October 5, 2013 Updated: October 6, 2013 at 6:55 am
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Talent is the problem.
Coach Troy Calhoun and his players kept talking about execution. The Falcons had just been conquered, 28-10, by Navy as they continued their march toward nowhere. Air Force has lost five straight while surrendering 223 points and 2,658 yards.
But players kept pointing to execution. If they could just execute with more precision, all this trouble would go away.
They're wrong. This team suffers from lack of talent. For the past five weeks, Air Force players have looked across the line of scrimmage at faster, stronger, bigger athletes. They were doomed before the opening snap.
Navy placed a normal-sized college football team on the field. Five of the Midshipmen weigh more than 276 pounds, including 310-pound offensive lineman Jake Zuzek and 303-pound nose guard Bernard Serra. Nobody on Air Force's team weighs more than 270 pounds. The Falcons face an even greater size disadvantage against other opponents.
This edge in girth is not the only reason Air Force stumbled to its worst loss to Navy since 1978, when Jimmy Carter resided in The White House. It is the primary reason.
I realize cadets face strenuous physical fitness demands, but Calhoun must find swift, immense young men who can meet those requirements while also delivering damage on the football field. This is a program that has hit bottom. Execution will not bring this team to its feet.
Air Force football history is filled with unlikely, undersized stars. Nobody wanted Chad Hall, who stands 5-foot-7 and lacks sprinter's speed. Hall obliterated all doubters on his way to the NFL. Dee Dowis was so skinny recruiters couldn't even see him. Dowis finished sixth in 1989 Heisman Trophy voting.
For two decades, Fisher DeBerry used his tricky option attack to defeat the giants - and we're talking literally here - of college football. Still, reality must invade this storyline. Air Force must find some really big guys to give their smaller players room to move.
Mass proved the difference on the game's key play. On the third play of the fourth quarter, the Falcons faced a fourth and 2 at the Navy 34. They trailed 14-10, and an upset remained in sight.
Calhoun made the right call. He sent fullback Broam Hart into the center of Navy's defense. When Hart seized the ball, the Falcons still had a chance. After Navy's defense devoured Hart and Air Force's smallish offensive line, the Falcons were finished.
These are gloomy days. For years, the Falcons have been respectable while Colorado's and Colorado State's programs sizzled to the ground. The Falcons traveled to bowl games for six straight seasons while their in-state rivals took one trip each.
The bowl streak has ended. These Falcons will play their final game Nov. 30 at Colorado State. The postseason will not include this Air Force team.
The season could brighten. The Falcons boast gifted players on offense. Hart ranks among the Mountain West Conference's top fullbacks, and halfback Jon Lee is 150 yards waiting to happen if he's ever given enough carries.
Receiver Sam Gagliano has potential, too, even though he's struggling. He dropped a crucial pass late in the oh-so close loss to Nevada, and he fumbled after a catch in the fourth quarter against Navy.
After the fumble, Gagliano paced the sideline in the sunshine here in Maryland. He stopped once, placed both his hands on his helmet, looked at his teammates.
And then started pacing again.
"I couldn't even tell you what I was thinking," Gagliano said after the game. "Sometimes in those moments, I know I just have to clear my head and forget it and keep trying to move forward."
Move forward. This undersized team that suffers from a lack of talent must move forward. The Falcons will enter every game for the rest of the season as underdogs.
Gagliano offered a plan for recovery.
"You've got to have a short memory," he said softly. "You've got to keep moving forward. I know I messed up, but we're still going to make some things happen in the future."
Everyone connected with Air Force football should know this truth:
More talent is required to make those things happen.