ALBUQUERQUE - Let me begin my summary of one of the worst defensive performances in Air Force's football history with a question:
What kind of football coach makes a critical fourth-and-24 gamble?
Answer: A coach who has lost all faith in his defense.
The Falcons collected 445 yards of total offense, enjoyed superb efforts from quarterback Nate Romine and halfback Anthony LaCoste and still discovered a way to lose to New Mexico 45-37.
With 7:10 left in the game, the Falcons faced a 4th and 24 at the New Mexico 39 after a game-altering 15-yard chop block penalty. Normal football strategy shouted for a punt. Air Force trailed by only eight points, 42-34 and plenty of time remained.
But coach Troy Calhoun has watched his defense look, well, defenseless. He went for the first down.
The chances of making a first down on fourth and 24 are about one in a thousand, but Calhoun took the chance.
The loss places a depressing exclamation mark on Air Force's tumble in Mountain West play. A little over a year ago, Air Force defeated Nevada, 48-31, and all seemed well. Air Force was 4-1 in the MW and a half-dozen seasons of relative conference prosperity seemed safe.
It was a mirage.
Since the win over Nevada, the Falcons have lost eight of nine MW games. The explanation for this collapse is easy to find, especially this season. In seven conference losses in 2013, Air Force has surrendered 267 points, or 38 per game.
A play with 12:25 left, served as a brief summary of the game. The Lobos faced a 3rd and 1 at the Air Force 38. The Falcons offense had kept Air Force in the game. New Mexico led by one point, 35-34, and there was plenty of reason for hope.
Air Force needed a stop. You would have expected a rugged struggle at the line of scrimmage. That's not what happened.
New Mexico's Kasey Carrier ran through a hole in Air Force's defense roughly the size of the Titanic. He wasn't touched for 10 yards.
New Mexico's offensive line averages a little over 300 pounds and includes the behemoth Jamal Price, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 325. Nobody on Air Force's defense weighs more than 265 pounds.
The small, quick approach works on offense. Calhounhas used discipline and deception and smarts to keep his offense humming despite a lack of bulk.
Small and quick has been a season-long disaster on defense. I realize the defense is young and still learning the sometimes bitter truths of college football. I also realize that this defense will again get trampled next season if it remains this comically undersized. And we're talking tragic comedy.
In their last two clashes with Air Force, New Mexico's meaty offensive lineman have dominated. The Lobos rushed for 874 yards in two games.
Those are the kind of numbers that inspire a coach to gamble on 4th and 24.