Air Force was celebrating its 14-7 victory Monday night against Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl, a tense but fitting final chapter to the Falcons' 2010 football season.
They had surged from a frustrating 5-4 at the end of October to an exhilarating 9-4 to end the year. And they had wrapped it up by shutting out Georgia Tech, with the nation's No. 1 rushing offense, over the final three quarters.
It was easy to point to senior leaders, starting with All-America cornerback Reggie Rembert and defensive lineman Rick Ricketts, as making a difference for this Air Force team. But amid the rejoicing in Shreveport, La., AFA head coach Troy Calhoun thought back to a different turning point.
He talked about July, before the Falcons gathered to start preseason drills. Calhoun met with his defensive staff, reorganized after the departure of highly regarded coordinator Tim DeRuyter to Texas A&M. DeRuyter, an emotional leader and an Air Force linebacker in the 1980s, had squeezed a lot out of his defenses. But the Falcons hadn't beaten Navy, with its triple-option offense. And they often had worn down late in the season, for any number of reasons.
The remaining Air Force defensive coaches, led by new coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, met with Calhoun and reworked their approach to facing option-oriented opponents. It helped that the Falcons had an experienced secondary, good enough to play the pass aggressively and help against the run. They also had enough depth up front to play more people and perhaps be fresher in November. But it also meant playing smart, avoiding breakdowns against misdirection and cutback-type plays. Nobody quantified it in recent months, but the Falcons also were not blitzing quite as much.
"We really overhauled our defense against the option," Calhoun said, stopping short of divulging trade secrets.
Many fans might not have noticed a difference. Air Force still came up a little short defensively against TCU and Oklahoma, who happen to now be playing in Bowl Championship Series games, TCU in the Rose and OU in the Fiesta. San Diego State outscored the Falcons with some superlative offensive stars, and Utah somehow escaped with a victory. Those four teams are now a combined 42-8 for the season.
But when Navy came to Falcon Stadium, Air Force stymied the Middies, 14-6. When the Falcons went to Army with a chance to wrap up the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, they pounded out a 42-22 victory. And when Georgia Tech became the bowl opponent, again the AFA defense put on the clamps. No breakdowns, and the Falcons also won the turnover battle, 4-0.
All told, Air Force was happy with 9-4 but fully aware it could have been 11-2. The seniors, Calhoun's first recruiting class, went 34-18 in their college careers, played in four bowls and won two, and enjoyed victories against TCU, Utah, Brigham Young, Notre Dame and, finally, Georgia Tech.
Next year, the Falcons have a chance to be even better.
The defense will have experience everywhere, with new leaders ready to take over: safety Jon Davis, corners Anthony Wright and Loyd Bradley, linebackers Jordan Waiwaiole, Brady Amack and Jamil Cooks, and linemen Zach Payne and Ryan Gardner.
On offense, for the first time ever, Air Force will start with a quarterback, Tim Jefferson, who already has won two bowl games. He'll have all kinds of weapons, from Asher Clark and Jonathan Warzeka to Mikel Hunter and Zack Kauth, with some proven players in the line. As poised and sharp as Jefferson has shown himself to be, Calhoun probably will think about opening up the offense even more.
They'll face a schedule that includes TCU and San Diego State at home, plus trips to Boise State, Notre Dame and Navy. Challenging, to say the least.
Yet, they'll go into 2011 thinking they could win them all. And you know, that's not too much for the Falcons to dream about, comparable to the history-making 12-1 teams of 1998 and 1985.
As close as this Air Force team came to being that extraordinary, anything will be possible next year.