Air Force's quarterback battle in 2014 will be a crowded affair.
Nate Romine joined the fray Thursday as the freshman became the fourth Falcons quarterback thrust into considerable action this season after Karson Roberts left with a head injury.
Roberts never stayed down on the field after a hit or gave any clear indication that he was injured, so Romine didn't see his opportunity coming until assistant coach Jake Campbell turned to him and told him to get loose after the second series of the game.
"I thought it was like, 'OK, just stay loose throughout the game,'" said Romine, who just last season was playing for Upland High School in California. "But he was like, 'No, get loose right now.'"
Romine came in and instantly led a scoring drive that he capped with a 16-yard touchdown run. He later connected with Sam Gagliano for a 71-yard scoring pass that was the longest Air Force pass play in four years.
Things were rolling at that point with the Falcons up 20-6, but San Diego State scored the final 21 points in a furious fourth-quarter comeback to send Air Force to its sixth straight loss.
Air Force gave no indication as to the severity of Roberts' injury and there's no way of knowing at this point if he'll be ready to play Oct. 26 against Notre Dame.
If Romine starts that game, he'll be the fourth starting quarterback for Air Force this season. The other three could all potentially have two years of eligibility remaining - though that would depend on junior Kale Pearson taking an extra semester, something athletic director Hans Mueh said he would attempt to get after Pearson was injured in the first game and underwent knee surgery last week. It would also depend on none of the players transferring and Jaleel Awini being reinstated as a cadet in good standing.
Perhaps Gagliano should be in that mix, as he has connected on a pair of passing attempts this year and looked comfortable in doing so. He would also have the quickness needed to transition to the spot from his receiver position.
In short, there are plenty of unknowns; fitting for a position that has been in constant flux for the Falcons this season.
None of the quarterbacks have had noticeable struggles, and Romine was no different as he accumulated 126 total yards and committed no turnovers in his first significant action.
"I thought he had good poise for a guy who really hasn't had a bunch of snaps and a guy who needs to have a little more thickness to him," coach Troy Calhoun said. "You could tell he had a little fun playing football and that's OK."
Romine put together a stellar high school career, passing for 2,728 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior while running for 1,039 yards and 13 more touchdowns. He carried his team to a 12-1 record.
His first taste of college action didn't seem to faze him. On the final drive, with Air Force trailing by seven points in the final two minutes he hit tight end Garrett Griffin for a 32-yard gain before ultimately coming up short on a short pass to Garrett Brown.
"It would have been great had we come up with a win," Romine said. "But you find out a lot about yourself and your teammates just being out there. There's not a group of guys who have bigger hearts on the field than this team."
Air Force, through all this, is learning it will have a lot to decide at the quarterback position in the coming months.
Three things we watched
Reviewing items we identified as keys prior to Air Force’s game against San Diego State that was won 27-20 by the Aztecs.
Balance figured to be key for the Aztecs, and sure enough they didn’t abandon the running game even as they fell behind 20-6. As a result, they were able to get five first downs running and five first downs passing during the fourth quarter and scored the winning touchdown on a third-down running play. San Diego State finished with 214 rushing yards and 249 passing yards.
Short week to prepare
Teams generally dread facing a triple-option attack without ample time to prepare, but it didn’t seem to be a major factor. Even in the first half, when Air Force jumped to a lead, the Falcons ran for just 83 yards on 28 attempts. Part of that likely resulted from an early injury to Air Force quarterback Karson Roberts that resulted in a change at the position after the first quarter.
The uncertainty of the week may have led to what was a sloppy game for San Diego State until the final 12 minutes. The Aztecs missed two extra points, committed six penalties for 40 yards — each that seemed to come at inopportune times — and just generally looked disinterested in competing in this game. All of that changed over the final 12 minutes, however.