When Air Force prepared to face California’s Jared Goff two years ago, Falcons players spoke of one day telling their grandchildren about the matchup.
Goff threw six touchdowns against Air Force in that bowl game, went No. 1 in the NFL Draft and after a rough rookie season is now a star.
As the Falcons prepare to face another quarterback who has drawn praise for his first-round potential, there’s far less awe in the players' voices.
“He’s definitely a good player, and I’m sure once you meet certain measurable or whatever you start entering into that conversation,” said linebacker Jack Flor of Wyoming’s Josh Allen. “Through his play he’s probably distinguished himself that way.”
Nobody would come out and say it – and coach Troy Calhoun went the opposite way, going wild with praise – but there’s the sense that Falcons players aren’t entirely convinced Allen belongs in that conversation of elite quarterbacks.
Perhaps that will change with an 8:15 p.m. kickoff between the teams on Saturday at Falcon Stadium.
Allen’s rise in the national conversation came suddenly last year. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report listed the then-redshirt sophomore as the No. 3 pick in a mock 2017 draft. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback didn’t leave school, and immediately after the draft NFL general managers and draft experts like ESPN’s Todd McShay seemed in agreement that Allen would be a first-round pick in 2018.
Allen remains a staple as a first-round projection even after losing many of his top targets and surrounding talent and producing a less-than-stellar stat line this season that includes a 55.4 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and 1,588 passing yards. He has also rushed for 222 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries.
“He’s got the kind of size to move the sticks,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, a former NFL offensive coordinator who said he wasn’t in position to evaluate Allen in relation to other potential quarterback prospects. “He does have tremendous pocket presence and he absolutely does have an NFL arm, and plus some. I think their style of offense certainly leads to a natural transition for a guy in the NFL, probably for at least 20 teams. There’s some language that’s involved. You can tell at the line of scrimmage there’s some two-play considerations or changing sides with plays to which he’s currently exposed which will help him down the road.
“The physical measurable are very, very impressive.”
In comparing Allen to other NFL-bound quarterbacks the Falcons have faced in recent years, Calhoun grew increasingly complimentary of Allen. He said the junior has “every bit as good mobility as” Andy Dalton when he was at TCU and is bigger and with a stronger arm than Michigan State’s Connor Cook.
“A tremendous quarterback. Perhaps as good a quarterback that’s ever played in this league,” Calhoun said. “You think back maybe to Alex Smith when he was at Utah. Josh Allen is a different type of quarterback, yet a big-time arm – great, great arm talent. Tremendous body. A ton of experience.”
It’s not Allen’s arm strength that ought to worry the Falcons, it’s his legs. Allen threw for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Air Force last year in Laramie, Wyo., but it was his running that extended scoring drives in the Cowboys’ 35-26 victory. He ran 27 yards on a third-and-15 and 32 on a third-and-21 on backbreaking plays for the Falcons defense. That trend has continued, too, as defending quarterbacks on the ground has been a major issue this season. Navy’s Zach Abey, UNLV’s Armani Rogers and Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw averaged 211 rushing yards against Air Force this year.
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said he wouldn’t hesitate to use Allen as a runner if that presents the best option for a victory for a team that, like Air Force, could find itself atop the Mountain West’s Mountain Division only if it wins out only the final three weeks.
Air Force (4-5, 3-2 Mountain West) and Wyoming (6-3, 4-1) have represented the Mountain Division in the title game over the past two years.
“Let’s be real clear, we’re deep in November. The ducks are on the pond. We’re playing to win this thing,” Bohl said. “We’re pulling out all stops. We’re going to do whatever we can to put the Cowboys in position to win. I know Josh Allen is very focused on doing what he can to help these Cowboys win. If that means running him sometimes, we’re going to run.”
If Air Force sells out to stop the run in a reaction to what has happened in recent games, it risks exposing itself to a potential first-round pick’s talents in the passing game.
Allen’s climb has been remarkable. He was passed over as a recruit in Northern California and ended up at a junior college. He then transferred to Wyoming, where he was hurt during his first season. Then came last year, when he threw for 28 touchdowns, sparked Wyoming’s turnaround from two wins to eight and became a mock draft darling.
He has options, too. He could leave school following this season to go pro. He could return to Wyoming. Or he could graduate and pick his spot as a grad-transfer with eligibility to play immediately.
The narrative around Allen has changed continually and will likely continue to do so. On Saturday, he’ll be given a chance to surprise again and show remaining skeptics that he is who so many believe him to be.
If that happens, it could be a story Air Force players one day tell their grandkids.