For a few minutes on a windy, chilly Thursday night at Falcon Stadium, Air Force's football team could indulge in hope. A defense that had been getting bombarded was playing with fresh fire. An offense that has often been slumbering had awakened.
With 4:28 left in the third quarter, Air Force's Sam Gagliano flung himself into the end zone, ending a 71-yard touchdown pass play, and the Falcons looked on their way to a desperately needed victory.
San Diego State squashed that hope with three fourth-quarter touchdowns and sent the minuscule crowd home bewildered. The Aztecs dropped the Falcons, 27-20.
Air Force's football team has forgotten how to win. The Falcons have lost 10 of their past 12.
This one might have hurt the most. When Gagliano arrived in the end zone, the Falcons led 20-6 and the sideline was filled with a joy, a rare visitor in this dismal season. Air Force's pass rush was hassling San Diego quarterback Quinn Kaehler, and the Falcons' heavily maligned defense looked ready to silence its many critics.
But the show wasn't over.
In the fourth quarter, Kaehler suddenly began resembling Wyoming's Brett Smith and Utah State's Chuckie Keeton and Boise State's Joe Southwick. He shredded Air Force's secondary. Meanwhile, running back Donnel Pumphrey ripped to easy gains.
It wasn't all the defense's fault. The offense virtually vanished in the fourth quarter, and the play calling was suspect. On a key third-and-nine play midway through the fourth quarter, halfback Anthony LaCoste was sent straight up the middle to nowhere.
The Falcons punted, and soon the Aztecs were celebrating in the end zone. More daring was required for the Falcons to shake their way out of a long losing streak.
Troy Calhoun has two weeks to revive his fallen team. Notre Dame arrives at Falcon Stadium Oct. 26 in what should amount to a home game. I'm expecting more green than blue in the stadium on that day. In a season of ugly games, this clash with the Fighting Irish might turn into the worst rout of them all.
But there was, as I said, a glimpse of hope in Thursday's gloom.
Fourth-string quarterback Nate Romine showed impressive poise, arm strength and gumption. His soaring pass to Gagliano was just dead on the money. His emergence after starter Karson Roberts suffered a head injury gives Calhoun a tough decision as he prepares for the Irish.
There is, once again, a quarterback battle at the academy.
And the defense showed that it's not always defenseless. The Falcons sacked Kaehler twice, hassled him several other times and played with a rumbling jubilance for most of the night. Air Force defenders celebrated and danced and shouted to the heavens after relatively minor accomplishments.
I liked the emotion. For three quarters this resembled a real defense.
This game was played in a largely empty stadium. On Oct. 26, the Falcons will sprint into their home stadium and see it packed, largely with those who love The Fighting Irish.
They had a chance to head into a long break with a convincing victory. For a few long moments, hope arrived in this season of despair.
The Falcons blew it. That was the story of Thursday night.
That's the story of this season.