September 7, 2013 Updated: September 8, 2013 at 8:16 am
While talking to Air Force fans following football annihilation by Utah State, I heard about dropped passes and a fumble on the Falcons' first offensive play and the supreme talent of Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton, one of the most thrilling players in Mountain West history.
All explanations avoided discussion of the 52 points and 577 yards surrendered by a group of Air Force players who can only be loosely be described as a defense. If Keeton had stayed home, the Falcons would have still been in peril. If Air Force receivers had caught every pass, the Falcons still would have lost by three touchdowns.
There is a defensive crisis at Air Force. There's no way around it. In Air Force's past three games against Division I teams, a list that does not include Colgate, the Falcons have allowed 1,683 yards and 133 points.
Keeton led Utah State to 577 yards and a 52-20 victory, but those numbers, however terrifying, are deceptive. The Aggies could have collected 750 yards and 66 points if coach Matt Wells had been in a greedy mood.
This is not a fresh trend. In Air Force's past 25 games against D-1 opponents, the Falcons have allowed 30 or more points 13 times.
Linebacker Joey Nichol realizes the road ahead is brutal. Air Force travels to Boise State on Friday, and Notre Dame looms in the near distance.
"We have to play with more anger, more drive," Nichol said.
He's right. The Falcons' defense looked passive. A reckless, violent attitude is required to play stingy defense.
I will say this: The Falcons have played snarling, aggressive defense at times in the last year, but this fire is usually reserved for practice. During games against genuine opponents, the Falcons transform to tentative and polite.
Strong safety Jamal Byrd insisted the Falcons were prepared. They understood the Aggies' complex attack after watching hours of film.
The film didn't help. The Falcons sat back Saturday and watched the Chuckie horror show.
"They didn't surprise us with anything," Byrd said. "We knew exactly what they were going to do."
As Byrd departed the field, he took a long look at the scoreboard. He will remember that number 52 shining at him at the end of this long afternoon.
"We have to learn from this," he said. "This can't happen again. That's way too many points."
Last season, Air Force defenders talked with this same resolve after getting thumped by UNLV and Army, and I never doubted their sincerity. Effort and execution weren't the problem.
Over and over on Saturday, an Aggie holding the ball came face-to-face with a Falcon seeking a tackle. The Aggie usually skipped free. The Aggies were too fast, too quick and too big for the Falcons.
Coach Troy Calhoun talked calmly about his team, but his sadness was obvious. This was the worst home loss of the Calhoun era, but if the coach and his staff fail to revive this defense, it won't be the worst home loss of this season.
"We have a ton of work to do," Calhoun said. "In every area - every area - we have a long ways to go."
The longest journey is with this defense.