Air Force’s long wait is coming to an end.
The Falcons have endured more than 50 practices since the beginning of spring ball, with the only turn-the-scoreboard-on football in that span coming in a 62-0 blowout of Virginia Military Institute in the season opener that fell before a bizarrely early open week in the schedule.
This is a team itching to play anybody. Throw in the fact that it is No. 7 Michigan awaiting on Saturday, and the excitement as game week began on Monday was palpable.
“It’s finally here,” senior cornerback Marquis Griffin said. “We’ve been talking about it all summer. It’s finally here. So, it’s time to go out there and do it.”
Air Force is a 26-point underdog in the game, and with good reason. Air Force hasn’t beaten a team from the Big Ten since 2003 (a 22-21 win over Northwestern), hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road since 2002 (a 23-21 victory over No. 23 California) and hasn’t beaten a top-10 foe since 1995 (20-17 at No. 9 Notre Dame).
Air Force is 18-75-3 all-time against ranked teams, including a 4-14 mark under head coach Troy Calhoun.
Michigan, which has defeated Florida and Cincinnati this season, outscored six opponents by 33 or more points last season. Its losses came by one point at Iowa, in double overtime at Ohio State and by one point to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
The lone common opponent for Air Force and Michigan last year was Hawaii, which visited both. Michigan won that game 63-3. The Rainbow Warriors left Falcon Stadium with a 34-27 victory in double overtime.
This is a service academy against the winningest program in college football history by total victories (937) and winning percentage (.731).
It’s a huge challenge, obviously. But because of that, Air Force sees a huge opportunity.
“I think across the board we’re just really excited to play,” slot receiver Ronald Cleveland said. “It’s the Big House. People dream about playing there. My mom went there. It’s an awesome opportunity. Everybody’s got it in the back of their heads like, ‘If I do make a play, it could be a big play and, like, a lot of people could see it.’”
Air Force has made games like this close before. It lost to Michigan 31-25 in 2012. It lost 27-24 to No. 7 Oklahoma in 2010. No. 11 Tennessee squeezed by, 31-30, in 2006.
“As a competitor, you want to go play the very, very best,” said defensive coordinator Steve Russ, who played in the NFL after his career with the Falcons. “I’m Type A like all these guys are. I played at the academy and people said, ‘You’re not good enough to play at this level.’ I’m a Midwestern kid (from Wisconsin), I wanted to go play in the Big Ten. It didn’t work out to do that, and thank God it didn’t, because I was able to come here to Air Force and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. But as an 18-22 year old, and as a coach, you say, ‘Hey, I want to show what our young men can do.’”
Air Force knows the odds are long, but it has also considered what a victory on Saturday would mean.
“I think it would mean everything,” Griffin said. “Everybody’s rooting us on in class and in the community. We’re going to try to make them proud.”
FALCONS ON THE OPPORTUNITY OF PLAYING AT NO. 7 MICHIGAN
“It’s a leapboard. If we can go into Michigan and get a win, go play well, it will transition us into the rest of our season. We have San Diego State right after them, followed by New Mexico and Navy. So there’s a gauntlet of a schedule ahead. It’s nice to have a bye week now to kind of repair and regroup and kind of look ahead and prepare. I think we’re all excited. It’s the Big House. It’s everything.” – free safety Garrett Kauppila
“If we weren’t going into this like any other week, trying to get another win, then it would be wrong on our part. Obviously it means a little bit going up there, traveling that far and trying to get a win in their territory, but it’s still just another game.” – left tackle Jake Barnhorst
You want to approach every game like it’s the same, but this has definitely been circled since January or what not. Just to get an opportunity to play a team like this – someone out of conference, someone different – it’s definitely a special opportunity. We’re going to prepare and do everything we do leading up to a game, be consistent, and give them our best shot.” – quarterback Arion Worthman
“It’s a good chance to go play a premier team in the country. At the same time, we’re pretty confident with the guys ourselves. It will be a good test for us, a good measuring stick.” – offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen