FORT WORTH, Texas – Tim Jefferson stood near Air Force’s locker room, explaining how he engineered a fine-tuned offense and marveled at the dominance of a ball-hawking defense that united Thursday to shred Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.
“Our motivation is never below a level that it takes to win,” Jefferson said.
That philosophy should hold true with raised stakes next season, when the Falcons return most of their offensive firepower and some of their best defensive players to an eight-win team now used to success – maybe so much that it might contend for a conference title.
Air Force (8-5) allowed more than three touchdowns once in 13 games, in a 38-21 loss to BYU. Its other four losses, against Minnesota, Navy, TCU and Utah, were by a combined 20 points – Navy and Utah won in overtime and the Falcons blew a lead against Minnesota.
Turn the TCU and Utah defeats into wins, and Air Force captures a share of the Mountain West Conference championship. Make the Navy setback a win, and the Falcons claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 2002.
Double-digit wins (Air Force last hit that milestone with 12 in 1998) aren’t an unrealistic goal in 2010, with BYU, Utah and Navy at home, in addition to Northwestern State. The Falcons travel to Oklahoma and play Army and TCU on the road.
A 15-person senior class includes all five of Air Force’s starters on the offensive line and tight end Sean Quintana, but the Falcons bring back every triple-option piece – Jefferson, who totaled 848 yards passing and five touchdowns; fullback Jared Tew, who ran for 970 yards and nine TDs; and tailback Asher Clark, who rushed for 865 yards and seven TDs.
The Falcons lose sack leader Ben Garland, second-leading tackler Justin Moore and Chris Thomas, who had five interceptions, but Jon Davis, Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright Jr. are back – a group that combined for 13 of 20 picks and gave Air Force the country’s fifth-ranked passing defense at 154.3 yards and No. 11 scoring defense at 15.7 points.
Efficiency was the name of the game for Air Force, which had the No. 3 rushing offense at 283.5 yards; converted 81.1 percent of its red-zone tries and 48.1 percent on third and fourth down; held opponents to 30.9 percent on third down; and marked a nation-leading plus-22 turnover margin – while playing 20 freshmen, most in the country.
In the 47-20 win in the Armed Forces Bowl, all of the 563 yards Air Force recorded came from players who return. Coach Troy Calhoun labeled the bowl win as “a major accomplishment. … It’s awesome for the younger guys to realize what can be achieved.”