Isaiah Sanders grimaced as he took a seat for a postgame interview, his body clearly feeling every one of those 44 carries.
What a wonderful, and painful, welcome to college football this was.
The sophomore quarterback from a local high school made a spot start in the season finale, ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns and led the Falcons to a back-and-forth 38-35 victory over Utah State late Saturday night.
His 44 carries were not only a program record, topping a mark set in 1970, but it was just the 30th time this century that a college football player had run the ball that many times in a game. It’s a list that includes stars like Derrick Henry, LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte and Le’Veon Bell.
Now a former Palmer Ridge quarterback is up there with them after just one college start.
“Coach was telling me we were going to run the rock,” said Sanders, who was born at the Air Force Academy and, after moving around in a military family, has spent the past decade in the Pikes Peak region. “That’s what we needed to do and it got the job done.”
Sanders’ third touchdown came with 1:38 remaining and put Air Force up for good after a fourth quarter that saw four lead changes. The Falcons had trailed 7-0, 14-3, 21-10, 28-24 and 35-31 in the game before closing it out.
The Falcons turned to Sanders as the third option after Arion Worthman was injured a knee two weeks ago against Wyoming and backup Nate Romine broke his collarbone last week at Boise State.
“He played his butt off today and had an incredible game,” senior fullback Jacob Stafford said of Sanders after running 14 times for 112 yards. “To be able to step into a game after two quarterbacks go down after the last two games and carry the ball. Hats off to him for stepping up and being mature enough to handle our offense and have a great game.”
Air Force was briefly down to its fourth quarterback when Sanders left in pain after feeling a "crack" in his back while taking a hit. Michael Schmidt came in for one play, helping the team convert on third-and-5 during what turned into the game-winning drive.
"That was a key play, a crucial play, and really the only play he’s had since the opening game," coach Troy Calhoun said.
The Falcons (5-7, 4-4 Mountain West) ran for 407 yards, their fifth game with 400 or more rushing yards this season. Those were the five games they won.
“We didn’t stop the run,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “You don’t stop the run, you’re going to bleed and bleed and bleed until you ain’t got no blood left, and that’s the bottom line.”
Utah State (6-6, 4-4) jumped ahead with touchdown runs of 71 and 75 yards in the first quarter and outgained Air Force 521 to 440.
The Falcons learned before the game that their season would end on Saturday. Had not enough teams reached six wins to take the 78 available bowl spots, Air Force would have been the first 5-7 team to fill an opening because of its graduation rate. However, all slots were claimed by mid-afternoon, well in advance of this 8:26 p.m. start that was contested in front of an announced crowd of 17,252.
For the seniors, that meant this was the finale. And two of them teamed up for a memorable play in their final quarter.
With the Falcons trailing 28-24, a Charlie Scott punt pinned Utah State at its 2-yard line. On third down, senior linebacker Grant Ross sacked Jordan Love, jarring the ball loose. Senior defensive end Santo Coppola fell on it for a go-ahead touchdown.
“Me and Santo, we’ve known each other for five years,” Ross said. “We went to the prep school together. We’ve dreamed about plays like that, me and him.”
Senior tailback Tim McVey scored the 33rd touchdown of his career, as he finished tied for fifth in program history with receiver Ernie Jennings and quarterback Tim Jefferson in touchdowns.
Kicker Luke Strebel returned from a quad injury suffered last week to hit five PATs and a field goal, leaving him as Air Force’s all-time leader with 254 career points. Quarterbacks Dee Dowis (1986-89) and Beau Morgan (1994-96) had shared that mark at 252.
“Hundreds of plays had to come together for one little name to be on top of that list,” said Strebel, who deflected praise to the offense and his teammates on the kicking team. “And it is truly humbling to be part of that record.”
This season will be remembered as one filled with missed opportunities that left the Falcons one win shy of reaching a bowl for the 10th time in 11 years under Calhoun.
They couldn’t hold a late lead at Navy in a 48-45 thriller. They couldn’t finish in a 28-24 loss to San Diego State. They couldn’t seize an opportunity against Wyoming after touted quarterback Josh Allen left the game. They couldn’t hang with New Mexico after leading at halftime. They couldn’t do anything in a shutout loss to Army in a home game they were heavily favored. Even at Michigan, they were within a possession deep in the fourth quarter.
They were all losses. This one looked headed that way, too. But they flipped it this time.
“We put it all on the line, all on the field, and I’m content and happy,” Ross said. “I’m happy for the seniors going out like that and I’m excited for the juniors, so they can have some inspiration going into the next season.”