In 2002, high school freshman Ben Garland watched Air Force stomp Navy 48-7.
“I’ve always been a big Air Force fan,” Garland said. “There was big celebration at my house.”
On that day, everything seemed normal in the Falcons’ football world.
Air Force had beaten Navy 19 times in 21 tries, won 17 Commander-in-Chief’s titles in 21 seasons and looked ready to dominate the Midshipmen for the rest of the new century.
Last season, Garland battled as a nose guard on the front lines of a 33-27 loss to the Midshipmen at Falcon Stadium. After the loss, Garland sat quietly in the locker room as 10 of his teammates openly wept.
The Falcons had lost — again — to their archrivals. Navy has reversed the rivalry, winning six straight times.
“I would have never thought that would happen,” Garland said, thinking back to the 2002 celebration.
But that’s exactly what has happened. Season after season, the Falcons stick close to the Midshipmen and can’t quite seize a victory.
Navy, no doubt, has been the superior team — tougher, smarter and less prone to devastating mistakes.
There’s also no doubt the Falcons have been given every chance to topple the emperors of service-academy football. Navy has won the past six games by a mere 33 points.
Here’s the problem:
Each season, the Midshipmen grow stronger and wiser in the clutch. Meanwhile, the Falcons melt under pressure.
Two seasons ago in Annapolis, Air Force faced a fourth-and-short in the shadow of Navy’s goal line. Falcons coach Troy Calhoun shouted his belief in his offense by going for the touchdown. He sent Jim Ollis straight up the gut.
Navy’s defensive line all but devoured Ollis, who lost a yard.
But wait. The story gets worse.
Late in the game, Navy pushed to a four-point lead, and Air Force seemed ready to answer. The Falcons drove confidently to the 9 and a first-and-goal.
The Falcons quickly were called for a personal foul, holding and a false start. Three plays later, it was fourth and goal … from the 39. Air Force was forced to punt. Don’t think I’d ever seen a team punt on fourth-and-goal.
Last season, the Falcons fought to a fourth-and-goal just outside the goal line and Calhoun again went for the touchdown.
But he appeared to remember his 2007 disaster. This time, he sent Ty Paffett on a sweep. Results were the same. Navy’s line all but devoured Paffett.
Every game in the past six seasons has been close. That’s what inspires pain and tears for Air Force fans and players.
During this era of Navy dominance, the Midshipmen have been destroying Army. At West Point, players aren’t tormented by one or two plays that might have turned the game. Army seldom has been within sight of the Midshipmen.
It’s a different story at Air Force. For the past six seasons, the archrival has been right there.
And each time, the Falcons let the Midshipmen slip away.