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Falcons making believers again 

End Zone

Talk all you want about Air Force football opening up its playbook the past two weeks, throwing with success and even pulling off a superb trick play in beating Boise State and Navy on back-to-back Saturdays.

Go ahead and celebrate how the Falcons looked so balanced offensively in knocking off bowl teams from the previous year for the first time since 2007, when AFA coach Troy Calhoun's first team surprised Utah and TCU in consecutive upsets.

But those weren't the most positive takeaways from this view. What struck me more, far more, was Air Force's defense, showing a swagger and a mean, aggressive edge that reminded me of two years in particular from the program's proud past. Those seasons would be 1985 and 1998, when Air Force went 12-1 and 12-1.

No, this is not to suggest the Falcons have a chance to turn their 4-1 record today into anything like 12-1. That's too much to ask coming off the 2-10 disaster last year, and also given that Air Force is looking at three particularly tough games to come: Saturday night at Utah State, then Nov. 21 at San Diego State and Nov. 28 at home against Colorado State. Several other games, such as Nevada here on Nov. 15 and the trip to Army on Nov. 1, are anything but guaranteed.

Still, every upcoming AFA opponent will watch the Falcons on tape and marvel at the defense.

If you watched the stunning 28-14 win over Boise State, you saw that unit force a whopping seven turnovers while shutting down the Broncos' vaunted offense and runner Jay Ajayi.

If you caught the 30-21 conquest of Navy, you couldn't miss the Falcons swarming the Midshipmen's nation-leading rushing attack and quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who had tormented Air Force the past two years. This time, the Falcons' constant pressure and defensive disruption forced four turnovers (two were negated by penalties, but still had a mental impact) and ruined dozens of Navy plays.

Air Force hasn't done anything like that in recent years. But clearly, the defense's personality has transformed under the direction of Steve Russ, who shared defensive coordinator duties for a few seasons but took charge alone this year. Russ, a very good linebacker himself at Air Force 20 years ago, has turned up the aggressiveness multiple notches.

Meanwhile, staff newcomer Ron Vanderlinden — an assistant for Colorado's 1990 national champions and for Northwestern during its renaissance after that, then Maryland's head coach from 1997 to 2000 and then a Penn State assistant for 13 years — also has helped raise the overall level.

But nobody envisioned Air Force's defense coming this far this fast. The difference has been a cluster of senior leaders — linemen Nick Fitzgerald and Troy Timmerman, linebackers Spencer Proctor and Jordan Pierce, cornerbacks Jordan Mays and Justin DeCoud, and safeties Christian Spears and Jamal Byrd — playing the best of their careers. That has set an example for younger starters such as strong safety Weston Steelhammer (great name for a defensive guy) and linebackers Connor Healy and Dexter Walker, who also have prominent roles.

One play against Navy stood out. DeCoud, technically a backup in a playing rotation of cornerbacks, attacked an option play and plastered Reynolds, forcing a fumble that DeCoud picked up and ran in for an apparent touchdown. The officials called DeCoud for targeting and ejected him, a ruling that looked over-the-top and unjustified. But the Falcons didn't flinch and continued making big plays thereafter.

It's probably too much to ask for Air Force to invade Utah State for a Mountain West Conference showdown on Saturday night (8:15 p.m., ESPNU) and knock off the Aggies, who just toppled Brigham Young at Provo and will be favored by a touchdown or more.

Then again, nobody thought the Falcons would sweep Boise State and Navy.

And with this Air Force defense, anything seems possible again.

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