Starting on Oct. 11, Air Force headed into a football challenge that looked perhaps a little too tall for this team.
Three games in 12 days. Two on the road, in stadiums where the Falcons had lost on their previous visits, at San Diego State (2002, '04, '06) and Nevada-Las Vegas (2006). Then a home test against New Mexico, which defeated Air Force last year and always has been tough on the Academy.
All that for an AFA team at 3-2, having suffered two straight losses, and with head coach Troy Calhoun just having made the difficult decision to go with freshman starters at quarterback (Tim Jefferson) and tailback (Asher Clark), plus other freshmen and sophomores on defense. It looked like a difficult stretch for a young AFA team developing for the future.
Instead, the Falcons have emerged from that trial at 6-2 and with a different outlook. First, at San Diego State, they exploded from a 10-7 halftime deficit to an impressive 35-10 victory. Then at Las Vegas, they scored the final nine points, including a 91-yard drive in the waning minutes, to pull out a 29-28 thriller. Finally, they took New Mexico's best shot, then stormed back from a 10-0 deficit to win 23-10.
Granted, that wasn't like facing Brigham Young, Utah and Texas Christian, the Mountain West Conference's dominant powers. But those three games, and their outcomes, tell us everything we need to know about Air Force's program.
What we're seeing here, amid Calhoun's second season (with a cumulative 15-6 record), isn't just a turnaround or a lucky streak. This is truly a renaissance, as remarkable as the last one at Air Force that blossomed in 1982-83, the final two seasons of former head coach Ken Hatfield's tenure, when the Falcons celebrated back-to-back victories against Notre Dame and the school's first two bowl wins beating Vanderbilt in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl and Mississippi in the 1983 Independence Bowl.
Then came Fisher DeBerry, of course, and his 23-year run topped by two 12-win seasons and six bowl victories. By the end of his era, though, DeBerry's best times had become fading memories, and there was deep concern over how long his successor would need to bring back the Falcons.
Not anymore. Calhoun's system is working, and the offensive adjustments have been admirable, allowing younger players to develop. Everyone obviously believes in the team's direction, and upperclassmen have shown superior attitudes in dealing with young teammates stepping in at various positions.
Add to that the vitality of the coaching staff, filled with former AFA players (Blane Morgan, Tim DeRuyter, Jemal Singleton, Anthony Roberson, Mike Thiessen, Charlton Warren, Ben Miller and Steve Senn). Besides knowing what the cadets are going through, those alumni and the other assistants have taken recruiting to a higher level.
This is not to say Air Force is ready to rule the Mountain West, whose top three teams are deservedly ranked (USA Today's latest poll: Utah is No. 9, TCU No. 12, BYU No. 17). That's a far tougher challenge than AFA teams of the 1980s and '90s faced in the Western Athletic Conference.
But the Falcons' final four games of 2008 provide tests of all kinds. This Saturday at Army is a typical service-academy game, with the Black Knights trying to salvage their year. On Nov. 8, Air Force hosts Colorado State, which is making progress under new coach Steve Fairchild and will present a physical challenge.
After that, the final exams: Brigham Young invading Falcon Stadium on Nov. 15, then Air Force going to TCU on Nov. 22. In those games, the Falcons will be decided underdogs, facing a BYU offense capable of blowing out anybody and a speedy TCU defense ranked among the nation's best.
By the end of November, we'll know more about what to expect from Air Force in 2009. We'll also know whether this team can continue its improbable rise, well ahead of schedule.
No matter what happens the next four Saturdays, though, it's definitely appropriate now to use the word renaissance. And it might remain in the vocabulary for a while.
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