Mike Schmidt had spent four years preparing for this, aware all the while that such a moment may never present itself.
On Saturday night, it did. And did Schmidt ever seize it.
Air Force’s senior backup quarterback ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 147 yards and a score.
His efforts helped the Falcons blow out Hawaii 56-26 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.
“It means the world,” Schmidt said. “A moment like this is something I’ll remember forever. I can’t thank my teammates enough. They made my job so easy.”
Schmidt finished spring practice fourth among quarterbacks on Air Force’s depth chart.
Then Beau English transferred to Richmond. Schmidt moved up to third.
Then, against San Jose State, Isaiah Sanders went down with a knee injury. Schmidt slid up to No. 2.
On Saturday night, Donald Hammond III left with an apparent shoulder injury suffered on Air Force’s opening possession.
Schmidt took the field.
On his third snap, he executed an option pitch while surrounded by defenders that Kade Remberg took in for a 2-yard touchdown.
“It happened really fast — a little faster than in practice — but (the defender) was there and I had Kade Remsberg on the outside,” Schmidt said. “There’s not really a better person to pitch to. I got a helmet in the stomach, kind of woke me up a little bit. But to be able to get the ball in the hands of my teammates and let them do what they do, they’re so talented, was an awesome feeling.”
Those feelings multiplied.
His first career pass attempt went to tight end Kade Waguespack for a 39-yard gain to the 1.
“It felt good,” Schmidt said. “But it’s also easy when someone gets that wide open. There’s not that much to think about.”
Schmidt took it in on the next play for his first touchdown.
On the next drive, he connected with Geraud Sanders on the first play for a 75-yard touchdown.
The North Carolina native later added a 61-yard touchdown run.
“I’m by no means the fastest guy on the field, but there was such a huge hole that anybody on our team, put the ball in their hands, and they’re going to get the touchdown for the Falcons,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt finished his out-of-nowhere prolific night with a touchdown from 19 yards.
He directed an Air Force offense that put up 522 total yards — 353 rushing and 169 passing. Sophomore fullback Duval Jackson ran 13 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, while Remsberg added 11 carries for 91 yards and two scores. Sanders caught three passes for 116 yards.
And the Falcons (5-2, 3-1 Mountain West) needed every bit of it, despite what the final tally might suggest.
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald passed for 404 yards and three touchdowns. The Rainbow Warriors kept pace with the Falcons through the first half. Air Force took a 28-20 advantage into the locker room.
Trailing 35-20, Hawaii (4-3, 1-2) scored a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter and opted to go for 2 to cut the deficit to seven. The pass failed, leaving the deficit at nine points, and everything turned from there.
The Falcons forced a turnover on a sack from Demonte Meeks — one of four tackles for loss for the junior linebacker — and turned that into a touchdown drive.
Then, in what may turn into the Play of the Year in the college football season, Air Force safety Grant Theil jumped a Hawaii out route at the Air Force 5-yard line. The ball hit Theil as he fell to the ground and began bouncing off of him. After five hops it hit his leg and bounded into the air and into the hands of Falcons cornerback Milton (Tre’) Bugg, who grabbed it and sprinted 95 yards for the score.
“Some plays in football just seem to happen, and that just seemed to happen,” Bugg said. “Grant made a great break on the football. He didn’t catch it, but it stayed in the air and I was just able to make a play on it.”
This marked the second straight week that Air Force found itself in an offensive track meet in the first half, only to dominate in the second half. It outscored Fresno State 21-0 in a 43-24 victory Oct. 12, then outscored Hawaii 28-6 over the final two quarters Saturday.
“We definitely settled down,” Bugg said. “We’d like to settle down a little quicker next time. But when we do, we know we’re capable of being the best defense in the Mountain West. So we just try to prove that every time we come to the field.”
When it comes to capabilities, no one really knew what the Falcons had in Schmidt. The senior’s only previous action came during season-opening blowouts and a lone snap against Utah State as a sophomore.
“It’s been a while since I’ve got to let it loose,” said Schmidt, who had no family on hand for his breakout performance and gave his allotted tickets to a teammate’s parents. “I’m always ready on the sidelines. When that moment happens, I have to be ready no matter what. You go out there and it’s a little loud, but at the end the day I’ve got my hands under the center that I practice with and have the same guys to my left and right. We do the same stuff every day, so you kind of block it out. I was trying to stay as relaxed as possible and not do anything extra beyond what I do in practice, just keep it consistent.”
Air Force averaged 9.0 yards per play under Schmidt’s watch and coach Troy Calhoun said the play calling didn’t have to change at all with him in the game. The Falcons moved within one victory — with five games remaining — of bowl eligibility for the first time in three years.
And Air Force knows that, no matter what the news is on Hammond’s shoulder or the progress of Sanders’ recovery, the quarterback position is secure.
“Man, I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” he said just minutes after the game ended. “It’s surreal.”