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Ramsey: Karson Roberts carries Air Force football back to the heights

November 17, 2015 Updated: November 17, 2015 at 5:38 pm
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Air Force won the game 35-28 at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, November 14, 2015.

Karson Roberts has taken one of those inspiring journeys. You know the type. From soul-draining depths to ego-boosting heights. From a dank dungeon to the observation deck at the Empire State Building.

First, the depths.

He was playing quarterback for Air Force when the Falcons fell behind 35-7 at Michigan State and 27-0 at Navy and 35-13 at Colorado State.

As recently as Oct. 17, the day of the CSU loss, Roberts was under attack from Air Force fans campaigning for him to be banished to the bench. He says he paid no attention to the attacks. I'll let you decide if you believe him.

Ah, what a difference a month makes. In Saturday's win over Utah State, Roberts played with the swagger and versatility of the finest option quarterbacks in Air Force's history. He was right up there with Dee Dowis, Beau Morgan and Kale Pearson.

"I knew I could do the option stuff and I knew I could do the pass part," Roberts said in his flat Texas drawl after practice. "I don't think I surprised myself, no."

He's alone in his lack of surprise.

Following the CSU loss, I said Roberts should remain Air Force's starter, standing in opposition to an avalanche of support formed for backup QBs Pate Davis and Ryan Brand.

I'm used to not everyone agreeing with my views. That's common.

What's rare is when nobody agrees. Air Force fans unanimously rejected the idea Roberts should lead the Falcons. They suggested I was ignorant, which might be true in many realms but was false when it came to Air Force quarterbacks.

During the uproar, meanwhile, Roberts was working. He had studied Troy Calhoun's complex offense since 2012, and he done this studying with the aid of a flexible and analytical mind. Roberts, a mechanical engineering major, ranks among the top students at the academy.

He had the knowledge to excel. He had the skills.

He lacked the belief.

Confidence is tricky. You can chase it, but the feeling usually ends up finding you, instead of the other way around. It's so precious, and so elusive.

Slowly, Roberts began to believe. He led a ferocious comeback against Fresno State, ending the Falcons' month-long slump. He was solid in a rout over Hawaii.

He's been spectacular during the past two wins. Anyone paying attention knew Roberts could run. He's elusive. He's faster and more powerful than he looks.

The surprise has been in his passing. In wins over Army and Utah State, Roberts completed 17 of 28 passes for 427 yards, or 23.7 yards per completion. He's been nervy, throwing darts through double coverage.

Michigan State, Navy and CSU crushed Air Force's one-dimensional, run-obsessed, take-no-risks offense. With Roberts excelling as a runner and passer, the Falcons are the ones doing the crushing.

Air Force offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen once operated the Falcons' option attack as starting quarterback. He knows the immensity of the task, which explains his patience with Roberts.

"You could see him grow," Thiessen said. "You could see him get comfortable in the position. He is in command as opposed to being just another one of the 11 on the field. He's running the show, and he's taken ownership of that."

A month ago, the Falcons appeared lifeless. On obvious passing downs, Troy Calhoun and Thiessen refused to show faith in Roberts as Air Force ran toward football oblivion.

It took time for Roberts to fully believe in himself and for his coaches to join in the belief, but his day has arrived. The Falcons fly to Boise State to play Friday night on a hideous blue carpet. They arrive in Idaho with a chance to eventually rule the Mountain West, a possibility nobody envisioned Oct. 17 when CSU was stomping a bunch of confused cadets.

Those cadets lacked a leader of their complicated offense. They don't lack a leader any more.

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