Published: August 25, 2013
Two moments, had they been tweaked by fate, could have drastically altered Air Force's 2012 season.
At the bottom of the pile in the end zone and in overtime, Navy guard Jake Zuzek happened to feel the ball. In an instant, he clutched it and held on for the winning touchdown.
Had that fumble found an Air Force player, the course of the season might have been changed.
Then again, for a Falcons team that sneaked into a bowl game with the minimum number of required victories, late December might not have included a trip to the Armed Force Bowl were it not for a stop on fourth and 4 on the Air Force 12 against New Mexico.
The Lobos were driving late in the fourth quarter for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown, but defensive coordinator Charlton Warren dismissed any chance of a pass play, sent his safeties on a blitz to clog up one side and linebacker Alex Means slipped through on the other side to bring down Lamaar Thomas for a 4-yard loss.
If Warren doesn't opt for that call, if the safeties don't get through the end, if Means is blocked . who knows?
There are countless moments in each game, and you never know which ones might impact the outcome and alter a season.
Because of this, Air Force spends precious meeting and practice time going over obscure scenarios, just in case.
"I think you have to," coach Troy Calhoun said. "When you sit down and plan out your August practice you have to go through as many of those situations and scenarios as you possibly can, even if some of them may only come up once every five years."
Calhoun rattled off a long list of out-of-the-ordinary plays for which the Falcons will be briefed. They included kickoffs after safeties, fair catches on punts that can be turned into free kicks for field goals, safeties on extra points that are worth one point, knowing when to try to return a blocked punt or field goal and the risk and reward of each. On top of that, he preached the understanding of down and distance in certain situations, clock awareness and even when numerous laterals can pay off.
It's a long list.
"You've got to prepare for every situation that could possibly come about," he said.
In many ways, this preparedness is a microcosm of the academy's mission as a whole.
From the time they arrive as basic cadets, those at the school are drilled on the minutia of everything.
One player compared it to the training exercises in "The Karate Kid," where the in-training hero is unknowingly learning specific disciplines while waxing cars, painting a house, sanding floors and re-finishing a fence.
"Like with my room, I've always kind of thought that as long as it looks fine, why does it matter?" Air Force lineman Michael Husar said. "But later on it's those things that might mean life or death for someone. Just to get that mentality instilled, it makes sense. But at the time? No. You're just like, 'Why do I have to do this?'"
So Calhoun might get some crooked looks in meetings and talk about some situations that couldn't seem more obscure. The reality is, the ball will bounce in unpredictable directions and opponents will do things that can't be anticipated, but Air Force is determined to make sure its season won't be determined by a moment that a little preparation could have prevented.
Which quarterback comes out on the first drive against Utah State?
It would be a surprise if both Kale Pearson and Jaleel Awini don't see action in the opener against Colgate, but the one who comes out first against Utah State is clearly the one the Falcons will attempt to ride.
What happens after the first Jon Lee fumble?
Jon Lee lost three fumbles last year and the opposition turned each one into a touchdown. His last fumble, against Rice, marked the last time he touched the ball. How much trust the coaching staff shows in him if and when he puts it on the ground for the first time this year will be a telling sign if he'll get a true shot to be the featured back. The unexpected in the Notre Dame game
The Fighting Irish have owned the series, winning 23 of 29. But all of Air Force's wins have come over the past 18 meetings and in that span and two of the past six meetings have gone to overtime. One of the great plays in Air Force history happened in this series in 1985 when Terry Maki blocked a Notre Dame field-goal attempt and A.J. Scott returned it 77 yards for the winning touchdown.