FORT COLLINS • Everything that had to happen for Air Force happened.
A dominant, clock-chewing running game. Forced turnovers. More running. Pass rush. More running.
In a season that once seemed doomed by what-ifs, the Falcons went to Colorado State’s new stadium and discovered what happens if it all goes right.
That’s what happens.
“There’s no one thing I can point to say this is what brought it fruition for us,” linebacker Jack Flor said after stepping out of Air Force’s raucous locker room as the first visitors to celebrate a victory in there. “We practice hard every day, eventually something is going to work out; that’s been our mentality.”
After weathering an early assault that included touchdowns on Colorado State’s first three possessions, the Falcons allowed just one touchdown over Colorado State’s final seven drives.
The Rams (6-3, 4-1 Mountain West) averaged 18.8 yards per play through those first three drives and less than 5 afterward.
It helped that Air Force (4-4, 3-2) grabbed three interceptions, as Shaq Vereen, James Jones IV and Kyle Floyd each recorded their first-career picks. Vereen’s was returned 30 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Falcons their first lead at 28-21.
“Those throws were forced,” said Colorado State quarterback Nick Stevens, who entered with the fourth-most passing yards in the nation and 12 touchdowns, no interceptions in conference games. “I should have just taken an incompletion and thrown them away.”
Air Force is 16-1 when forcing at least two turnovers since 2014.
“It’s exciting, absolutely,” said Vereen of his first interception and touchdown. “But it was just the second quarter, we had a whole half left. Coach (Nick Toth) told me to breathe in, breathe out.”
The Falcons also got to Stevens, who entered with just three sacks against 287 passing attempts. Flor’s sack in the third quarter, which led to the game’s first punt, was the only time he was dropped, but Mosese Fifita pressured him on Vereen’s interception and Stevens was hit hard on three out of four plays in the second quarter before throwing the interception to Jones.
“Getting close to him. Just getting near him, I thought, helped,” coach Troy Calhoun said.
Stevens finished 17-of-31 passing for 269 yards, two touchdowns and the three interceptions. Michael Gallup, the nation’s leading receiver, hauled in seven of those passes for 161 yards and a touchdown.
It helped the Falcons that they had so few possessions to defend thanks to a 41:38 to 18:22 edge in time of possession. That came from an offense that churned out four drives of 11 or more plays and ran for 413 yards.
“We could not stop them defensively,” Rams coach Mike Bobo said. “They basically did whatever they wanted.”
Bobo went on to use words and phrases like “catastrophe,” “disappointing,” “self-inflicted wounds,” “we got whipped,” and “we got our (butt) kicked,” over an eight-minute press conference.
“I’m embarrassed,” he said “That’s what we put on the field today and I’m in charge of that.”
When Colorado State made the curious decision to punt trailing by 10 with 10:21 remaining from the Air Force 45, the Falcons responded by putting the game away with a 13-play, 98-yard march that consumed 7 minutes, 9 seconds of clock.
Worthman ran 25 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. Fullback Jacob Stafford, in a breakout game as a senior, ran nine times for 104 yards. Sophomore fullback Taven Birdow scored twice.
Air Force didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter, but then it struck big with a 56-yard touchdown from Worthman to tight end Ryan Reffitt to open up the game’s first two-score margin.
This was the game that Air Force didn’t quite produce during a four-game losing streak that marred the early part of the season. It was always something. A missed opportunity at a second fumble recovery at Michigan loomed large in a game that was separated by six points until midway through the fourth quarter. An empty final possession against San Diego State resulted in a 28-24 loss. Two turnovers at New Mexico took the Falcons out of a track meet. An inability to get a final stop at Navy led to a 48-45 loss that looked for all the world like a heartbreaker.
But the hearts didn’t break. They simply hardened and allowed the Falcons to respond with three straight victories, none more impressive, or complete, than this one.
“It’s huge,” Worthman said. “This one has definitely been circled for a while. To come up here and get the win on their turf, it’s a really good feeling right now.”