Not long ago, a trip to Albuquerque was a virtual vacation for Air Force’s football team.
For the past five seasons against the Lobos, Air Force defenders have looked as if they had never before faced a run-obsessed option offense.
This is, of course, not the case. Air Force defenders see a run-obsessed option offense every day in practice.
For five seasons, for reasons that remain hazy, the Lobos have run wild, averaging 395.4 ground yards per game. Remember, 200 yards rushing is a big day for most college offenses.
If the Lobos run wild again Saturday in Albuquerque, Air Force’s season is headed toward disaster. Hope won’t die, but hope will be left without much breath.
It’s up to Air Force defenders to rescue the program.
Heading into 2017, Air Force’s inexperienced defenders had a shaky look. The defense had been ransacked by graduation, and coach Troy Calhoun announced, at every chance, his defense ranked 129th out of the nation’s 130 teams in returning tackles.
The defense performed honorably, if not spectacularly, in losses to national powers Michigan and San Diego State. In virtually twin performances, the defense did enough to deliver upsets, but a stumbling offense doomed the Falcons to defeats.
On Monday, Calhoun offered guarded praise for his defense.
“We do hustle,” he said. “There’s plenty inside the chest cavity, but we have execute a little better, too, especially playing the run.”
He’s right about his last remark.
Here’s the encouraging thing for Air Force’s defense: It will be difficult to play worse against New Mexico’s running attack, which has carried the Lobos to victory over Air Force three times in four seasons.
Senior defensive back Marquis Griffin watched the New Mexico disaster of 2016, a 45-40 loss at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. He doesn’t want to witness a repeat.
“We have to make tackles,” he said. “We missed a couple tackles, and they went for 60 yards, 70 yards.”
He’s not exaggerating about the ugly afternoon. At times, it looked as if the Falcons had been prohibited from tackling. Instead, they just waved at Lobo ball carriers. The first quarter, when New Mexico rushed for 204 yards, ranks among the worst defensive collapses in Air Force football history, or anybody else’s football history.
Another loss Saturday could sink the Falcons. Air Force would tumble to one win in four games and face a brutal path to a winning record. The Falcons still face rugged trips to Navy, CSU and Boise State. After winning 10 games twice in the past three seasons, a 6-6 record would be seen as a failure.
Senior linebacker Jack Flor is uncomfortable getting too excited about consecutive defeats. He knew the inexperienced defense would be better than expected, but he still expects more.
“We’ve shown a lot of promise,” he said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Promise is the right word.
Michigan collected 359 total yards and 190 yards rushing at 4.5 yards per carry. San Diego State gained 367 yards and 187 yards rushing at 4.6 yards per carry. In both games, the defense started strong before weakening in the final quarter.
Before Bob Davie arrived in 2012 to revive New Mexico’s slumbering program, the Falcons feasted on the Lobos, winning four straight games by a total of 104 points.
Davie installed an intricate option offense, one that has utterly baffled the football minds at Air Force. The Lobo option averaged 42 points in its last four meetings with Air Force.
If New Mexico drops another 42 Saturday, the Falcons are doomed. The defense, questioned and maligned before the season, must deliver Saturday. Defensive weakness will produce (another) catastrophe in Albuquerque.