Logic shouts that Air Force has no chance Saturday at Michigan.
The Wolverines are led by immensely talented quarterback Denard Robinson, who can destroy the Falcons' defense with his arm or his feet. Robinson and his teammates will be lifted by the deafening cheers of 109,901 fans at a stadium known accurately as The Big House.
Oddsmakers – a precise, heartless slice of humanity – predict the Wolverines will win by 21 1/2 points.
Noah Garguile clings to a different view. He took the field as a defensive end for the Falcons in 2006 at Tennessee, where the Volunteers were 20-point favorites and enjoyed the support of 105,466 fans.
Air Force nearly conquered the odds. The Falcons came achingly close to victory.
In one of the signature moments of the Fisher DeBerry era, the Falcons lost to Tennessee, 31-30. With 95 seconds left, Air Force scored to cut the lead to one, and DeBerry faced a decision.
He could take the safe route and kick the extra point for a tie. Or the Falcons could go for two points and the win. DeBerry, in a defiant, courageous choice, went for two points.
Too bad it didn’t work. Falcons star Chad Hall was devoured in the backfield by Xavier Mitchell, leaving the Falcons just short of victory.
Garguile works in diversity recruitment at Air Force. He spends much of his time running on the academy grounds, enjoying the sunshine and the mountain views.
Sometimes his escapes are invaded by memories of his trip to Tennessee, and he’s filled with pride and sorrow.
“It breaks your heart,” Garguile said. “If you win, it’s something you tell your children and your grandchildren for the rest of your life. If you win, it’s something you’re always proud of. It breaks your heart.”
The 2006 near-win is not the only recent example of the Falcons defying the oddsmakers. In 2010, Air Force traveled to Norman to challenge No. 7 Oklahoma. On paper, the Falcons had no chance. On the field, Air Force nearly toppled the Sooners before losing 27-24.
Yes, Saturday’s game could turn ugly. Michigan coach Brady Hoke coached at San Diego State for two seasons, 2009-2010, and he understands the challenges of Air Force’s option attack.
And Robinson could rip Air Force’s defense to shreds. He might collect 400 yards of offense all by himself.
So, yes, there’s a possibility of a disaster.
But there’s a strong chance of genuine drama.
I talked with Garguile and Hall this week, and they offered clues to Air Force’s ability to play over its head in big road challenges.
Garguile said the cadets have been trained to welcome adversity. The Falcons, he said, gain power from walking into a packed stadium. The hostility helps the Falcons.
Hall, who played the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, said many of the Falcons had hopes to play for elite programs like Tennessee or Michigan, but they were considered too short, too light and too slow. Big games, he said, offer these players the chance to prove they could have excelled anywhere.
On Sept. 9, 2006 in Tennessee, Hall was playing in front of dozens of his friends and family, who had made the journey from his home near Atlanta. He had gained 81 yards in 11 carries against a Tennessee defense that could never quite figure out Air Force’s option.
Twice, Hall had burned the Volunteers on a sweep. When DeBerry made the bold move to go for two and the win, he called the sweep again.
At first, Hall was convinced he would walk into the end zone, but in the seconds before the snap, he could tell the Volunteers had correctly guessed the play call. He hoped someone would call timeout and change the play.
Didn’t happen. The ball was snapped, and soon Hall was in Mitchell’s arms.
The pain and the pride of that night in Tennessee lingers.
Hall hosts a party at his family’s lake home in Georgia every July Fourth. He estimates 20 of his teammates travel annually to the celebration. Every year, the former Falcons laugh while enjoying stories about the torments of basic training and the blessings of big wins.
Always, this group of Falcons remember the trip to Tennessee when they almost – almost – delivered an upset for the ages.