Air Force's 2007 win at Utah was an awakening

October 21, 2009
photo - Troy Calhoun says the Falcons learned they could compete in the MWC after beating Utah in 2007. Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE
Troy Calhoun says the Falcons learned they could compete in the MWC after beating Utah in 2007. Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE  

Air Force’s 2007 upset of TCU generally is considered the Falcons’ marquee victory under third-year coach Troy Calhoun and his staff.

And images from the game of Jim Ollis’ game-tying 71-yard touchdown run, Carson Bird’s overtime-forcing interception and Ryan Harrison’s game-winning field goal rightfully have taken their place in Falcon lore.

But it was a victory the week earlier at Utah — where Air Force will play Saturday — that many inside the program consider the most significant under the current coaching staff.

“Absolutely,” defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “If we didn’t beat Utah that day, I don’t know that we beat TCU.”

The Falcons, who were playing just their second game under Calhoun, had suffered through three straight losing seasons and had lost 13 of their previous 17 games decided by a touchdown or less. They had become, in former coach Fisher DeBerry’s final seasons, a team that consistently came close to posting meaningful wins — like the year before at Tennessee — but failed to make the play or plays necessary to turn a moral victory into a triumph on the scoreboard.

At Utah, however, that changed. The Falcons came up with a late goal line stand to secure a 20-12 victory.

“It really was an awakening in some ways,” Calhoun said. “I think it just made us aware, program-wise, that we could compete in the Mountain West Conference.”

The Utes, as Calhoun admits, were depleted by injuries to key players — including their quarterback. But they still were considered a challenger for the league title, they were playing at home and they had won four straight against the Falcons.

“Back then, given the circumstances, that game was almost pivotal to helping gain that momentum for the rest of the season,” senior guard Nick Charles said.

Another benefit of the victory was the boost it gave Air Force’s recruiting. Calhoun said beating Utah “really, really, really was major” in their pursuit of high school seniors that fall.

“Was it the end-all in terms of swaying guys? I don’t know about that,” Calhoun said. “But it made it where it was a legitimate point to say you can compete in a major conference by coming to the academy. And eventually it helped you establish some rapport. It had a little bit of sway.”

Air Force’s defense — now ranked among the nation’s best — benefited most from the victory.

The Falcons led the Utes 17-6 and then 20-12 after Harrison hit a 31-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 11 seconds to play. But Utah drove from its 20-yard line to the Falcons’ 1-yard line in 10 plays. And the defense — the biggest culprit for the demise in previous seasons — seemed ready to give up a touchdown and game-tying 2-point conversion.

But a unit that had yielded an average of 400.1 yards and 29.2 points the previous three seasons and consistently had failed to make plays needed to stop game-winning drives, stuffed Utah on third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal, both from the 1-yard line.

“That game was a watershed moment for our defense and for our team,” DeRuyter said. “To have guys on defense make a goal-line stand where they thought, ‘You know what? We’ve been beat down for a few years, we actually did something to contribute to the team winning.’ It carried into that next week against TCU. … Just that faith that, ‘Hey, something good’s gonna happen,’ I think started in that Utah game.”

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