Air Force Puts Up Convincing Win Over UNLV on Senior Day
by Graham Knight
Shortly after kickoff, the Falcons knew their slim hopes of qualifying for the Mountain West Championship game had been snuffed out, by virtue of Utah State's win over New Mexico and Boise State's loss to San Diego State, but the Air Force team still sent their seniors out in style with a dominant 48-14 thrashing of the UNLV Rebels.
The day could not have started any better for the Falcons. UNLV fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff return and Air Force recovered at the Rebel 14-yard line. Senior quarterback Warren Bryan, making his first start of the season in place of junior Haaziq Daniels, directed a three-play drive in just over a minute to get the Falcons the lead from the start. Brad Roberts rushed on all three plays of the drive, including a 1-yard touchdown run.
Daniels was reportedly unavailable for the game due to a non-COVID illness. He was spotted sitting on the sidelines in street clothes.
On their next drive, UNLV fumbled again and, again, and the Falcons recovered. This time a 9-play, 49-yard drive resulted in Roberts’s second score of the day to go up 14-0 ... and the rout was on.
"It was a neat way for those seniors, their last game here at Falcon Stadium," commented Air Force Head Coach Troy Calhoun, "thought we played pretty solid football across the board. You look, special teams, defensively and being able to move the ball forward with our running game."
Senior Day at the US Air Force Academy included a group of six cadets on the football team scheduled to graduate just two weeks later.
The Falcons had 5 possessions in the first half, four resulting in points and a 24-0 halftime lead. They had a 181-86 first half edge in total yards, all on the ground, but that was just a precursor of what was to come.
With Daniels out, Calhoun decided to rotate three quarterbacks, sometimes within the same drive. That included sophomore Zachary Larrier, who is also a track star and the defending Mountain West 200-meter champion. He finished off the first possession of the second half with a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 31-0.
"We just kinda felt like there were different things that each guy would be able to do," Calhoun said of the quarterback rotation. "We wanted to get them in there, just to see. We thought the earlier the better, being able to play and run the floor a little bit, at least get some minutes."
Possession was the watchword of the day. UNLV had the ball for less than four minutes in the second half, and only 30 seconds in the entire fourth quarter.
"Our offense, man, they held the ball forever," said senior cornerback Tre Bugg, III. "In the 4th quarter they held the ball for 14:30. That's almost unheard of. So, just when your offense is able to hold the ball like that, it makes our job easier."
In fact, the Falcons held onto the the ball for nearly 41 minutes in total and racked up 26 first downs.
That dominance came courtesy of the offensive line, nicknamed "The Diesel." Anchored by senior guard Hawk Wimmer, the only lineman to start every game this season, the Air Force ground game put up 511 yards rushing against UNLV. And, the front five has been named a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award, which honors the top offensive line in college football.
"Big props to the offensive linemen," Roberts said. "They created great running lanes and everybody executed pretty well today."
Not only did Air Force earn all its yardage on the ground, the Falcons didn't even attempt a single pass. The last time that happened was in November of 2012.
Junior fullback Emmanuel Michel led the Falcons in total rushing yards, with 123 and one touchdown. Roberts finished with 98 yards on the afternoon and ended the regular season as the Mountain West rushing champion, with 1,279 on the year.
Defensively, the Falcons held UNLV to just 214 yards of total offense and came up with five sacks. One of the sacks was courtesy of junior linebacker Vince Sanford, who finished the season tied for second in the conference with 9.5.
"I think it's a good way to go out," senior defensive tackle Jordan Jackson said. "I can just give all the thanks to the rest of the defense and coaches, the play calling, and the way everyone else played to open up stuff for me. All I can say is, 'Thank you,' and it's just been a blessing."
Having missed out on the conference championship game, the Falcons await a bowl berth and the chance to finish the season with 10 wins.
Air Force ends the year tops in the country in both rushing yards per game, with 341, and total rushing yards, at 4,090. They are the only team to finish the season with more than 4,000 yards on the ground.
The Falcons are also fifth in the country in total defense, allowing opponents an average of just 288 yards per game.
Air Force finished the regular season tied with Utah State for first place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference, with a 6-2 conference record, and 9-3 overall on the year.
Utah State advanced to the Conference Championship in the tiebreaker by virtue of their win over Air Force in week three, and will take on the San Diego State Aztecs for the title. Utah State and San Diego State are the only teams to win over Air Force from the Mountain West this year.
edited for web by Joe Harman