To even attempt to distill my thoughts on Air Force football into a single adjective or phrase that would be totally objective is nearly impossible at this point. I guess the most objective thing to say, especially for the folks who aren’t service academy football fans, is that they’re unremarkable. Two of the three biggest games so far this season have resulted in Air Force losses. At this time, it’s impossible to win the Commander in Chief’s trophy, and the Falcons still do not control their destiny for any Mountain West Championship hopes that may exist. Yet, there is something intriguing under the surface of these facts. They’ve beaten a PAC-12 Colorado team in a miraculous overtime win and yesterday they knocked off a Fresno State team that was projected for conference greatness, but has settled into the pocket of being a team that’s slightly better than the bottom half of the Mountain West.
Making Sense of the Win
I won’t really discuss the finer points of yesterday’s 43-24 win over Fresno State. It was total domination by Troy Calhoun and the Falcons. “Well, what about the first half? It was technically a comeback win for the Falcons!” Okay, true, they went into the half with Fresno holding a 24-22 lead, but it still felt comfortable for Air Force the entire time. Jorge Reyna played out of his mind and still had no answer for the Falcon defense down the stretch. He completed 20 of his 27 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns - but the ‘dual threat’ quarterback was silenced on the run with -13 yards overall.
Despite star safety Jeremy Fejedelem being out, the rest of the unit picked up the slack, including Kyle Johnson with a pick six and an array of usual suspects putting up respectable stats like Garrett Kauppila, Demonte Meeks, Mo Fifita, and Lakota Wills.
On offense, Air Force flexed its immense depth and ability to switch up strategy. Instead of relying on a pass-heavy attack as they did at Navy, they got back to basics and ran the ball. Timothy Jackson took the majority of the carries, 20 for 117 yards and a touchdown. The usual starters, Kade Remsberg and Taven Birdow took a solid workload as well and the offense combined for 340 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground.
The most impressive stat, in my mind, was the fact that Air Force maintained possession for nearly 40 minutes and they went on a staggering 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter to end the game, seemingly without any attempt to put up another touchdown to bring their total to 50 points.
So what gives?
I don’t know what to think. Part of me wants to be realistic and say that Fresno State simply got undue hype going into this season. Still, another part of me wants to believe that this is an Air Force team that has the talent to be 6-0 right now. I still believe that if Air Force and Navy faced off 100 times this season, Air Force would win 90 of those times and I still think Boise State was a true pick ‘em that Air Force gave away. I would drive myself insane living in hypotheticals, and for now, all I can do is look at the cards we’ve been dealt - or rather, dealt to ourselves.
The Road Ahead
I realize I’m living in hypothetical la la land right now. I let the implications of a fairly dominant win cloud my reality of what this Air Force team has done and is capable of. The Falcons are in a somewhat advantageous position right now where they don’t control their own destiny, but they have the ability to make a case for their legitimacy in the next three weeks. Hawaii, Utah State, and Army will all be tests that can put them back in the forefront of Mountain West Conference fans’ minds with some wins.
It’s really a week by week situation for Air Force, especially considering that the only real way Air Force can have a shot at winning the conference is if they win out and Boise State drops a conference game in their final five matchups of the season. That’s not a very realistic proposition, so Air Force simply needs to play their game.
While I can’t help but feel jaded and confused, I think Troy Calhoun is feeling some of the same things.
This was a real, live statement from Troy Calhoun. Without being in the actual press conference, I can’t get a grasp on what exactly he means. Is he saying that Air Force isn’t talented enough to win the conference with the likes of Boise State in the mix? Is he talking about the disparity of teams in the conference and how Air Force falls flatly in the middle, dominating the lower half and eternally struggling with the top teams? I’m not sure. Troy Calhoun has been to the top and bottom of the conference in his long tenure as Air Force’s head coach. It’s hard to get into his mind and understand if he wants a schedule served up on a platter a-la Army, or if he enjoys to prospect of a challenge.
Here’s another tweet worth mentioning.
It received almost no interaction on Twitter, but I think it’s a valid question. I don’t think people like the idea of calling for Troy Calhoun’s job because in a lot of ways, he gets a lot of immunity. There’s an unspoken thought that calling for a military veteran’s job as a service academy coach could be unpatriotic - or at least it seems that way. What other serious program would allow their coach to have two losing seasons in a row, then lose their rivalry game, and move on completely unscathed? What other fanbase would be okay with their coach completely shutting down avenues of media engagement with their top starters? His rationale has been weak and tongue-in-cheek. Calhoun claimed that the time that would be spent taking interviews could be better spent studying or preparing for their careers in the Air Force. Fans likely see through this. Graduates of the Air Force Academy certainly see through this. The truth is, as I believe, that Calhoun believes the opposite of the old cliche, and he believes that no press is good press for the Falcons.
It’s a highly complicated issue. For one thing, Troy Calhoun is a cornerstone of stability. While athletic directors and superintendents have come and gone, Troy Calhoun has managed to maintain a team worth paying attention to. There’s certainly some mutual loyalty there. Calhoun has been courted by Tennessee, the Denver Broncos, and I’m sure a slew of other teams that we don’t know about, but has decided to stay at his alma mater. A cynic would say he turned down these positions because where else can you get paid a little less than $1,000,000 per year with bonus options, free from immense booster pressures with a built in excuse for losing, that goes something like “I’m just a football coach doing his best to develop officers first. Football comes second.” I’m not saying that’s his mentality, and his limited media presence wouldn’t give any indication that this is how Calhoun feels, but as a fan who sees hints of true greatness from this Falcon team on par with any power 5 team in the country, it stings to not see them live up to their potential.
On the flip side, I think when service academy coaches talk about how football comes second for the players on their team, they may not be talking about their roles in the process, but rather, how their hands get tied behind their back when it comes time to play top teams whose athletes schedules would indicate that football comes first and academics drop to a far second in terms of priority. Air Force football players simply don’t have the scheduling capability to compete with top teams, yet somehow, they do compete and sometimes win.
There is an enormous spectrum of different ways Falcon fans may feel about their team following week 7, and all of them are completely understandable. Whether you think that the season was done after losses to Boise State and Navy or if you think an Armed Forces Bowl bid would be a roaring success, Air Force seems to be in a constant search for their niche in the vast landscape of college football. I would love nothing more than to be in the top 25, in the conversation for a spot in the CFB Playoffs, but a part of me wishes I could just be happy with the status quo. Either way, going into a tough stretch of the schedule, it’s best to just take it week by week.