There are a million tired phrases I can, and probably have, used to describe this season of Falcon football. “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” rings out when recollecting the almost-wins against top teams in the Mountain West Conference. “There’s always next year” comes to mind when considering how the talented sophomores and juniors that led the team still have games to play in upcoming seasons. “For service academies, this is more than a game” is the compliment turned excuse when discussing why Air Force fell so short of their potential this year. But of all the cliches that exist in sports, none of these really fit the bill. I have to look to the Grateful Dead to sum up my thoughts: what a long strange trip it’s been.
Of course, my use of that phrase is much less related to illicit activities, and much more to the journey of generally weird decisions as it pertains to personnel, media interaction, and play-calling that we’ve seen across pretty much every game this season.
The Big Picture
If I had to rank, in order of priority, what Air Force fans look for in a season, beating Army and Navy are of the utmost importance, then making a bowl game, then the record. Without the Commander in Chief’s trophy, or a winning record a bowl game invitation feels like a consolation prize.
With a 5-7 record and a loss to Army, the Falcons checked exactly zero boxes on this season’s wish list. The sister service academies always provide a solid metric to compare the team against. Even though Navy, which played UCF and Notre Dame, went 3-9 in their season, it would be tough to assert that Air Force even had a better year. When looking at Army, Air Force was incomparable this season and has fallen way behind in terms of success as Jeff Monken has led the Black Knights to heights that haven’t been seen in the last few decades.
For one thing, Air Force’s schedule has become a boring, fill in the blank worksheet. Every season follows the same, underwhelming recipe. Each year, the Falcons play an opener against a cupcake opponent on parents’ weekend, which was a 38-0 dismantling of Stony Brook this year. Then they will play an out of conference team, either from a Power 5 conference to get primetime TV exposure or from a geographical region that Air Force likes to recruit from, such as states like Georgia or Florida. This year the Falcons took on Florida Atlantic, which resulted in a loss. The rest of the season is a grind. The first Saturday of October is always a game against Navy and the first Saturday of November is against Army. The rest of the year is against Mountain West opponents with the season culminating in a strange celebration of Colorado football that no one ever asked for in a game against Colorado State. The winner of said game wins the “Ram-Falcon” trophy, which is something that looks more like it belongs in a Manitou Springs gift shop than on a football field.
With such a predictable approach to scheduling, it’s unfathomable that Air Force has been unable to string together a memorable season for the last few years. Unfortunately, due to the lack of statements from the coaching staff or anyone in the Academy’s Athletic Department, it would appear from the outside that there is no real end in sight to the monotonous woes of Falcon fans.
If there is anything good to say about this season, it’s that the Falcons were a far more talented team than their record showed. The young men work incredibly hard to compete against schools whose athletes have the luxury of committing a lot more time to their football programs. While civilian schools can build academic schedules around football players’ weight room time, film sessions, team meetings, and practice, Air Force cadets have a finite amount of time in the afternoon to fit everything they need to do in order to hold their own against teams with players who will eventually play in the NFL.
At quarterback, we saw three very talented players start games this season. Isaiah Sanders, the third string quarterback at the beginning of the season, played in 8 games and ended the season with a 161 passer rating. He completed 61% of his passes and was responsible for 4 touchdowns. DJ Hammond saw action in 9 games this season and was number one on the depth chart at the end of this season. Aarion Worthman, the senior quarterback saw action in four games, and was named the starter heading into training camp as well as the first game, but was benched in favor of the younger quarterbacks for unknown reasons. Although his pass completion percentage was lower than the other two, Worthman was a strong runner and had great chemistry in the triple option with his offense.
It felt at times throughout the season as though the quarterbacks were interchangeable in terms of talent, but the coaches refused to allow any of them to get into a rhythm with their offense. For that reason, the offense started behind the curve in most games and would rarely get comfortable until late in the game.
The Falcon’s run game was the bread and butter of the offense as usual. Although they often play with a shifty tailback, it’s not uncommon to see the fullback take a majority of the carries, which was the case this season. Fullback Cole Fagan rushed for 997 yards and 7 touchdowns this season. His running style can be characterized as powerful and hard-nosed, and his 6’1”, 230 pound frame was often seen dragging defensive lineman across the goal line. Air Force also kept a healthy rotation of running backs with Kade Remsberg, Joseph Saucier, and another fullback with Taven Birdow.
