Air Force requires a fresh start to its 2017 football season.
The Falcons were already down after consecutive losses to national powers Michigan and San Diego State, but those losses were, in a way, noble. There was little noble about Saturday’s 56-point bombardment from New Mexico.
One problem, and it’s a big one, for the Falcons:
Annapolis is not the place to travel for a jump start. Annapolis is where the Air Force football program has long stalled. In their last seven trips to Annapolis, the Falcons have triumphed once.
For Troy Calhoun, this journey to the edge of Navy’s campus is crucial. He’s won two of his last three games against Navy, Air Force’s arch-nemesis. These wins allowed Calhoun to claim two of the past three Commander-in-Chief titles, which means a big, gaudy, shiny trophy resides on the Air Force campus.
Keeping the trophy on the edge of Colorado Springs will be a massive challenge.
On Saturday, Calhoun can deliver one of the more weighty wins in his Air Force career.
Or he can watch the Falcons sink in the direction of irrelevance. The Falcons have earned nine bowl bids in Calhoun’s 10 seasons. Bowl bid No. 10 could hang on this clash with Navy.
It’s not all bleak for the Falcons. The 2016 season was teetering, too, after three straight losses. Air Force responded with six straight wins. Calhoun is hoping for a 2017 repeat.
The painful loss to New Mexico could awaken the Falcons.
“We do have to be able to take what happens in an outing and grow and grow rapidly,” Calhoun said.
Expect a dramatic, entertaining game in Annapolis. The Navy-Air Force rivalry doesn’t always deliver. It only almost always delivers. Since 2003, the teams have gone to overtime three times and eight games have been decided by eight or fewer points.
The Falcons are damaged as they prepare to tangle with Navy. Air Force traveled to Albuquerque with strong reason to believe. The Falcons had remained close to Michigan and San Diego State deep into the fourth quarter. They were respectable at Ann Arbor, and they came achingly close to delivering an upset in the rain against the Aztecs.
The team fell apart in New Mexico, surrendering 42 points in the second half in yet another defensive collapse against the Lobos.
Calhoun hopes his team learned from the catastrophe in Albuquerque. Here’s the lesson, according to Calhoun:
“How imperative it is to be in an exact spot as a defender, and if you’re not, against teams that run quite well, the ball moves as far as it needs to go,” Calhoun said.
Navy, meanwhile, is thriving. The Midshipmen are 4-0 this season and have won 24 of 30.
If you’re not an Air Force fan, the Midshipmen offer one of the best stories of 21st century college football. In 2002, Paul Johnson took over a program that had lost 20 of 21 games and failed to win the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy since 1981. Air Force defeated Navy 19 of 21 times from 1982-2002.
Johnson paid no attention to yesterday. With the help of assistant coaches Ken Niumatalolo and Jeff Monken, Navy quickly turned from the worst service-academy team to regional power. When Johnson departed in 2008 to coach Georgia Tech, Niumatalolo took over as head coach. (And Monken, now head coach at Army, could torment Air Force in the future.)
Since 2002, the Midshipmen have seized control of the rivalry, winning 10 of 14.
But last season, Air Force’s defense delivered a magnificent game against the run, virtually silencing Navy’s powerful attack. The Midshipmen managed only 57 rushing yards (and 1.5 yards per carry) while losing at Falcon Stadium.
“I think that’s only one sample,” Calhoun said.
True, coach, but it’s an encouraging sample for a sinking team that requires a fresh start.