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David Ramsey: Air Force's weird football team takes wild ride to win over UNLV

October 14, 2017 Updated: October 15, 2017 at 7:05 am
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Air Force Falcons quarterback Arion Worthman (2) celebrates after a touchdown, one of five total on the day, as the Air Force Falcons took on the UNLV Rebels at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday October 14, 2017 in Colorado Springs. Worthman had a total of 116 yards rushing and five touchdowns. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

What a weird season.

Air Force has survived a monsoon and lightning delays and the bitter heartbreak of losing at Navy moments after victory seemed certain.

The Falcons were reeling after four straight losses, their season teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and UNLV freshman quarterback Armani Rogers (a future college superstar) was running all over them. Defeat seemed probable. Humiliation was lurking.

What possible peril could arrive next?

“I was waiting for acid rain,” said linebacker Jack Flor. “Or something.”

Acid rain never arrived Saturday at Falcon Stadium, but the strange drama of 2017 continued. Air Force erased a 27-point deficit, survived a fourth-quarter moment that would have squashed their season and somehow emerged with a 34-30 win over UNLV.

I’d like to say the inspiring, entertaining and confusing victory will banish all  the bitter memories of losing at Navy.

It won’t.

AIR FORCE FOOTBALL
UNLV Rebels defensive back Jericho Flowers (7) tackles Air Force Falcons wide receiver Ronald Cleveland (3) at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday October 14, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The Falcons won the game 34-30 and Cleveland ran a total of 86 yards. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

But the second half did offer an extended look at Air Force’s potential. The Falcons have looked borderline powerful at times in the past five games, but the team has been defined and drained by an infuriating inconsistency.

The power was again on display. So was the inconsistency.

At halftime, Air Force trailed 27-7. Quarterback Arion Worthman looked at the scoreboard, seeking an explanation for his teammates’ extreme struggles.

“I thought we were still asleep in the first half,” Worthman explained.

It looked hopeless for the slumbering Falcons. Air Force had surrendered 117 points in the last eight quarters, which is the same rate as allowing nearly 59 in a game. Against Navy, Worthman led the Falcons on six straight scoring drives, five for touchdowns, but the defense’s ineptitude doomed the team.

The offense would wake up in the second half. That was almost a given. All the questions were about the sputtering defense.

AIR FORCE FOOTBALL
Air Force Falcons quarterback Arion Worthman (2) runs the ball in for a touchdown one of five total on the day as the Air Force Falcons took on the UNLV Rebels at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday October 14, 2017 in Colorado Springs. Worthman had a total of 116 yards rushing and five touchdowns. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

The Falcons rushed for 376 yards in the final three quarters. The surprise arrived when the defense joined the offense in wakefulness. Vegas rampaged to 304 yards in the first half, but only 107 in the second.

Still, the epic comeback, the second biggest in Air Force history, almost didn’t happen.

With six minutes left, UNLV’s Rogers burst into open spaces. Rogers, a fleet, powerful force, was blasted from the side by linebacker Grant Ross.

The ball came loose at the 20 and took a wild,  bouncing ride to the edge of the goal line. UNLV receiver Darren Woods Jr. leaned down and for an instant he grasped the ball, and the game, in his hands.

AIR FORCE FOOTBALL
Air Force Falcons wide receiver Ronald Cleveland (3) runs the ball down the field as the Air Force Falcons took on the UNLV Rebels at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday October 14, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

If Woods Jr. crosses the goal line, Vegas leads by 10 points. If Woods Jr. hangs on, the game ends.

Woods Jr. did not see Air Force noseguard Cody Gessler, who had sprinted after the bouncing ball. Gessler grabbed Woods Jr.’s right hand, and the ball squirted loose. Linebacker Shaquille Vereen recovered, blessing Air Force with a final  chance.

Worthman is as tall as your next-door-neighbor’s kid and he’s still trying to figure out Air Force’s complex option and he struggles with his itch to bolt out of the pocket on every pass play.

But when he stepped into the huddle with 5:54 left, his offensive teammates knew they were marching to the end zone.

“There was never a moment when I thought we would lose,” Worthman said, which means he employs fierce optimism to overcome the burden of realistic logic. In other words, he’s already a highly qualified football leader.

Ten plays later, Worthman muscled into the end zone,  vanquishing the Rebels while inspiring mass celebration on the Air Force sideline.

I have a feeling more strangeness is ahead for this bizarre team.

I can barely wait to watch.

 

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