The first game out of the gate in the Mountain West season just might turn out to be the most important.
Air Force travels to No. 20 Boise State with division implications already on the line between teams with unbeaten records and high hopes for the season.
“Any week, you’re facing a big game. But obviously, Boise at their place has a little extra meaning,” said senior Air Force safety Garrett Kauppila. “But we’re ready for it.”
For the Falcons, it’s difficult to imagine bigger stakes in September. A win could catapult the momentum started last week with a 30-23 overtime victory at Colorado and thrust the Falcons into the conversation for a Top 25 ranking. And a win would give Air Force the inside track on a second Mountain Division title, particularly given that some of its more difficult remaining games — Fresno State, Utah State, Wyoming — will be contested with Falcon Stadium’s homefield advantage. Having a one-game lead and a tiebreaker over Boise State would be huge.
“This is everything you want. It’s so much fun playing good teams, especially when you know you are a good team,” said Falcons senior slot receiver Ben Waters. “We’re going to keep proving that we can play with the best of them. I love that they’re ranked 20th. That’s awesome. It should be fun.”
Boise State (3-0) has won 19 consecutive conference openers, but coach Bryan Harsin acknowledged that this game might go a long way toward determining who claims a spot in the Mountain West championship game.
“Not to jump ahead, which I know no coach ever wants to do that, but I think this game always is a big part of our side of the division,” Harsin said.
So many variables are in play. Boise State has struggled to solve Air Force’s complex rushing attack, and then made itself susceptible to big plays in the passing game. The Broncos feature a freshman quarterback in Hank Bachmeier, who has started his career with three victories but has shown flaws with a 61.8 completion percentage, four touchdowns and three interceptions. But Bachmeier is playing behind a line that returned all five starters from a year ago, and his receiving corps is deep — with six players already registering eight catches. Boise State’s defense is a veteran group that it feels might be its best in five years. And John Hightower brings explosiveness in the return game.
“I think the most complete Mountain West conference team in the last seven years,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Air Force (2-0) is rolling with the nation’s second-ranked rushing offense, the third-most efficient passing attack and a defense ranking in the top 30 against the pass, run and in scoring. Junior quarterback Donald Hammond III is 5-2 in his career starts, losing only at San Diego State last year when he left early in the first quarter and at Wyoming last year when the Falcons blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. He also came on in relief in a pair of games as a sophomore, inheriting double-digit deficits and rallying the Falcons to a pair of 3-point losses.
In the opening win against Colgate, it seemed Air Force showed itself how its many returning pieces could fit back together. Against Colorado, it showed the state that this could be a special season. Now, against Boise, it could gain the nation’s attention with a prime time slot at 7 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
“Up on the hill, cadets are talking to us and saying, ‘Good game, good luck this week,’” senior safety Grant Theil said. “It’s a good feeling knowing we have another tough opponent this week and we have a lot of support.”