Growing pains: Air Force and its young roster inching closer, but wins remain evasive

October 19, 2013 Updated: October 19, 2013 at 9:32 pm
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Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette reels in a pass for a touchdown during a NCAA college football game between the Air Force Falcons and the Utah State Aggies at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 in Air Force Academy, Colo. The Aggies defeated the Falcons 52-20. (Kent Nishimura, The Gazette)

Jalen Robinette raised his hand to call for the ball, but it had already been delivered.

The 6-foot-3 Air Force receiver had a favorable matchup with an undersized San Diego State cornerback as he broke open toward the end zone on what turned out to be the final offensive play Oct. 10. Had freshman quarterback Nate Romine looked his way, a 27-20 loss to the Aztecs just might have gotten pretty interesting.

"I should have given it to him," said Romine, who instead threw a short pass in the flat to Garrett Brown for what turned into a 2-yard loss on the fourth-and-4 play in the final minute. "I could have made a better call at the line to where I wouldn't have to have thrown hot."

Robinette said "it would have been nice to get that one," but was understanding of the situation with a quarterback seeing his first significant game action in a relief appearance.

"Honestly," he said, "as long as we pay attention to stuff like that, we can make plays and change the outcomes of most of the games we play."

For those who stopped paying attention after Air Force dropped lopsided games to Utah State, Boise State and Wyoming to start the Mountain West season, this is where the Falcons have progressed. Those games were decided by disastrous quarters and halves. These past three have largely come down to one or two plays.

A dropped pass late against Nevada with a shot to perhaps a run out the clock with a five-point cushion. A failed attempt on fourth down against Navy that ended a drive that might have resulted in a fourth-quarter lead change. Several missed tackles that allowed a 14-point advantage against San Diego State to slip away. Flip the outcome of any of those plays and Air Force could be sitting on three or four wins instead of being buried at 1-6.

Such are the growing pains with a roster that includes 17 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep roster.

"You need the experience of multiple situations," coach Troy Calhoun said. "It's something you can do in spring and in August, but it's not an exact replica."

"You need these, I don't want to say bloodbaths, but you need these donnybrooks. You just do. Especially younger guys, they need the experience and the grind and the toughness and spirit and passion that's involved and the challenge. It's something that, if you'll derive and you'll learn the lessons, it will help you down the road and not just in football."

Youth, of course, hasn't been the only obstacle facing the Falcons this season. The team is down to its fourth quarterback, several other key players have missed significant time with injuries and for two weeks the government shutdown clouded preparation for games that were on the brink of being canceled.

None of these factors, however, have been mentioned by players and coaches without prodding.

"The way we think about it is we could either give up and throw a pity party or we could go out there, act like we're on a football scholarship and just compete and try to win every game we've got," Romine said. "I think we owe it to our school, ourselves and our coaching staff to come out here and bust our butt every day. That's all we can do.

"That's why we review film, that's why we're out here (at practice); to see the things and get better."

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