, but down the line.
In the unforgiving world of major-college football, whenever any program suddenly falls on hard times, most fans see one obvious solution: They think it's time for a coaching change. Even at the Air Force Academy, where head coach Troy Calhoun has led the Falcons to bowl games six times in six seasons on the job, the rumblings had increased in volume this fall. Five consecutive losses, mostly lopsided and all marked by glaring deficiencies, had given the vultures plenty of fodder.
The defense had looked so overwhelmed, allowing 52, 42, 56 and 45 points in a four-week stretch. The offense, with a revolving door at quarterback and an alarming number of dropped passes, no longer could control the ball and run up yards and points.
Having followed Air Force football since 1977, I reached two conclusions. One: This is clearly one of those times when the competitive level of college football is rising rapidly — size, speed, tempo, talent — and for the moment Air Force can't keep up. Two: This was looking like the most overmatched AFA team in years, if not ever, because instead of just a rebuilding defense or a struggling offense, these Falcons had both.
But this wasn't totally unexpected. Two months ago in this space, I suggested that Air Force only could count on three certain wins this fall — and just one before November. There were too many warning signs, such as having to replace all four linebackers, being so unproven at quarterback and having so many freshmen and sophomores high on the depth chart.
Since his arrival in 2007, Calhoun had always overcome the concerns. But this time Air Force was going from its usual reloading to full-blown rebuilding.
Trouble was, there was no inkling of how long the pain might last — until Thursday. Suddenly, many of those sophomores began looking comfortable instead of tentative, especially such defensive players as safety Dexter Walker, cornerback Gavin McHenry, linebacker Reggie Barnes and lineman Alex Hansen, along with juniors such as linebacker/leader Joey Nichol. And when the preseason No. 3 quarterback Karson Roberts went down with an injury, freshman Nate Romine stepped in with poise beyond his years, running for a touchdown and throwing a 71-yard pass for another.
Yes, the result was another loss, and there will be more in weeks ahead. (Notre Dame comes to visit Oct. 26.) But given all the positive signs, plus the fact that this team will lose only five seniors from the top 44 on the current depth chart, Air Force followers should have more to enjoy after Halloween.
Calhoun might not be the world's greatest orator, but he described this situation well in his comments after the San Diego State game.
"In life, when you're a winner, day after day, you work, you make progress," he said. "We have winners. I'd like for our guys, our players, our coaches, just everybody involved, to earn one where the tally's a little bit different at the end. We've got guys right now that are really, really disappointed. There are things we could have done better. You need the experience, you need the grind, you need the toughness, you need the spirit and the passion that's involved, and the challenge."
The rewards might not come immediately for AFA football. But they've always come eventually, and they will again.
Perhaps sooner than you think.