Ben Waters and Donald Hammond III knew a big play was there for the taking, it was only a matter of finding the right moment.
Air Force timed it perfectly.
Hammond’s 75-yard pass to Waters with 2 minutes remaining sealed the Falcons’ 20-6 victory over Wyoming on Saturday, putting a bow on a regular season that saw the team win 10 games for the first time in 21 years and finish with a seven-game winning streak.
This victory snapped a three-game skid to Wyoming and put the Falcons (10-2, 7-1 Mountain West) in position to slide into the Top 25 rankings this week and be in the mix for various bowl bids.
But to get there, they had to finish off the Cowboys, and that outcome remained in doubt until the final long strike.
“We kind of had it on for a couple plays prior, but we checked out of it because of the way the defense was playing,” said Waters, who caught three passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. “We both kind of came to the sideline begging for it to happen. We were able to execute. D.J. threw a perfect ball and blocking was outstanding.”
It’s not that the offenses in the game were entirely vanilla before that, but pretty close. Air Force showed a little creativity with a pass from tailback Chase Stevenson to Hammond for 22 yards, and Geraud Sanders caught a 23-yard pass that set up a key field goal.
Even Wyoming (7-5, 4-4) had a few big plays, with a 38-yard run from quarterback Levi Williams and a 40-yard pass from Williams to Josh Harshman.
But to that point Air Force’s lone touchdown came on a 1-yard Hammond run that completed a 16-play drive, and Wyoming had nothing to show but two short field goals. The clock frantically ticked through much of the game, which was completed in a brisk 2 hours, 43 minutes.
The Cowboys gained just 225 yards of total offense in the game — 114 passing and 111 rushing — as the Falcons forced three turnovers, including a pair of interceptions for Jeremy Fejedelem on tipped balls, and held the visitors to 4 of 12 on third down on a chilly, windy day at Falcon Stadium.
“For us to be physical, keep teams out of the end zone and give our offense a chance to win a game, it means the world,” said senior Garrett Kauppila, who set a career high with nine tackles and recovered a fumble.
But Wyoming was down just a touchdown and it looked like Air Force was going to play it conservatively when it took possession at its 25 with 2:24 remaining. But after a rush for no gain, the ball went in the air for Waters and the celebration began.
“We knew coming in they were one of the most physical teams in the Mountain West,” said Hammond, who directed an offense that put up 305 total yards despite slogging away at 2.9 yards per carry. “We knew we had to grind it out and nothing would come easy.”
Nothing this season has come easy. The Falcons started 3-2, dropping close road games at Boise State and Navy that ultimately eliminated the team from contention for a conference championship and the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
They haven’t lost since.
“We came into this season with a realistic goal of going 14-0, and we weren’t that far from at least going 12-0 in the regular season,” said Fejedelem, who had 10 tackles to go with the two interceptions, one of which was tipped by Grant Theil, the other by Jake Ksiazek. “The games that we lost were both very close, especially at Navy, we should have won that game.
“We knew going into this season that we had something special going on. Ten wins is good for me, but we had some big goals going into this year.”
And the finish to the regular season, particularly for the 30 seniors honored in their home finale, was every bit as sweet as the finish to this game.
“Just to be a part of these moments, that’s what you remember,” Kauppila said. “You don’t remember a play you made. You remember singing ‘oooo cha lay lay’ in the locker room afterward.”
Added Waters, who has caught four touchdowns longer than 50 yards this season, “It’s been a blast. It’s been awesome. But we’ve got one left.”