The first quarter Saturday was like most of the first 120 quarters of the Air Force-BYU rivalry. Riley Nelson was Max Hall and J.J. Di Luigi was Vai Sikahema. BYU was the boxer and Air Force was the punching bag. The Falcons were in trouble. Again.
But everyone has a breaking point against a bully. For Air Force, the emotion of being pounded by BYU for most of its history came pouring out over the final three quarters.
Air Force had 409 rushing yards, held BYU to 88 passing yards and beat up the Cougars on their last scheduled trip to the academy as they leave the Mountain West Conference. Air Force won only six of its first 30 games against BYU, but Saturday’s 35-14 victory in front of a sellout crowd at Falcon Stadium serves as indefinite bragging rights.
“Around the locker room, we’re getting tired of getting fourth place, not cracking the top three,” receiver Jonathan Warzeka said. “This is the first step coming towards that conference championship, is taking one out on BYU.”
The game was huge for Air Force, between the emotion of playing on Sept. 11 and a losing streak against BYU that dated to 2003. Some of that added emotion led to mistakes.
Defensive players tried doing too much in the first quarter and were caught out of position.
The Falcons had six penalties in the first quarter as they tried to channel their energy.
Nelson led a pair of scoring drives in the first quarter. Air Force would have trailed worse than 14-7, but safety Jon Davis ran down Di Luigi at the end of a 43-yard run and forced a fumble that Air Force recovered in the end zone. The reason Davis was trailing was because he went inside of a block trying to make a big play — one of the many blown assignments in the first quarter.
Eventually the Falcons’ effort started paying off, especially on defense. BYU got 377 passing yards from Hall in last year’s 38-21 win over Air Force, and had at least 100 passing yards in every game since Nov. 22, 2003. From the start of the second quarter to when Air Force took a 35-14 lead with 12:34 left in the fourth quarter, BYU had just 7 passing yards.
“I thought our defense was absolutely special today,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who had never beat BYU as a player, assistant or head coach. “After the initial drive, they probably played as well defensively against Brigham Young as we have in ... maybe ever.”
Air Force took a 21-14 lead on a 33-yard touchdown run by Mikel Hunter, his second touchdown of the game. Warzeka had the play of the game, a fourth-and-2 gamble that he took 46 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead. Air Force got superb downfield blocking on both plays, a manifestation of the desire the Falcons had to knock off BYU.
“This game means everything to us,” Davis said. “We haven’t beat them in the last six years, the seniors wanted to go out with a bang, and they’re going independent again so we might never play them again. It meant everything.”