The Air Force Falcons, no doubt, had a number of goals at the beginning of this season.:
- Beat Navy and end their seven-game win streak against the Falcons? Check.
- Knock off BYU in their conference opener? Check.
- Win the Commander-In-Chief's trophy back? Half a check.
- Qualify for a bowl for the fourth straight season? Well on their way.
- Enter the murderer's row portion of their schedule with momentum? Check that off as well.
- Compete for the Mountain West championship?
I am not sure that last one was a preseason goal of the Falcons. Very few people outside the Air Force locker room really saw that as a possibility before the first games were played, not with Goliaths like TCU and Utah standing in their way.
But, Air Force looks like the biggest threat in the conference to challenge TCU and Utah. After all, those two schools only beat Air Force by a combined six points in 2009 and Air Force came dangerously close to upending Oklahoma earlier this season on the road.
The Navy win this week was huge. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the cadets could have concluded that their season was a success if they would have lost this one—something that was evidenced by the on-field celebration following the game.
And no matter how much better Air Force has looked on the field in the early season, a win over Navy is never a given since the Midshipmen match up so well.
When I first tuned into the game, since I missed the first few minutes while shaking off sleep (the game aired in the middle of the night at my location) I was scratching my head trying to figure out who some guy named "Freedom" was running the ball. And where was Tim Jefferson, since "Service" was taking the snaps?
And what on Earth was Air Force wearing? The helmets looked like something out of Star Wars. It took me a couple minutes to adjust to the "Thunderbirds" uniforms, although they had grown on me by game's end. Perhaps it was the win that sold me on them.
Notable uniforms aside, when Troy Calhoun gave his pep talk before the game, apparently freshman Jamil Cooks really took it to heart.
He made two game-changing special teams plays, blocking a field goal and a punt, resulting in a swing of 10 points with the three denied to Navy and seven set up for Air Force, which was more than the margin of the final score.
Cooks did his best Superman imitation, leaping Navy's tallest players with a single bound, and he almost got his hands on a second kick. In this game, the relatively unknown player was Navy's kryptonite, soaring into the air to make the highlight-reel plays that sealed the game. After all, why take on a blocker when you can jump over them?
I am guessing that Air Force's future opponents will spend a few minutes preparing for Cooks and his seemingly 12-foot vertical in the future.
This week, Air Force has one more test against the Colorado State Rams before three straight games against the conference's top teams, including a surprising San Diego State squad and conference powers Utah and Texas Christian.
The Falcons are coming off a stretch where they played four teams that played in bowls in 2009, but the primary games that will decide the conference will still be played throughout the rest of October, and the Rams would like nothing more than to throw a wrench into the Falcons' plans.
Back in the 1990s, the Rams were a conference power under Sonny Lubbick and one of the Falcons' fiercest rivals. The games were always a spectacle and frequently played a role in the conference race.
The fact that the two schools are located within a couple hours has further fanned the flames of the rivalry.
But, in recent years, the once mighty Rams have turned into the Silence of the Lambs, although they do not scare anybody, unlike the film of that name. They have not been able to return to their 1990s level of play.
In their four losses this year, they have been outscored, 113-19. But two of those losses were to offensive juggernaut Nevada and the defensive wall known as TCU, losses which are excusable, and expected, although CSU was not competitive in either game.
The blowout by Nevada bodes particularly badly since both Nevada and Air Force run offenses that challenge a defense to cover the whole field and stop the run.
The Rams' sole win was a 36-34 besting of Idaho, which is playing well this season. That was a critical win and may have prevented their season from spiraling to oblivion.
The Falcons have their own concerns coming into this one. The offense has come back to Earth the last two weeks after looking nearly unstoppable in the early season.
This is somewhat understandable against Navy since the offenses are mirror images of one another.
The Air Force and Navy defenses are both disciplined with plenty of experience defending the option, something they do on a regular basis at practice. Hence, the defenses ruled in their annual matchup, something that has been true ever since Paul Johnson resurrected Navy, a tradition that has continued under Ken Niumatalolo, who has been an excellent successor to Johnson.
The Falcons, under Troy Calhoun, have not had a problem with Colorado State, winning each of the games by similar margins. The scores from Calhoun's tenure are 34-16, 38-17, and 45-21.
Unless Air Force gets caught looking ahead to the trip to San Diego State, something that I find unlikely, this game should be more of the same.
This is a better Air Force team than the three that hammered the Rams over the past three years, and the Rams do not look to have improved much, if at all.
In fact, they may have regressed, although they have played better the past two weeks, keeping the game tight with TCU for a half after beating the Vandals the week before.
Expect the Air Force Falcons' triple threat of Tim Jefferson, Jared Tew, and Asher Clark to roll in this one and the Rams to struggle against a very stingy Falcons defense.
Prediction: Air Force 38, Colorado State 14.
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