Air Force’s defenders take it personally when an opponent goes for it on fourth down.
It proved that four times on Friday night.
San Jose State went 0-for-4 on fourth down tries, each on Air Force’s side of the field, and was turned away on each occasion, springing the Falcons to a 41-24 victory.
“Real guys show up in the red zone,” said cornerback Milton “Tre’” Bugg, reiterating a saying from his defensive backs coach Chip Vaughn. “We take that to heart, and we feel disrespect as a defense whenever someone tries to get a fourth down on us.”
The stops came at the Air Force 15-, 25-, 1- and 12-yard lines, each thwarting a scoring opportunity in a game that remained reasonably close until Air Force went ahead 41-10 midway through the fourth quarter.
“Those are the moments where the playmaker has to make a play,” Spartans coach Brent Brennan said. “We didn’t do that.”
The first fourth-down stop – a combined stop from nose tackle Mosese Fifita and safety Garrett Kauppila – changed the tenor of the game in the first quarter.
To that point, the teams had each marched to 75-yard scoring drives, and San Jose State (2-2, 0-1 Mountain West) seemed on its way to another.
After it was turned away, its offense went dormant and managed only a field goal until a pair of mop-up time touchdowns.
But Air Force’s offense – behind a pair of quarterbacks – remained consistent behind a blend of fullbacks (who churned out 223 yards on 42 carries) and big plays (three players had gains of 23-plus yards).
“This was one where we just kind of felt like we could get those guys going a little bit on the interior,” coach Troy Calhoun said.
The Falcons (3-1, 1-1) started senior Isaiah Sanders at quarterback after he had served as the backup for the final three games of 2018 and the first three games this year. Starter Donald Hammond III had injured his ankle in a loss at Boise State, and the Falcons opted to make the change.
“We base it primarily upon practice,” Calhoun said. “Isaiah was able to practice so much more this week, especially early in the week.”
But this time it was Sanders going down with an apparent right leg injury. He left on the first drive and didn’t return, while Hammond entered and went 5-of-9 passing for 108 yards and a 64-yard touchdown to Geraud Sanders, who caught three passes for 108 yards.
“Our offense has complete trust in both of those guys,” said fullback Taven Birdow, who carried 25 times for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns. “Whoever was up, we’re behind.”
The Falcons limited the Spartans to 378 yards of offense a week after they put up more than 500 in a road upset of Arkansas. And more than 80 of those yards came in the waning moments of the game against the nonstarters.
“I think we gave up a little more than we wanted to,” said defensive lineman Jordan Jackson, who had a sack for the Falcons. “But getting those fourth downs and getting off the field was big for us.”
This also helps the Falcons wash away the taste from a loss at Boise State last week where two fourth-down plays also factored heavily, but in that case going against Air Force.
And, of course, next up is a trip to Navy.
“It was nice to get the confidence back,” safety Jeremy Fejedelem said, “and have a good game under our belt.”