Air Force fell flat on its face on the big stage Saturday. And with that, the Falcons said goodbye to an undefeated season, any hopes of a bid in a New Year’s Six bowl and winning the Commander-in-Chief trophy outright.
Army dominated the Falcons, 23-3, by owning the first half and capitalizing on an array of uncharacteristic Air Force mistakes. The Falcons entered the game 8-0 and ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, the team’s highest ranking when playing Army since 1985, but failed to live up to their billing in the first contest between the service academies held at Empower Field at Mile High.
In a nightmare first quarter, Air Force got gashed for a 62-yard TD run by QB Bryson Daily on Army’s opening drive, lost two fumbles, was stuffed on fourth-and-1 in AFA territory, and wideout Jared Roznos dropped a deep pass that would’ve set them up in the red zone. That amounted to a 17-0 deficit.
Off one of those fumbles, Army tacked on another field goal early in the second quarter to go up 20-0. The Falcons were down three prior times this season — 20-10 at San Jose State, 14-0 against Wyoming and 13-7 at Colorado State last week — and managed a comeback victory each time.
But there would be no such rebound Saturday, when Army, buoyed by the return of Daily after he missed the previous couple of games due to injury, didn’t look anything like the two-win team the Black Knights were coming in. Army had lost five straight games, and was a 17-point underdog, but never relinquished the momentum.
After mustering a field goal, the Falcons got the ball back with less than a minute left in the first half and tried to force it downfield. But Air Force, which boasted the nation’s top rushing attack with 300.4 yards per game entering Saturday, very much looked like a team unaccustomed to passing. Its routes and pass-blocking were consistently out of rhythm, and Air Force finished with just 155 rushing yards, about half its season average.
That trend continued in the waning seconds of the second quarter, when Falcons QB Zac Larrier airmailed his target downfield and it was intercepted by cornerback Bo Nicolas-Paul, setting up another Army field goal on the final play of the half to push the score to 23-3.
The second half wasn’t any kinder to Air Force in front of 52,401 fans, the largest crowd for an Air Force “home” game since the Falcons drew 56,409 in 2002 against Notre Dame at Falcon Stadium.
The Falcons punted on the opening drive of the third quarter, then Matthew Dapore missed 32-yard field goal wide right on Air Force’s next drive, squandering a promising possession that was aided by multiple Army personal fouls.
Another fumble by Larrier in the fourth quarter sealed the blowout, and sent blue-clad fans headed for the exits. Larrier also threw his second interception in garbage time, Air Force’s fifth turnover. The Falcons fumbled again on their final drive, making for three turnovers on all three fourth-quarter possessions. Army, meanwhile, was content to run the clock the entire second half.
The victory marked Army’s first win over an AP-ranked opponent in exactly 51 years, snapping a 52-game losing streak since the Black Knights beat No. 19 Air Force on Nov. 4, 1972. And it was the first time in exactly six years that Air Force wasn’t able to score a touchdown, dating back to their 21-0 loss to Army on Nov. 4, 2017, at Falcon Stadium.
With Army’s win, it can clinch the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a win over Navy (whom Air Force beat 17-6 on Oct. 21) on Dec. 9 at Gillette Stadium. If Navy wins that day, putting all three teams at 1-1 in this year’s series, the Falcons, who won it outright last year, would retain the trophy. But it wouldn’t count as a series win for Air Force, which holds the all-time record with 21 Commander-in-Chief titles.
Despite Saturday’s letdown loss, a third straight 10-win season (or fourth straight, discounting the condensed 2020 COVID season) is still attainable for the 8-1 Falcons. They play at Hawaii next week, host UNLV on Nov. 28 and then close their Mountain West schedule on the road at Boise State on Nov. 24.
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