Jalen Robinette provided one of the few glimmers of hope for Air Force on an otherwise dismal Saturday.
The freshman receiver ran by Utah State cornerback Jeff Manning down the left sideline, kept separation with a check from his right hand and caught a perfectly placed ball from Karson Roberts over his left shoulder for a 37-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Granted, the score was 52-13 when the play was unfolding, and Manning is not an Aggies starter, but that wasn't the point. Robinette, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, has been drawing praise from Air Force coaches since he arrived at the prep school last year. The touchdown marked the first time he was targeted with a pass in a game for the Falcons.
"He's a guy that, there's ability there," coach Troy Calhoun said. "One of the things, though, is you've got to be careful about not rushing a freshman or a sophomore at the Air Force Academy. But he has had a good bit of reps in practice and he does have some tools."
The tools - like the speed, strength and hands on that play - are striking. Still, Robinette said he didn't grow frustrated standing on the sideline and watching as teammates dropped three or four potential touchdowns.
"I understand that I'm a freshman and I need to earn my time and my respect," said the native of Bexley, Ohio. "That comes first on the special teams, doing my job out there, and when they call my name I've just got to be ready. I didn't really expect to hear all this stuff about me. I've got to earn it. It's not going to come easy, especially at the academy."
Grumblings heard throughout the stadium suggested that Air Force, never known as a passing team, simply didn't have the receivers capable of adjusting to a more balanced offense. That's not entirely true, but it didn't hurt to have a guy like Robinette make a play - even in mop-up time - to demonstrate there is a potential big-time pass catcher on the roster.
It was the expectation of this offensive switch that helped Robinette choose Air Force. He said it was difficult at times last year to watch a team that rarely passed with Connor Dietz at quarterback. Robinette understood that Dietz was experiencing shoulder problems and was told by coaches that a more open passing game was in the works.
That finally came to fruition Saturday, with quarterback Jaleel Awini attempting 10 first-half passes.
"There's other reasons, too, with the academy," Robinette said of his decision. "I couldn't really say no to those opportunities. But football-wise, it was kind of nice to hear they were going to put the ball in the air.
"We've just got to find a way to move the ball efficiently, passing or whatever it takes."