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Dissecting a shutout: Exploring the events and conditions that ended Air Force's 25-year scoring streak

November 9, 2017 Updated: November 9, 2017 at 9:55 pm
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photo - Air Force running back Timothy McVey, left, is tackled after a short gain by Army defensive back Rhyan England in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Air Force running back Timothy McVey, left, is tackled after a short gain by Army defensive back Rhyan England in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

Air Force’s shutout streak ended this past week with a 21-0 loss to Army. The Falcons hadn’t been shut out for so long – 306 games dating back to the 1992 Liberty Bowl – that it figured to take a perfect storm of events to make it happen.

And that’s what took place against Army, as the streak that stood as the fifth-longest in NCAA history (and third-longest active run) was snapped.

Here’s a look back at those events:

Weather conditions

It was so windy on Saturday that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which is open 365 days a year, closed for a while in the morning because conditions were unsafe. By 1:30 p.m. kickoff, winds were less severe but still registered at 28 mph. What’s worse, they were constantly shifting. Air Force kicker Luke Strebel, whose career 84.8 field goal percentage (39 out of 46) ranks second in program history, said the wind changed in the short time from his approach to when he made contact with a 47-yard attempt on Air Force’s first possession. He thought he hit it perfectly, but the wind carried it well to the right and ruined what turned out to be the Falcons’ best scoring opportunity.

***

A formidable defense

Not just anybody was going to be able to shut down this Air Force offense, which had scored 93 points in a pair of road victories leading into Saturday. Even after being shut out, this offense still ranks No. 1 in the Mountain West in scoring. But Army is building a special defense under coach Jeff Monken. In his first year, the defense ranked 90th nationally in total defense. That improved to 47 the following year and the Black Knights checked in at No. 4 in that category last year. And, of course, this defense gets extra work against an option-based offense because of what it runs and it faces a scout team stocked with running quarterbacks who can simulate it accurately.

***

Few opportunities

Air Force’s defense did nothing to slow Army’s offense, as the Black Knights posted the following drives:

  • 5 plays, 75 yards, 2;39 (touchdown)
  • 12 plays, 57 yards, 7:32 (missed field goal)
  • 9 plays, 78 yards, 5:17 (touchdown)
  • 3 plays, 16 yards, :53 (end of first half)
  • 16 plays, 73 yards, 10:42 (downs)
  • 14 plays, 84 yards, 7:44 (touchdown)
  • 1 play, minus-1 yard, :33 (end of game)

The Black Knights were so lethal in the running game that they never attempted a pass and never punted. The only time a snap led to anything other than a running play came when they attempted (and missed) a field goal. Meanwhile, Air Force was also churning clock. The Falcons never went 3-and-out and picked up 11 first downs on their first five drives (which encompassed the whole game, save for a desperation possession late in the fourth quarter when the outcome was decided). Air Force had 14 drives in a loss against New Mexico, 13 at Navy and 12 at Nevada. Against Army, it had just six. Such few possessions meant little room for error, and that proved problematic because of…

 ***

Third-down issues

Air Force went just 3-of-11 on third down. Here were the key plays that thwarted Air Force’s drives:

  • 3rd & 7 at the Army 30, first quarter: A pass from Arion Worthman to Tim McVey fell incomplete, leading to Strebel’s missed 47-yard field goal.
  • 3rd & 12 at the Army 47, second quarter: An overthrow (again, remember the wind conditions) of tight end Ryan Reffitt that would have likely have gone for a touchdown on first down and then a 2-yard loss on a Ronald Cleveland run put the Falcons in third and long, where pass protection has been a major issue this season. Worthman was hurried by John Voit and threw incomplete, prompting a punt.
  • 3rd & 14 at the Air Force 46, second quarter: Again, it was a play before third down that was the real issue. On 2nd and 8, slot receiver Andrew Smith took a pitch and then attempted a pass, drawing a flag for intentional grounding. The poor execution made the play look ill-advised, but Air Force has had plenty of success with receivers throwing in recent history. Falcons receivers were 9-of-15 for 321 yards and three touchdowns since 2013 before Smith’s attempt – so it has been more than a gimmick for this team. Once in third and long, Worthman tried to create something with his legs but instead ran backward and was thrown for a 7-yard loss, leading to another punt.
  • 3rd & 3 at the Army 49, third quarter: The Falcons had rushed for 26 yards on five carries to open the half when an option pitch from Worthman to McVey was mishandled. McVey recovered the fumble for a 2-yard loss and the Falcons punted. They didn’t see the ball again until 50 seconds remained in the quarter.
  • 3rd & 12, Army 27, fourth quarter: This was the play that thwarted Air Force’s hopes. McVey ran around the right side for a 19-yard gain to the Army 8-yard line with the Falcons trailing 14-0 and about 7 minutes remaining. Air Force was in position to not only end the shutout threat, but get very much back into the game. But receiver Marcus Bennett was flagged for holding late in the play. So instead of 1st and goal, the Falcons had to replay the down and faced 3rd and 3 at the 18. McVey gained 2, leading to a fourth and 1. Worthman carried to the left on that play, where he was encountered by two defenders. He reversed course and threw a desperation pass that bounced just in front of a diving McVey.

On a day when Air Force ran just 47 offensive plays, those five (plus two or three in front of them) proved too much to overcome.

***

Game situation

If avoiding the shutout was the only goal, Air Force would have simply kicked a field goal on that last long drive after the holding penalty and McVey’s 2-yard run. It would have been a 33-yard attempt, a range from which Strebel has not missed this season. But a field goal there would have left the Falcons down 14-3 with 6 minutes left. They needed a touchdown and went for it.

***

Other factors

Army kicker Nick Schrage put all four of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, meaning the Falcons had to set up at the 25 and at no point did the Falcons have a shot to return a kick or punt. The other Air Force drives started at its 20 (after Army missed a field goal) and the 22 (after a turnover on downs). Air Force never have anything resembling a short field that could have aided in scoring drive that wouldn’t have required a long march. That’s another variable that can be traced to the defense’s inability to stop Army’s running attack or force a turnover.

Perhaps emotion also played a factor. Several Air Force players spoke afterward of feeling flat and said "Army wanted it more." Coach Troy Calhoun dismissed such talk, however, saying emotion and momentum tend to be products of what happens on the field. A few first downs or stops, he reasoned, would have changed that. I would guess the chicken-or-the-egg argument when it comes to energy is a bit more complicated, but it's impossible to say definitively either way.

The other thing to consider is the position of the teams in this rivalry. Imagine an epic movie battle (think "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"). Do you want to be the team defending a four-game streak (which Air Force had in this series) plus the long scoring run, or do you want to be the team on the other side trying to bust down that door? Eventually, the door always falls.

***

It takes a lot for an offense like Air Force’s to fall in a shutout, and that’s why it hadn’t happened in so long. It took a team effort and a confluence of events that hadn’t been seen in, well, probably 25 years.

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