Troy Calhoun has been crashing through roadblocks the past three seasons.
On Saturday, he faces his biggest roadblock, the 67-year-old coach who has delivered only frustration and pain and defeat to Calhoun and the Falcons since 2010.
Yes, San Diego State coach Rocky Long is coming to town.
This is a vital game, filled with drama. Rocky and his Aztecs have won 19 of 24 Mountain West games. Calhoun and his Falcons have won 18 of 19 home games, with the lone defeat an overtime loss Air Force generously handed to Hawaii.
Rocky has defeated Calhoun six straight times, and the key to his dominance is easy to see. He understands how to slow, if not erase, the power of Calhoun’s option offense. In those six losses, the Falcons have averaged only 19.83 points per game.
For most opposing coaches, the Air Force option is an exotic, baffling attack. Just ask Colorado State's Mike Bobo, still recovering from a 49-point bombardment Nov. 12. The Falcons averaged 33.5 points in MW play in 2016.
Long has been struggling against the Air Force option since 1998. His history gives him an intimate understanding of the intricate attack, an understanding that was aided in 2015 when he hired former Air Force star and assistant coach Blane Morgan as an assistant coach. An option expert hired another option expert. Brilliant move, Rocky.
The Mountain West is a volatile realm where it’s hard to keep track of departing teams and coaches. Calhoun and Long bring stability and durability to the shaky conference. Together, they have directed teams through 26 MW seasons (Long 16, Calhoun 10). The other 10 coaches have a total of only 20 seasons of MW experience.
As Calhoun has gained momentum at Air Force, he’s crashed through obstacles.
During his first seven seasons at Air Force, Calhoun beat the weak of the Mountain West and lost to the strong, claiming only two wins from 2007-2013 against MW opponents that finished with a winning record. In the past three seasons, he’s collected six victories over MW opponents with a winning record, including three straight wins over regional power Boise State.
He struggled to beat Navy, losing five of his first seven games against Air Force’s archnemesis, but he’s won two of the last three. He currently rules service academy football.
Toppling Rocky is the greatest challenge.
In 2008, Rocky departed New Mexico, his alma mater, after an uplifting and frustrating 11 seasons. He was weary of small crowds and trying to persuade elite recruits to move to Albuquerque.
San Diego State coach Brady Hoke asked Long to serve as defensive coordinator. The Aztecs were, against all odds, one of the worst programs in the country. The campus was in California, one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in our nation, but the Aztecs were consistent losers. They had not recorded a winning record since 1998 and had lost 17 of 24 MW games.
Hoke and Long, working together, quickly transformed the program. In 2010, the Aztecs finished 9-4, inspiring Michigan to offer a massive contract to Hoke.
Hoke was wise. He wanted to bring Long with him to Ann Arbor as defensive coordinator. If Long had moved to Michigan, Hoke probably would still be there as coach and SDSU might have again tumbled into the MW basement.
SDSU made the right move, hired Long as coach and ensured the Aztecs would remain a Mountain West power.
Calhoun’s quest to defeat Rocky is not hopeless. In 2015, a less-than-mighty edition of the Falcons traveled to San Diego to tangle with the Aztecs in the MW title game. On paper, the game looked like a breeze for Rocky.
On the field, the Falcons nearly delivered an upset, rushing for more than 300 yards before falling just short in a 27-24 defeat. Air Force's offense was roaring.
On Saturday, the offense must roar again. For Calhoun to defeat Rocky, the man who has owned the Falcons, Air Force must bust the 30-point barrier.