The Air Force defense did an outstanding job this season as well, with several names emerging as big impact players. Jeremy Fejedelem started all 12 games and led the team with 104 tackles, including 54 solo tackles and 3 interceptions. Jordan Jackson earned Second Team All Mountain West Conference honors and always seemed to find himself in the backfield. He made 12.5 tackles for a total of 60 yards lost and made 4.5 sacks. Garrett Kauppila and Lakota Wills were also huge producers, who had limited seasons due to injury.
On special teams, kicker Matt Philichi faced a leg injury, which led to Jake Koehnke finishing out the season. He played well, making 9 of 12 field goals, which can be a difficult feat in notoriously windy Mountain West stadiums. As a point of comparison, Air Force opponents only made 6 of their 11 field goal attempts.
The players have a lot to hang their hat on this season. While their schedule wasn’t particularly tough, they carried out the play sets as directed and represented the Academy well. They played their hearts out and I believe they should be proud of the successes they did have.
Even with a 5-7 record, I found it easy to sing the praises of the Falcons’ roster. Multiple school passing and rushing records were broken this season and two players earned Mountain West All Conference honors, while another earned honorable mentions. Although that is the case, the blame must still be assigned somewhere.
It’s very easy to say that it lies with the coaching staff. To a certain extent, it does. Offensive play calling was abysmal this season. The third and long draw runs without any intention of trying for a first down piled up each game. Analysts yielded to Coach Calhoun’s expertise, saying that these decisions were part of a larger scheme for field position in later drives, but more often than not, it changed comfortable leads for the Falcons into desperate attempts to play catch-up late in the game.
At no point this season did it seem like Air Force had a two minute package. They would opt to run the clock out when they had possession at the end of the first half instead of any attempt to increase the lead before heading into the locker room.
The personnel decisions were rough as well. Despite three capable quarterbacks, there seemed to be no real rhyme or reason for substituting or starting each one. When a substitution did occur, it took several series for the play calling to catch up to their respective strengths. When he substituted in, Isaiah Sanders, an accurate pocket passer with a long stride would be initially forced to run triple options which were easily read by linebackers and more suited for Donald Hammond III, who has a lightning fast first step and quick release to targets over the middle.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the coaching staff this season was a lack of transparency. Troy Calhoun refused to name the defensive coordinator for nearly half the season. It ended up being an internal promotion with defensive backs coach John Rudzkinski being chosen. It was rare to hear a concise reason as to why play calling decisions were made or plans to turn around the season from the coaching staff, and we’re still in the dark as to what changes are supposed to happen in order to produce a winning season next year.
Predictions for Next Season
It’s hard to say what drives change in Air Force football or in Air Force Athletics in general. On one hand, the Academy sees athletic competition as a pivotal part of the cadet experience. A common excuse for losing seasons is that cadets are not at the Academy to play football, but to become officers. Therefore, they think football is sort of on the back burner in terms of importance and they make the case that fans should understand that.
That’s a fair point and is hard to argue, but there’s one glaring issue. Air Force football is a multi-million dollar operation with ticket sales and revenue from television broadcasts. Coach Calhoun might be helping mold future military leaders, but he is not being paid $850,000 a year for officer development. He commands that salary to coach football. It would be unfair to completely indict him as the root cause of back to back losing seasons. It’s certainly possible and even highly probable that he doesn’t get the necessary support to produce a great football team from the Academy, but his unwillingness to be open to the media and fans makes it easy to point the finger in his direction.
Coach Calhoun’s contract runs through 2019, but the Air Force Athletic Department is in disarray. They have had an interim Athletic Director for over a year in Colonel Jen Block who has been effectively silent in any matters pertaining to football. The search for someone to fill the position doesn’t appear to be a huge priority, although the job was hilariously listed on indeed.com.
I predict that Coach Calhoun is keeping his cards close to his chest for his own future’s sake. I think he will see who Air Force selects as the new AD and he will go from there. He’s found a great home at Air Force, but it’s possible he may look for greener pastures, free from the strains of coaching part students, part future officers, and part football players.
As for the team itself, it’s difficult to say. If Calhoun does leave next year, I can’t even imagine who would be tapped to take his place as an outside hire. If, for some unearthly reason, there is still an interim athletic director at the end of Calhoun’s contract (would Colonel Block still be an interim AD at that point?), I predict that he will leave and they would tap current offensive coordinator Mike Theissen for a promotion. That situation would not be ideal. With much of the talent returning, there is no doubt Air Force will have the depth to regain the Commander in Chief’s trophy and earn a bowl bid, it’s just a matter of good coaching and allowing everything else to fall into place.