September 3, 2011
It’s tough to grind 80 yards down a football field while moving 4 or 5 yards at a time. It’s much easier to hand or throw the ball to someone who is fast and elusive. This kind of player motors 80 yards in one play.
That’s why Mikel Hunter’s emergence – or re-emergence – is a cause for celebration for Air Force.
The Falcons wandered to a ho-hum 37-20 victory over South Dakota, ripping to a 37-7 lead before indulging in a vacation in the final quarter. This sunny, windy afternoon was not a grand one for football theater.
With one exception.
Hunter was dazzling. He rambled 80 yards to a touchdown on the first play of the season, displaying speed and dazzling dance moves and a hunger for the end zone that can’t be taught. The instant the ball arrived in his hands, Hunter set his sights on six points.
In the third quarter, Hunter caught a pass from quarterback Tim Jefferson, looked upfield and smiled.
“I didn’t see anything but green grass,” Hunter said.
He arrived in the end zone without being touched. The Coyotes didn’t bother to give much a chase. They knew they had no chance.
“The average guy is not going to catch Mikel,” said Air Force offensive coordinator Clay Hendrix.
And there should have been a third touchdown. In the second quarter, Hunter scored on an 18-yard reverse, but the score was nullified by a holding call.
Officials, who appear to be lost somewhere late in the 19th century, added to the pain by penalizing Hunter for unsportsmanlike conduct.
As Hunter arrived in the end zone, he offered the barest hint of a strut. It was a baffling call. College officials appear determined to drain all the fun from the game.
Hunter declined to complain.
“It was good for our team because now we know what we can and can’t do in the end zone,” Hunter said.
Coach Troy Calhoun agreed with the call.
“I did,” he said. “It was absolutely right. It should have been a flag for what he did. There’s some class and some sportsmanship and some discipline that we’re trying to keep within the game.”
Still, despite the call that should never have been made, it was clearly Hunter’s day. If the Falcons are going to win 10 or more games this season, Hunter and fellow speedster Jonathan Warzeka must place fear in the hearts of opposing defenses.
Air Force’s offensive approach will remain the same. For 30 years, the Falcons have employed a highly disciplined, highly repetitive running strategy to move the football and keep their defense, usually undersized and lacking in speed, off the field.
Hunter and Warzeka will keep defenders from getting too cozy. Linebackers and defensive backs will see footage of Hunter and Warzeka running free and happy down the sideline, and this fear factor will do wonders for Air Force’s rushing attack.
Last season, Hunter started fast. He scored twice against Brigham Young in a Sept. 11 performance remarkably similar to Saturday’s scorching of South Dakota. But Hunter was never so dominant again. He faded, becoming a bit player in Air Force’s 9-4 finish.
After Hunter’s second touchdown against the Coyotes, several of his teammates mentioned the 2010 season. In a friendly way, they challenged him. They want him to keep destroying defenses.
Strong safety Jon Davis shook his head as he considered Hunter’s potential.
“I’m looking for him to keep this up all year,” Davis said, “and not fall off.”
I see Hunter sprinting his way to an impressive 2011. He has all the tools required to score a dozen times.
But he needs to be careful once he arrives in the end zone. Officials might penalize him for, you know, being slightly happy about scoring six points.