ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Air Force players will never escape this defeat to Navy. Oh, they’ll try. Over the next few decades, the Falcons who experienced a wild ride to a 48-45 loss will seek to push the torment and what-ifs from their minds.
They will fail.
But a lingering blessing will linger along with the agony.
The Falcons always will remember the sensational, historic performance of quarterback Arion Worthman.
Coach Troy Calhoun offered a polite, terse answer when asked if he gained satisfaction from an inspired, if doomed, comeback.
“No sir,” he said.
Worthman, sweaty and weary, spoke slowly and clearly as he considered what had almost happened, as opposed to what actually happened.
“That’s just a testament to our football team,” he said of the rally. “We bounce back and get up. We dust our shoulders off and keep fighting. We’re going to keep fighting no matter what this entire season.”
Air Force fans are down after four straight losses, and the path to a 6-6 record and a bowl game will be rugged. The 2017 edition of the Falcons is deeply flawed.
Still, with Worthman leading the way, a 5-2 finish and a berth in a minor bowl game is possible. He couldn’t quite rescue the Falcons on Saturday. He could still rescue this season.
For much of the sunny, windy afternoon and evening, it looked hopeless. Air Force fell behind 28-7 and 38-17. The Falcons, time after time, were barely breathing.
Worthman kept reviving his teammates. He even carried them to a 45-41 lead with 1:53 left. He endured violent, brain-rattling hits from the Midshipmen, but he kept dancing, kept passing, kept believing. He collected a school-record 396 yards of total offense, rushing for 161 yards and passing for 257. He caught a 24-yard pass. He even made a touchdown-saving tackle.
He declined to resort to loud tactics to revive his teammates. During Air Force’s nearly game-long attempt to catch the Midshipmen, Worthman roamed the sideline, clapping his hands while saying, “Everything is going to be all right.”
Receiver Ronald Cleveland is Worthman’s roommate.
“So I know how much football means to him and how much he’s willing to give his all,” Cleveland said. “He gave his all. Every play.”
Worthman’s all was almost enough. The Falcons came achingly close to escaping with an upset over Navy, which has won 29 of its past 36 games. The Falcons have suffered for most of the 21st century on Navy’s campus, losing on seven of their past eight trips to Maryland .
The suffering seemed ready to end with 1:51 left. Worthman found Marcus Bennett for a 51-yard touchdown, propelling the Falcons to their first lead. Worthman had directed Air Force on six straight scoring drives, the last five touchdowns. He left the Falcons on the brink of one of the most weighty, and unlikely, victories of the 11-season Troy Calhoun era.
Alas, Worthman does not play defense for the Falcons.
When Bennett sprinted into the end zone, he completed a strong two weeks of work by the Falcon offense. Air Force, under Worthman’s direction, scored 83 points against New Mexico and Navy. One problem: Air Force’s defense surrendered 104 points in the defeats.
Worthman tried to shoulder some of the blame for the defensive disaster. His attempt was noble, and ridiculous.
When Navy’s Tyler Carmona wrapped his arms around a touchdown with 15 seconds left, a vicious reality hit the Air Force sideline. They had come back so far, only to hand the game to Navy.
When these Falcons are 85 years old, they will remember the last-minute collapse in Annapolis and wince. Sorry, but this memory is never departing.
Here’s the consolation:
They’ll also remember The Worthman Rally.