Air Force had all the momentum as it entered the final 15 minutes against Fresno State, but quarterback Donald Hammond III didn’t want to chance it slipping away.
“I told the offense before the fourth quarter that we needed to finish,” Hammond said, “and there’s a huge difference between 3-3 and 4-2.”
The message was received, and the Falcons outscored Fresno State by 14 points in the fourth to win 43-24 over the two-time defending West Division champions in the Mountain West.
Air Force football players are unlikely to be given the flexibility to explore Hawaii's beaches this weekend, but in encountering heat, humidity and the run-and-shoot offense they'll get a taste of a unique environment all the same.
That victory, as Hammond noted, brought Air Force into the season’s halfway point at 4-2, 2-1 in the conference. With four wins in the bank, the Falcons need just two more for bowl eligibility after missing out in each of the past two seasons.
It also pushed the Falcons along in the conference season with renewed vigor after a crushing loss at Navy the previous week.
“For us to bounce back like we did, especially after a loss like we had last week, is huge for the team and it’s huge going forward,” Hammond said.
Added safety Grant Theil of the importance of overcoming a halftime deficit to beat the Bulldogs, “I wouldn’t say so much the record, but the timing of coming off the Navy loss and and bouncing back and beating a really good Fresno team gives us confidence knowing that we can compete in the Mountain West.”
Before the Falcons begin the second half of their season at Hawaii (4-2, 1-1) at 9 p.m. Saturday, let’s revisit some key points and players from the first six games.
High point: Beating Colorado
The first meeting between the in-state foes since the early 1970s was a gem, with the Falcons winning 30-23 in overtime at Folsom Field. Push aside the external factors – the schools resuming play for the first time since hostilities in the Vietnam era and Air Force knocking off a Pac-12 school on the road – and it was an exciting game simply for the big plays made. Jake Koehnke’s 47-yard field goal, Jordan Jackson’s blocked PAT, Jeremy Fejedelem’s tackle for loss on third down in overtime and Kade Remsberg’s touchdown run on the first play of the extra session all proved critical in securing the victory.
Honorable mention: The second half against Fresno State
Low point: Losing at Navy
The loss would have been crushing no matter how it happened, considering Air Force’s internal expectations for the season, Navy’s struggles last year, and the feeling this was the year to finally win in Annapolis and set up a shot for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy at home against Army. But then the woes were compounded by a rip-your-heart-out loss that saw the Falcons battle back to take a lead with 3:15 remaining and then have the Midshipmen march right back down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left on the clock.
Honorable mention: The fourth-quarter at Boise State
Biggest surprise: Ben Waters
Waters has been so good that his story may soon shift from the feel-good story of a patient senior rewarded with a strong performance when finally given the chance to a story where one might question why it took so long for the program to understand what it had in him. He caught an 81-yard touchdown at Colorado. He hauled in four receptions for 128 yards at Navy. He caught a 53-yard score against Fresno State. The long delay in his production came in large part from position shifts between offense and defense, and his emergence is in part due to his own work and development over time since coming from Valor Christian. Still, it’s tempting to wonder what he might have been able to do at the slot receiver position for more than just one season.
Honorable mention: Fullback Timothy “Duval” Jackson
Biggest obstacle: Injuries
The Falcons should have known, after making it through the first three games with the same lineups on offense and defense, that trouble was likely lurking. And it sure was. Quarterback Donald Hammond III sprained an ankle at Boise State, knocking him out for a quarter and limiting his effectiveness for several weeks. Kyle Krepsz was knocked off the offensive line, forcing center Connor Vikupitz to slide to guard and Christopher Mitchell to take over at center. All-Mountain West preseason selection safety Jeremy Fejedelem didn’t play against Fresno State. Cornerback Milton (Tre’) Bugg also missed the game against the Bulldogs. Defensive lineman Jared Bair has yet to play this season, while his replacement, Kaleb Nunez has also missed three games. Fullback Duval Jackson missed a game and backup quarterback Isaiah Sanders hasn’t been available for the past two contests. It’s been a lot to deal with and has required players like Vikupitz and defensive backs Grant Theil and James Jones IV to show flexibility in sliding to different spots.
Honorable mention: Fumble issues
Offensive MVP: Quarterback Donald Hammond III
This goes to Hammond in part because the other playmakers in the balanced offensive attack effectively cancel each other out. Tailback Kade Remsberg is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, but he’s not the team’s leading rusher. Fullback Taven Birdow holds that distinction, but he also has by far the most carries. Receivers Geraud Sanders and Ben Waters have been spectacular at times, but the limited nature of their opportunities in the offense would make it hard to consider them the most vital pieces of the puzzle. No, it’s Hammond, the junior quarterback, because of his effectiveness (a team-high eight touchdown runs and five touchdown passes that have each gone for at least 31 yards) and that his decision-making and ability both to distribute and warrant focus of the defense is the primary reason the balance exists and so many have been able to put together strong seasons.
Honorable mention: Receiver Geraud Sanders
Defensive MVP: Safety Jeremy Fejedelem
Injuries have impacted the senior safety for the past two games, but over his first four games he was the volume tackler consistently making plays for the defense. His solo tackle for a loss on third down against Colorado – his 14th tackle of the game – in overtime set up the winning stop. Against San Jose State, he made a stop on the goal-line that helped lead to one of several game-changing turnovers on downs. Fejedelem had 31 tackles through those first four games, which had him on pace to make a run at a second-straight 100-tackle season; though that will be a monumental task to achieve after making just two tackles against Navy and then missing the victory over Fresno State.
Honorable mention: Linebackers Demonte Meeks and Kyle Johnson
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