The matchup between UNLV and Air Force made for a sensational Friday night appetizer to the huge slate of Saturday college football games for this week. With my allegiance to Air Force aside, the game was exciting from start to finish, as the back and forth control of the scoreboard in the first half made way for Air Force to break open a big lead in the third quarter until UNLV made a formidable, but unsuccessful late game comeback.
Prior to the game, there were a lot of questions that would be answered in this contest. With starting quarterback Donald Hammond III being out with an injury, it was unclear how the former starter, Isaiah Sanders would fare against the Rebels. With Garrett Kauppila, the Falcons’ star linebacker being placed on the injury list as well, there were plenty of reasons to wonder if the Falcons would be able to take down the fairly evenly matched UNLV Rebels.
The Air Force offense started off slowly and cautiously, favoring the triple option but drawing first blood with a field goal. UNLV quickly answered as the Cal transfer Max Gilliam threw a touchdown pass to Darren Woods Jr. The back and forth scoring pattern continued for much of the first half. Air Force seemed timid in its play calling and a third and long option failed to convert a first down, forcing another field goal. UNLV running back Lexington Thomas responded, showing that his small stature is a fair tradeoff for speed and elusiveness as he ran for a 74 yard touchdown.
At the half, the score was 21-20 in favor of UNLV. The Falcons needed to make major adjustments to the play calling. It was evident that Garrett Kauppila left a gaping hole in the defense with his absence due to injury. Air Force would need to find ways to score and break out a big lead by scoring without eating up too much of the clock.
Isaiah Sanders captained the offense looking like a veteran. He opened the third quarter by marching 74 yards down the field and running in a touchdown himself. His passing was sublime throughout the game. He completed nine of his eleven passes for 217 yards and a touchdown, while he ran in three other touchdowns. He didn’t throw an incompletion until 6:51 in the fourth quarter.
Cole Fagan played a fantastic game for the Falcons in his own right, rushing for 77 yards on nine carries and a touchdown. The Falcons spread the run game to six players in total and ended the evening with 367 rushing yards.
Although the Falcons came away with their first Mountain West Conference win, it was by no means a perfect game. The first half’s play calling showed a lack of confidence in Sanders’ passing ability, which doesn’t bode well for the next two opponents, Boise State and Army, who are much better suited to beat Air Force than UNLV. The utility player on both offense and special teams, Ronald Cleveland, also had to be helped off the field and into a medical trainer’s tent in the second half of the game, but there is no word on his current injury status. The Falcons had two consecutive turnovers on fumbles, one of which led to a UNLV touchdown, which is something the Falcons haven’t had to worry about so far this season.
Obviously it’s important to work on a week by week basis for any college football team, but this was an absolute must-win for the Falcons. With injured starters piling up, it was important to see that the backups can pull a win together going into the Falcons’ toughest conference opponent yet with Boise State and Army in the following week to try to secure the Commander in Chief’s trophy. A clear takeaway is that the Falcons have a deep roster, but playing together and establishing leadership on the field is critical to beat highly touted opponents. It’s currently unclear as to whether or not Donald Hammond III will be back next week to get back under center, but at this point, the team is in great hands with Isaiah Sanders.
There is a strong possibility that the Air Force win over UNLV could be a turning point the rest of the Falcons’ season. However, there are still problems with play calling that need to be addressed and we’re at the point in the season when there shouldn’t be a rotation of starting players, but established positions who are confident in their ability to work as a unit. The Falcons’ have certainly been somewhat unorthodox as it pertains to naming starters, naming defensive coordinators, and play calling, but now that the halfway point of the season has arrived, only time will tell if it pays off.