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Air Force's running success could set up a passing frenzy, as history shows

October 31, 2017 Updated: October 31, 2017 at 4:22 pm
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photo - Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman, center, throws to wide receiver Marcus Bennett (8) in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Navy in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman, center, throws to wide receiver Marcus Bennett (8) in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Navy in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) 

When Arion Worthman threw over the top of Colorado State’s defense and hit tight end Ryan Reffitt for a 56-yard touchdown, two things happened.

First, it gave Air Force a two-score lead in the fourth quarter of a 45-28 victory Saturday.

Second, it reminded everyone just what this offense is capable of doing and what it might have up its sleeve down the stretch of the season.

“We’ll see,” said tailback Tim McVey, who has 22 catches for six touchdowns in his career but only four grabs this year without scoring.

Much as a running game can set up a passing attack in a game, Air Force has shown it can have the same impact in a season.

In 2015 through eight games the Falcons’ offense had produced nearly identical statistics to what it currently has. The 2015 team had rushed for 353.4 yards a game. This year Air Force is at 352.9 through eight games. It had completed 42 of 84 passing attempts. This year’s squad has hit on 42 of 83 throws.

And in the two weeks leading up to game No. 9 – against Army – the Falcons began running wild. They rushed for 954 yards and 12 touchdowns in those games, both victories.

This year the Falcons enter Game 9, also against Army, having rushed for 963 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two games, both victories.

If the similarities continue, prepare to look skyward.

The Falcons threw for 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 20-3 victory over the Black Knights. Then came the most prolific back-to-back weeks for a passing attack in the 11 years under coach Troy Calhoun. The team, led by quarterback Karson Roberts, threw for 550 yards and three touchdowns in victories over Utah State and Boise State that helped the Falcons clinch a division title and a berth in the Mountain West Championship Game.

“That was an anomaly,” Calhoun said. “I don’t want to say it would never happen again, but I think that was a rarity.”

But it would make sense. Air Force has averaged 464 rushing yards over the past three weeks. Worthman has been distributing the ball as effectively as ever and remains the most potent threat with a team-high 764 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. The fullback position has become established with 337 yards over the past two weeks, mostly from Taven Birdow and Jacob Stafford. Top edge rushers McVey, Nolan Eriksen and Ronald Cleveland each have 30 or more carries and are averaging a combined 7.4 yards per carry.

But the triple-option is poorly named. The fullback, quarterback and pitchman represent only three of the four options, with play-action passes being the other.

It would seem this could be the time that this final piece begins rolling for a team that has completed just 10 passes in the past three games.

“We just try to take what the defense gives us,” said Reffitt, who has six catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns. “Whether that’s pound them on the ground or catch them off guard with the pass, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Everything else has played out like 2015. Both teams went to Michigan and lost to a Big Ten power. Both fell at Navy. Both lost to a strong conference foe, this one to San Diego State, that one to Colorado State. Really, the only net difference is that the 2017 team has already gone to New Mexico and lost, while that one fell in Albuquerque in Week 12.

So, if history holds, things could get interesting. Count McVey among those who wouldn't mind if they did.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said McVey, who caught 10 passes for 307 yards and four touchdowns over the final five games of 2015. “You get to be a football player. That’s what everyone is here to be. You get to go out and do a bunch of different stuff.”

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