Donald Hammond III injured at San Diego
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Air Force quarterback Donald Hammond III leaves the field on a cart on Friday night at San Diego State. (BRENT BRIGGEMAN, THE GAZETTE)

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SAN DIEGO • Eventually, all of these almost-there moments may blend together in memory for an Air Force team that can’t seem to catch a break.

But outside a quiet, stunned locker room, linebacker Kyle Johnson recalled with perfect clarity a play he wished he could take back in a crushing 21-17 loss at San Diego State that was delayed 1 hour, 7 minutes by lightning and saw starting quarterback Donald Hammond III carted off with an apparent left leg injury.

“I left my feet when I shouldn’t have,” Johnson said of what turned into a turning point of the game, a 32-yard scramble from San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew that began with him narrowly escaping a dive from Johnson. “I take personal responsibility for that missed tackle and for that drive. I’m faster than he is. I would have got him eventually.”

Agnew made a series of big plays after that.

The Falcons (2-4, 0-3 Mountain West) had just taken their first lead of the day, 21-14 after backup quarterback Isaiah Sanders went 4-of-5 passing on a drive that Ronald Cleveland capped with his second touchdown of the game. Cleveland also caught the 2-point conversion delivery from Sanders.

With Air Force’s defense fully settled in (it allowed a three-play, 65-yard touchdown-scoring drive to open the game) and in command, it seemed it might finally complete a comeback and end a seven-game skid against San Diego State.

That possibility seemed even more likely when San Diego State (5-1, 2-0) blocked in the back on the kickoff following Air Force’s go-ahead touchdown and started at its 6-yard line. Three plays later it was third and 9, and Agnew decided to tuck and run when the protection broke down.

Johnson made the dive, but came up maybe an inch short of corralling him.

Agnew was finally stopped 32 yards later. Then he faced another third down, and Agnew sprinted out of the pocket to his right before throwing on the run for a 32-yard completion.

Moments later, on 2nd and 15, he hit Parker Houston for a 29-yard touchdown.

“He made a couple big-time plays late in the game that helped us win it,” said San Diego State coach Rocky Long, whose team was 0 for 9 on third down before those conversions.

The Falcons found no big-time plays in their two final attempts after Agnew orchestrated that 94-yard go-ahead drive.

Two flags for illegal blocks doomed the first drive before it began. The second ended with an interception of Sanders on a deep pass.

The loss wiped out an effort from the defense that saw it limit San Diego State to 84 rushing yards, pick up a safety when defensive tackle Jordan Jackson chased down Agnew in the end zone (though it was credited as a team sack because Agnew went down before Jackson arrived) and notch and interception from Jeremy Fejedelem that Air Force turned into points with its first scoring drive.

Johnson led the way with nine tackles, including 2.5 of the team’s eight tackles for loss.

He would have loved 10, however.

“We had to make some plays for the game to go down to the stretch there,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “But we have to make more.”

Air Force initially found itself needing another comeback attempt because of a blocked punt for a touchdown with 8 seconds remaining in the first half. Falcons punter Charlie Scott dropped a snap that Calhoun thought was “pretty solid.” Scott picked it up and tried to kick it, but Kaelin Himphill blocked it, with Trenton Thompson returning it for a 19-yard touchdown.

Scott did not return to the game, as placekicker Jake Koehnke handled punting duties in the second half.

But maybe the bigger play came when Hammond was tackled on a run to his right and didn’t immediately get up. He was helped off the field, checked out in a medical privacy tent on the sideline and then taken into the locker room on the back of a cart. He did not return, and Calhoun would not comment on the injury. Some speculation was that it was perhaps a high ankle sprain, as Hammond had his left shoe removed.

“I know D.J.’s a grinder,” Cleveland said. “I think he’s going to try to get here and get healthy again.”

With Hammond gone, it was back to Sanders, the Palmer Ridge graduate who has shifted from backup, to starter, to injured, to backup through six games. The junior went 7-for-15 passing for 51 yards and ran 15 times for 49 yards.

As a team, Air Force was outgained 297-276 and held a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

“I’ve got to do better, and we’ve got to figure it out as an offense how to get the ball down the field,” Sanders said.

His quiet, dejected tone was reflective of most of the team. And how could it not? The Falcons’ four losses have come in games they led or had the ball trailing by six points or fewer in the fourth quarter.

“We’re right there,” Cleveland said.

They’ve been “right there” all season, but victory, like this San Diego State quarterback, keeps staying one elusive step ahead.

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