Falcons rout Cougars, 35-14, in conference opener

USAF photo: Mike Kaplan Falcons wide receiver Mikel Hunter pulls in a pass for a touchdown during the Air Force-BYU game at Falcon Stadium on Sept. 11.

By Staff Sgt. Don Branum: U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

FALCON STADIUM — Air Force’s defense held BYU to just 126 yards of total offense in the final three quarters during the Falcons’ 35-17 win in the teams’ Mountain West Conference opener in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 47,000 on Sept. 11.

The rout breaks a six-game losing streak to BYU, who last lost to Air Force, 24-10, in 2003.

“Our defense was absolutely special today,” Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun said. “After the initial drive, we probably played as well defensively against Brigham Young as we have maybe ever.”

BYU took an early 14-7 lead in the first quarter on touchdown runs by running back JJ Di Luigi and quarterback Riley Nelson. Air Force’s touchdown came on a 37-yard strike from quarterback Tim Jefferson to a wide-open Mikel Hunter.

Air Force tied the score in the second quarter on a 17-play drive that chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock. The defense forced BYU to go three and out on its next possession and then changed the tempo of the game by taking the ball away from the inexperienced Cougars offense.

Falcons linebacker Andre Morris Jr. hit Riley to force a fumble on third and 6 from the Air Force 40. Defensive lineman Ryan Gardner recovered for Air Force at the Brigham Young 48. Mikel Hunter scored his second touchdown of the game two plays later on a 33-yard run to give Air Force a 21-14 lead. Reggie Rembert, who started for the Falcons, intercepted Jake Heaps on BYU’s next possession, but Erik Soderberg’s field goal attempt on fourth down fell low and wide left. Riley fumbled a snap on third and seven during BYU’s final first-half series, killing BYU’s last chance to tie the game.

While Air Force’s defense frustrated BYU’s passing game, the Falcons’ running game wore down both the Cougars’ defensive line and the clock. The Falcons won the time of possession battle, 36:59 to 23:01. Air Force went 10-for-19 on third down and two-for-two on fourth down. Leading the rushing attack were Asher Clark (18 carries for 121 yards), Jared Tew (17 carries for 77 yards) and Jon Warzeka (six carries for 62 yards and a touchdown). Jefferson, Hunter and Nathan Walker also each had rushing touchdowns.

One downside of the game for Air Force was penalties. Officials flagged the Falcons 10 times for 125 yards, including a pass-interference call in the first quarter that led to a BYU touchdown and an illegal block penalty that killed an Air Force drive in the third quarter.

The win lifts Air Force to 10-1 in MWC opening games and drops the Cougars to 1-1 on the season. It’s the last time the Falcons and Cougars will meet in conference play. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said the loss is a good opportunity for his players to learn how to move the program forward at a school whose first priority is not football but faith. He also praised Air Force’s defense and discipline.

“They played well, they had a good plan, and they executed soundly,” Mendenhall said. “They deserved to win the game. They just played assignment football and played hard. Their execution overall … was superior to ours.”

The Falcons, who are now 2-0, will travel to Norman, Okla., to play the Sooners on Saturday