Anyone who has kept up with Air Force football through the years had to know what would be the exclamation point Thursday afternoon.
To wrap up the Falcons' first bowl victory in nine seasons, and their most complete performance of head coach Troy Calhoun's three years in charge of the AFA program, the capper had to be a play out of the past.
Fullback, up the gut.
So, right on cue, with the final minutes winding down in a stadium that has wrecked so many Air Force dreams through the years, AFA fullback Jared Tew burst up the middle and out-ran Houston's defense for a 71-yard touchdown run to gift-wrap the Falcons' 47-20 victory in the Armed Forces Bowl.
With the win, Air Force pushed the Mountain West Conference to 4-0 in this bowl season, with only unbeaten TCU remaining in the Fiesta Bowl against also-unbeaten Boise State. But the Falcons came in as 4 1/2-point underdogs, facing a Houston team that had been nationally ranked for most of the season.
So if you want to call it Air Force's most impressive bowl performance ever, go right ahead. Some might argue, and it's true that the victories over Virginia Tech (1984 Independence), Texas (1985 Bluebonnet), Ohio State (1990 Liberty), Mississippi State (1992 Liberty) and Washington (1998 Oahu) have never lost their luster.
But even against those epic victories, what the Falcons achieved Thursday instantly ranks at or near the top.
After all, Houston quarterback Case Keenum did lead the nation in passing and total offense this season. And the Cougars were 10-3, including victories against Oklahoma State (at Stillwater) and Texas Tech.
None of that mattered Thursday. Air Force took command early, building a 14-0 lead, and never let up in amassing enough superlatives for an entire season.
AFA sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson, named the player of the game, completed 10 of 14 passes for 162 yards. He also ran the offense superbly, and added a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave Air Force a 41-20 lead and effectively put the game out of reach.
Tew, the latest in a long line of Falcon fullbacks who have made the run-oriented offense work, pounded out 173 yards and two touchdowns. And the Falcons don't lose when they get that kind of production out of their fullback.
Asher Clark, the gifted sophomore tailback, ran for 129 yards and two more scores, giving Air Force two runners with 100-plus yards on a day when the Falcons rolled up 563 yards of total offense — and 402 on the ground.
Air Force's defense was superior, intercepting six passes (Keenum had thrown only nine in Houston's first 13 games) and keeping the Cougars offense out of the end zone until the third quarter. Senior safety Chris Thomas, in his final game, picked off two passes and had 12 tackles, making big plays all over the field. Anthony Wright had three of the interceptions.
The time of possession, always crucial for Air Force's ball-control game, was amazingly one-sided as the Falcons kept the ball for 41 minutes, 4 seconds to Houston's 18:56.
Keenum, after averaging 450 passing yards a game through 13 games, couldn't manage half that total, finishing with just 222 throwing yards and one touchdown.
And yet, despite all that, the game's most impressive moment for Air Force might have been a field goal. With the seconds winding down ending the first half, the Falcons drove from their 34 to the Houston 2. Then, with no timeouts remaining, Jefferson slipped down at the 10 as the clock neared 0:10 left before halftime.
It looked like a wasted opportunity, but the AFA field-goal unit raced onto the field, lined up in time and Erik Soderberg kicked a 27-yard field goal for a 24-6 halftime edge.
The other indelible memory from this bowl happened after intermission. Houston's Tyron Carrier, a threat with obvious NFL potential, took the second-half kickoff and raced 79 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-13.
But then, on the ensuing kickoff, Air Force's Jonathan Warzeka bounced off several good hits, broke free and was gone for a 100-yard touchdown — the first AFA kickoff return for a touchdown since 1985.
Air Force, which finished 8-5, never lost control after that, wiping away the memories of three nightmares at TCU's Amon Carter Stadium. Two of those were losses to California and Houston in the past two Armed Forces Bowl games, and the other came in 1998, when TCU put the only blemish on a 12-1 AFA season with a 35-34 victory, unleashing an unknown sophomore runner that night named LaDainian Tomlinson.
This time was different. And with so many younger Falcon players coming back, this bowl victory could become a springboard toward 2010 and beyond.— firstname.lastname@example.org