FORT COLLINS – Ben Waters won three state championships in Colorado while at Valor Christian.
He never envisioned tacking on a fourth. Particularly like this.
The Air Force receiver and Denver native caught two touchdown passes as the Falcons topped Colorado State 38-21, completing a sweep of Colorado State and Colorado in the second three-way round robin between the state’s major college football programs and the first in 51 years.
Air Force went 2-0 in 1958, too.
“To be able to win state, again, that’s awesome,” said Waters, who admitted to playing with a “chip on his shoulder” after receiving no offers from the Rams of Buffaloes. “It’s been a blast.”
Waters’ 31-yard touchdown catch from Donald Hammond III brought Air Force out of an early 14-0 hole at Canvas Stadium. His second score, from 28 yards, came as part of a flurry of big plays in the fourth quarter as the offense finally erupted.
Before that point, it was the defense doing the heavy lifting for Air Force (8-2, 5-1 Mountain West).
After giving up a 75-yard drive on the game’s opening possession, and then watching the Rams go up by two scores with a 63-yard fumble recovery, the Falcons took over with textbook team defense.
They took away the running game — Colorado State ran for just 39 yards on 31 carries — to make it one-dimensional. Then they took apart the passing game by providing pressure (eight sacks, three quarterback hurries) and defending on the edges (seven pass breakups).
“It was a complete team defense,” said linebacker Demonte Meeks, who had nine tackles and a sack. “It was nice to see.”
Fittingly, it was a defensive play that provided the exclamation point. Cornerback Zane Lewis jumped a route on the outside, grabbed the interception and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown with 1:22 remaining.
“I just saw it and I jumped it,” Lewis explained. “It was definitely a cool moment for me.”
After it scored on its opening drive, Colorado State (4-6, 3-3) gained just 88 yards on its next eight drives.
The problem for Air Force was it wasn’t capitalizing on the defensive stops, and it trailed 14-10 going into the fourth quarter.
Colorado State shared in that frustration as the teams seemingly waited for something to change the game.
“We got stop after stop, put the offense in position to score points and the inability to do that was frustrating,” Colorado State coach Mike Bobo said.
It was ultimately Air Force’s passing game that changed things. Hammond hit receiver Geraud Sanders for a 50-yard touchdown, and the floodgates opened.
“I wanted to take the lead back for our team and make a play and spark some energy for our team, and that’s what happened,” Sanders said.
The Falcons outscored the Rams 28-7 in the fourth quarter in winning the fourth straight in the series.
“You’d like to make some more first downs in the running game,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “But there’s no exact recipe.”
Hammond said the Rams were “pretty much daring us to throw the ball” by bringing their safeties close to the line to help with run support. He threw for 126 yards and three scores.
“A win always feels great, especially when you can win the language that you’re the best team in the state of Colorado,” Hammond said. “That feels amazing.”
Air Force has won five games in a row and remains alive in the Mountain West race, though it still needs help as it trails Boise State by a game.
It needs no help in the state, where it holds bragging rights.
“I’m not going to throw it in their face,” said Hammond, who said he occasionally sees players from Colorado and Colorado State. “But I’ll bring it up sometimes.”
Added Meeks, “I never won a state championship before, so it was pretty sick for me. For us to do it was a good feeling, for sure. We went crazy. It was super cool.”