Troy Calhoun declines to discuss Saturday’s uplifting, depressing, baffling loss to Navy.
“We’ve moved on,” he says.
Moved on? Yeah, sure, coach. Calhoun will recover from the 48-45 loss in, say, 35 years.
I understand his reluctance. The defeat exposed a long list of Air Force weaknesses. Navy rampaged to 481 rushing yards, primarily by outmuscling the Falcons. Air Force’s defense has allowed 104 points in two weeks, and you tend to lose when surrendering 52 points a game.
But the defeat also exposed the full depth of Air Force’s potential.
Offensive tackle Jake Barnhorst remembers the scene in the huddle when the Falcons fell behind, 28-7. Many in Navy’s record crowd were so certain of victory they didn’t bother to return to the game after halftime. The Midshipmen were a lock, or so it seemed.
Quarterback Arion Worthman had a vastly different scenario in mind.
“He said some things that I probably can’t say on a recording,” Barnhorst says into my recorder, “but it was along the lines of, ‘Listen, we ain’t losing to these guys, so let’s step it up right now.’ He really took control.”
Yes, he did. The second half comeback, the one Calhoun declines to discuss, could light the way for the Falcons in the second half of the season. The recovery can start Saturday at Falcon Stadium against UNLV.
Here are three reasons to believe in the Falcons chances to recover from a 1-4 record.
1. Worthman’s arm
I feel pity for Mountain West defensive coordinators who watched video of Worthman’s performance in Saturday’s second half. For those coordinators, Worthman’s combination of running and passing was a horror movie. A coordinator might stop one of those threats. The coordinator can’t stop both.
Barnhorst watched the video, too.
“He clearly can pass with anybody,” Barnhorst says. “He’s our guy, and moving forward, I think he has a chance to pass like that in a lot of games.”
For much of Worthman’s brief tenure as starter, he’s been too eager to depart the pocket. Against San Diego State, Worthman usually dropped back, took the briefest of looks into the secondary and bolted, usually to a negligible gain. He drained his danger as a passer.
Against Navy, Worthman kept his eyes locked on receivers, ignoring the ferocious rush. He was courageous. He was patient. He was accurate.
Calhoun was impressed by Worthman’s ability “to avoid taking a sack but yet still to let a route develop and put it in a spot where he had an opportunity to complete it.”
If Worthman finds receivers in the passing game and shares the ball with pitches in the run game, the Falcons could average 35 points in their remaining games.
2. Last season’s revival
Air Force was falling apart last season, too. The Falcons lost three straight while surrendering 114 points. The season looked bleak, but they rallied, led by Worthman, for six straight wins. The lost season turned into one of the program’s finest seasons.
Calhoun says he has not mentioned The Comeback of 2016.
“Not at all,” he says. “No thoughts. No talk.”
Then, he returns to a sentence that invades nearly every conversation.
“What matters is practicing today.”
We’ll remember that, coach.
Barnhorst takes a better approach. Of course he’s thinking about good times from 2016 as he seeks to escape bad times in 2017.
“As an older guy who has been through that, it’s something we think back to and say, ‘We’re down, but we’re not out.’ We can come back from this and we can realistically be an 8-4 team at the end of this season.”
(Notice how Barnhorst already plans not only for a bowl game, but a bowl win.)
He talks in steady voice about the victories he sees on the horizon.
“I mean, listen, we’re the same team that we’ve been. We have the resiliency, we have the discipline to come back.”
3. The Mountain West
Air Force came achingly close to defeating San Diego State, the lone power this season in the Mountain West. The Falcons will be favored to defeat UNLV, Nevada and Utah State. The Wyoming game will be a toss-up. Air Force will be an underdog against Boise State and CSU.
But, remember, there’s no unspeakably mighty team lurking on the horizon. Victory is possible, if not probable, in every game on the rest of the schedule.
Air Force has beaten Boise three straight times. CSU coach Mike Bobo remains baffled by the Falcons intricate option offense that dropped 49 points on the Rams last season.