LAS VEGAS - Troy Calhoun didn’t like what he saw out of his Air Force team for most of the first half, and rightfully so. The Falcons didn’t play well.
But the Falcons have some resolve, and they showed it after falling behind 17-7. Air Force beat UNLV 35-20 at Sam Boyd Stadium on Thursday night to finish the regular season 8-4, and 5-3 in the Mountain West. The Rebels are 2-9 and 2-5 in conference.
For a while, a third straight win to finish the season was in doubt.
“You wonder how much is in the tank,” said Calhoun, whose team didn’t have a bye week this season. “To dig down and find a little more was incredible.”
There were reasons the Falcons weren’t dominant for 60 minutes. They had a short week of preparation. Starting linebackers Patrick Hennessey and Brady Amack were out with injuries. Defensive linemen Zach Payne and Bradley Connor joined them on the sideline with knee injuries. Playing in front of a stadium that was probably less than a quarter full didn’t help.
Air Force looked fine in the first few minutes, when linebacker Andre Morris caught an interception that went through Phillip Payne’s hands and Tim Jefferson hit Zack Kauth for a 4-yard touchdown.
But Air Force gave up 17 unanswered points after that. UNLV put together a pair of long drives after falling behind 7-0. At the end of an 11-play, 62-yard drive, Tim Cornett rushed for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game. Then the Rebels went on a marathon drive. They picked up 83 yards on 21 plays. The drive lasted for 10 minutes, but ended in just a field goal.
Later in the quarter, Payne caught a pass and broke through some lethargic tackle attempts by Air Force, and went 36 yards for the touchdown to give the Rebels a 17-7 lead.
“We didn’t play very well in the first 25 minutes of the game,” Calhoun said. “That was unacceptable.”
Air Force started to rally late in the second quarter. A long drive, highlighted by a 36-yard catch by Kauth, was capped with a 1-yard touchdown run by Jefferson.
Air Force had a dominant third quarter. The Falcons started it with a turnover, when Jefferson hit guard A.J. Wallerstein’s hip with the ball after the snap and lost a fumble. But UNLV made a curious decision to run up the middle on fourth down and 3 deep in Falcons territory, and Air Force stopped it cold.
“That was beyond gigantic,” Calhoun said.
Jonathan Warzeka got behind a great block by Asher Clark – who became the third tailback in Air Force history to go past the 1,000-yard mark in a season - and rushed for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Falcons the lead. Jefferson’s 1-yard touchdown run put the Falcons ahead 28-17. In the third quarter, Air Force rushed for 169 yards.
“We were kind of dead in the first half,” Kauth said. “We just woke up, I think.”