Updated: December 31, 2009 at 12:00 am
FORT WORTH, Texas • Two years ago, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun noticed a team that was “extraordinarily giddy” before the Armed Forces Bowl. Last year, in the same bowl, he saw a bunch that was “a little bit wide-eyed,” trying too hard for redemption.
On Thursday, everything looked right from Calhoun’s perspective, and the Falcons saved their finest performance for the game that mattered most.
Asher Clark and Jared Tew each ran for two touchdowns, Tim Jefferson took advantage of an expanded aerial attack and Air Force pressured Case Keenum into six interceptions, throttling Houston 47-20 for its first victory in the Armed Forces Bowl in three tries.
The Falcons, who ended the season 8-5 and won their first bowl game since 2000, stayed in control from start to finish – a 22-minute edge in time of possession helped Air Force outgain Houston 563-331, including 402 yards on the ground. Air Force committed only one turnover and five penalties, and it was 13-for-22 on third and fourth down.
Clark did most of his work the first two quarters, with touchdown runs of 36 and 22 yards sandwiched between a 6-yard TD run by Tew giving the Falcons a 21-3 lead. A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Jonathan Warzeka put Air Force ahead 31-13 less than a minute into the third, and Jefferson (1 yard) and Tew (71) ran for scores in the fourth.
Air Force’s six interceptions – three were in a first half capped by a 27-yard field goal by Erik Soderberg as time expired – tied a school record and were the most in the career of Keenum, a 5,000-yard passer this season with 44 touchdowns. Anthony Wright Jr. picked Keenum three times, Chris Thomas made two interceptions and Jon Davis had a pick.
“We were ready,” said Calhoun, whose team tallied its third straight eight-win season, the second time in academy history that has happened. “You never know exactly how that’s going to translate. … These guys, there’s nothing they wanted to do more than win.”
It’s a fitting exclamation point for a 15-player senior class, which persevered through the change from Fisher DeBerry to Calhoun after the 2006 season, a revamped coaching staff and the pain of never touching the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. It also erases the sting of back-to-back losses to California and Houston (10-4) in the Armed Forces Bowl.
“We had a lot more confidence,” said Tew, whose career-high 173 yards rushing were the perfect complement to the 129 by Clark. “We knew that we were going to run down their throats, pound the rock and be able to get those hard yards.”
“People were kind of upset about going into spring practice because they felt like we put in all that work just to lose a bowl game,” said Jefferson, who completed 10-of-14 passes for a season-best 161 yards. “Now it’s like we can actually win the bowl game. … We all played with each other. We know how good we can be.”