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AFA peeks into the future


Elusive freshman Tim Jefferson (7) will have to play much more now. - DAVE ARMER/DENMAR SERVICES
  • Dave Armer/DenMar Services
  • Elusive freshman Tim Jefferson (7) will have to play much more now.

For a while there last Saturday afternoon, Air Force had a chance to construct an amazingly familiar case of history repeating itself.

Anyone lucky enough to have been at Falcon Stadium on Oct. 4, 1980, exactly 28 years before, surely remembers what happened.

Just a few parallels: Navy came to town having dominated the service-academy series. Air Force had a young second-year head coach aiming to turn the program in a better direction. But the Falcons had a problem at quarterback, with upperclassmen who tried hard but couldn't quite cut it, and a gifted freshman who only needed experience.

That day, nearly three decades ago, Air Force came into the final few minutes trailing by six points, 20-14, when coach Ken Hatfield finally turned to freshman Marty Louthan. The result was unforgettable, as Louthan led the Falcons on a game-winning drive to pull out a miraculous 21-20 victory.

Before he was done, Louthan would quarterback Air Force to its first-ever bowl victories in 1982 and 1983, its first two conquests of Notre Dame and its first two seasons of capturing the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

This time, Air Force was down by six, 26-20, when second-year head coach Troy Calhoun put in freshman Tim Jefferson. Senior starter Shea Smith, battling flu symptoms including vertigo, had just fumbled a snap at the AFA 10-yard-line, which had handed Navy the go-ahead score.

As well as the Falcons had played at times, it seemed only fitting that Jefferson would become the hero. But just as had been brought up in this space a few weeks ago, he hadn't had the chance to play in pressure situations. By the time he settled in, Navy had celebrated its third gift-wrapped touchdown, and the second via blocked punt, building its lead to 33-20.

Once Jefferson adjusted, he showed why everyone who has seen him in practice has been awaiting his big chance. He guided a touchdown drive, breaking loose some runs that brought back memories of Dee Dowis and Beau Morgan while also showing good passing touch. Given one more possession, you just knew Jefferson would do it again and Air Force would escape with a 34-33 win.

But the Falcons ran out of time, and they wasted not only a courageous effort but a game they could and should have won by two touchdowns.

At least now, though, they have unleashed Jefferson along with fellow freshman Asher Clark, a quarterback/tailback whose burst of speed in scoring the Falcons' final touchdown showed he deserves to play much more as well.

The tough part for Calhoun and quarterback coach Blane Morgan (who ran the offense for the Falcons' seasons of 10-3 in 1997 and 12-1 in 1998) is deciding how fast to buy into the youth movement.

My suggestion: Go for it. Now, even this Saturday night when Air Force visits San Diego State for a Mountain West Conference game (7:30 p.m., The Mtn.).

This AFA team has only one realistic goal remaining: another bowl game, which means turning 3-2 (same as last year) into 8-4 or 7-5. That's probably achievable regardless of who's playing quarterback, though nothing is certain. But if the Falcons want to rise higher in 2009, that means investing in both Jefferson and Clark in the next seven games, perhaps even letting them share the playing time. (Clark hasn't taken a snap with a game on the line, but you get the clear sense that he's equally promising.)

They might not have repeated the history Louthan made in 1980, but they could achieve just as much as Louthan did before they're done.

Buff bites: It's a different story for the University of Colorado after its smelly 38-14 home loss to Texas. Something just doesn't seem quite right about the Buffaloes, who have plenty of developing talent but don't have the consistent spark of a program on the rise. The sin wasn't so much losing to Texas as it was not showing up, at home, against a highly ranked unbeaten opponent.

In another year, after the Big 12 says goodbye to stars such as Missouri's Chase Daniel and Texas' Colt McCoy, plus other powerhouse players at Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State, perhaps CU can step it up. But if Dan Hawkins and his staff can't take the Buffs up a few notches by then, it's worth saying that perhaps he never will.

Colorado goes to Kansas this week (10:30 a.m., ESPN2) for another game that could turn ugly (KU was a 14-point favorite starting the week) if the Buffaloes aren't sharp from the start.

On the ice: It's official now that both Colorado College and Air Force have been chosen in preseason polls to win their conference titles in the just-starting 2008-9 season. But it won't be easy for the Tigers in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, with North Dakota and the University of Denver also capable of going far, or for the Falcons in the Atlantic Hockey Association, where every AFA road trip is to the Eastern Time Zone.

Not only was CC picked to retain the McNaughton Cup, which goes to the WCHA's regular-season champion, but sophomore goaltender Richard Bachman was chosen as the league's preseason player of the year. That might not seem so surprising on the surface, given how superb Bachman was last year, except that North Dakota's star junior Ryan Duncan did win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award (hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy) last year. We'll get an early read on Nov. 7-8, when the Sioux come here to face CC.

Air Force, which has won the AHA postseason tournament and its automatic NCAA berth the past two years, has plenty of returnees and is picked over Mercyhurst, Rochester Institute of Technology and Sacred Heart. But the Falcons face an immediate test this weekend, traveling to Fairfield, Conn., to face Sacred Heart.

Unfortunately, Air Force and CC meet only once a season, and that will be Friday, Nov. 28, at AFA's Cadet Ice Arena.

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