If someone had said Air Force would have to face Colorado State to end the regular football season without senior quarterback Kale Pearson, without 1,000-yard runner Jacobi Owens, without starting tight end Garrett Griffin and without the usual 4,000 screaming cadets (on holiday break) in Falcon Stadium, and that the Rams would be 10-1, No. 21 in the country and better than the CSU team that won this game 58-13 a year ago, my response would've been simple.
Why waste the mental energy? Why not just go through the motions, watch CSU roll to another impressive win, and save themselves for a bowl game? Nobody would have shamed Air Force for taking that easy route, settling for a satisfying 8-4 season after going 2-10 in 2013.
But this Air Force team conceded nothing. Not on defense, after looking worn seven days earlier in a loss at San Diego State. Not on offense, even with sophomore Nate Romine making his first start of the year in Pearson's place. And not the coaching staff, which had made so many smart moves all season.
In the end, with CSU on the brink of completing a great comeback (from trailing 24-10 in the fourth quarter), and with Air Force seemingly headed for a respectable defeat, none of that happened. Instead, the defense stuffed CSU on fourth-and-short, Romine threw a perfect pass to put the Falcons in range, and senior Will Conant drilled a 39-yard field goal at 0:00. Air Force, 27-24.
We could dissect the game more, but that's been done. What the situation needs is historical perspective.
Just how big was this win? Having observed the program nearly four decades, I believe it belongs among the top six or seven victories in Air Force history.
Why? First, it happened in late November. Air Force has had some great September wins, but many of those don't count as much. Also, the Falcons have shocked some big-name opponents in bowl games (most notably Texas in the 1985 Bluebonnet, Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty and Mississippi State in the 1991 Liberty), but as sweet as those upsets were, Air Force had everything to gain against teams with no motivation.
This time, Air Force and CSU were equally psyched, with the Rams hoping for a top-notch bowl. CSU had all of its stars; Air Force didn't. And now the Falcons, at 9-3 with a national reputation, have a good shot at a Jan. 2 reward, either the Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, against a Pac-12 opponent (likely Washington or Stanford), or the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.
What other wins from the past stand out? Here they are, in no particular order:
• 1998: Air Force 20, Brigham Young 13, in the Western Athletic Conference championship game at Las Vegas. That December game meant everything to both rivals, and the Falcons went on to finish 12-1.
• 1963: Air Force 17, Nebraska 13, on Oct. 12 at Lincoln, one of longtime coach Ben Martin's proudest moments. That was the Cornhuskers' only loss in a 10-1 year that ended with a No. 6 ranking and an Orange Bowl win.
• 1982: Air Force 30, Notre Dame 17, on Nov. 20 at Falcon Stadium. Air Force never had beaten the Irish, who were ranked No. 18, but that day the Falcons broke through, and they beat Notre Dame the next three years as well.
• 1970: Air Force 31, Stanford 14, on Nov. 14 at Palo Alto, California. Ranked No. 6 nationally, Stanford had Heisman Trophy quarterback Jim Plunkett and was headed for the Rose Bowl, but the Falcons pulled off the stunner.
• 1982: Air Force 39, Brigham Young 38, on Sept. 25 at Provo, Utah, one of two worthy September exceptions. BYU was dedicating its rebuilt stadium and was loaded, but the Falcons drove 99 yards with no timeouts in the final two minutes, then made a two-point conversion for their first win over the Cougars.
• 2007: Air Force 20, TCU 17, on Sept. 13 (a Thursday) at a frigid Falcon Stadium. On the heels of a mega-win at Utah, the Falcons stunned the heavily favored Horned Frogs to give new head coach Troy Calhoun much validation.
Those Air Force wins belong in their own special category — joined by the one last Friday against CSU.
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