Air Force players were stunned. The Falcons had delivered an overpowering offensive performance, had led in the fourth quarter, had seemed on their way to victory.
That’s not what happened. Navy’s Midshipmen were dancing and hugging and howling with joy. They had invaded Falcon Stadium and escaped with a dramatic win.
This is becoming the norm for the Falcons. During Troy Calhoun’s six seasons at Air Force, he’s lost 16 of 25 games decided by eight points or less. In the past four seasons, he’s lost 12 of 16, including the past five.
The Falcons have lost to Michigan, UNLV and Navy this season by a combined 16 points. In the three defeats, Air Force’s option attack consistently overwhelmed defenses, collecting 1,005 yards on the ground and 1,366 yards overall.
In each of the games, Air Force had chances in the fourth quarter to seize victory. Two drives fizzled at Michigan. A late drive came up short against UNLV. A 51-yard field goal on the last play against Navy sailed wide left.
With a few breaks, the Falcons could be soaring with a 5-0 record. Instead, Air Force stumbles into Laramie, Wyo., for Saturday’s game with a 2-3 record.
“We have to become more opportunistic,” Calhoun said. “You just got to know how, by golly, to go make those two or three extra plays on both sides on the ball. You got to make them. To win, you’ve got to make them.”
Calhoun does not doubt his players' resolve.
“You couldn’t find any more competitive people,” he said.
Still, he wants more.
“There’s plenty of yearning, but the yearning has just got to go to the next step.”
The yearning has been there in recent close games. The results have not.
After the near miss at Michigan, quarterback Connor Dietz returned to acclaim in Colorado. Friends and fans kept saying how proud they were of him. After all, he and the Falcons nearly delivered deep sorrow to 112,544 fans at The Big House.
This, too, followed a trend. Air Force came achingly close to major upsets in 2006 at Tennessee and in 2010 at Oklahoma.
Dietz did not enjoy the slaps on the back.
“I hate it when people say good effort or good job after a game like Michigan,” Dietz said. “It made me sick when people said, ‘Oh, you came close.’ We hate that. And for me personally, that’s a negative comment. We need to be better. We need to hold ourselves to higher standards.”
But not all the near misses inspire Falcons fans to praise the team. The Falcons were favorites this season against UNLV and Navy, and with strong reason. UNLV had lost 50 of its previous 62 Mountain West games, and Navy arrived at Falcon Stadium with 10 losses in its previous 14 games.
Air Force led UNLV, 28-17, and the Falcons appeared to have clinched a win over Navy when they moved to a touchdown and a 21-13 lead in the fourth quarter.
In both games, the Falcons failed to deliver the big play that could have sealed a victory.
Calhoun considered all the near misses Monday as he relaxed in his office. In some ways, he said, it says encouraging things about his team that it competes in so many close games. He borrows a boxing term, describing those games as “15-rounders.”
But many of those games should not remain so close in the late rounds, he said.
“There’s nothing that says that something has to go all the way to 15 rounds,” Calhoun said. “In those games, you got to make some key or big plays. You do. That’s a fact. You have to.
“Instead of going 15 rounds and swinging, I like that part of it. I like that we’re part of 15-round scraps, but you want to end them, too.”
When Calhoun says “end them,” he means win them.