Troy Calhoun has coached the Air Force football team since 2007. In his first 10 seasons on the job in Colorado Springs, Calhoun posted one losing regular season (going 6-6 and losing a bowl game in one other season). After a disastrous 2013 campaign in which his team won only two games, Calhoun engineered a supreme turnaround in 2014, going 10-3.
This past season, Calhoun suffered his second losing regular season at the Air Force Academy. One should expect Air Force to rebound, but after a year in which Army won its first Commander in Chief’s Trophy since 1996, not a lot should be taken for granted in service academy football circles. Moreover, the way the 2017 season spun out of control for Air Force offers a sobering reminder that prominence and success must be re-earned every week. Easy assumptions might turn out to be correct in 2018 and Air Force might win eight or nine games again, but easy assumptions are the last thing Calhoun should rely on. He knows he has to tighten the screws of his program once again.
One key indication of Calhoun’s concern — and accompanying vigilance: His handling of his defensive staff.
Last year’s defensive coordinator, Steve Russ, moved to the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers’ linebackers. It is the middle of April, and while Calhoun hired Brian Knorr — formerly a defensive coordinator at Indiana with more recent stops at Ohio State and Arizona in lesser, more specialized roles — the head coach has not officially named a defensive coordinator for 2018. This is not a crisis or a point of alarm, merely a sign that a coach is taking his time with mapping out the roles and responsibilities on his defensive staff.
To underscore the point that this is not a crisis, remember that Purdue coach Jeff Brohm hired a bunch of defensive assistants before his first season on the job with the Boilermakers, but did not immediately name a coordinator either. That Purdue defense was superb for much of last season, outshining Brohm’s offense and helping the Boilermakers reach and then win a bowl game. Air Force is being patient with the arrangement of its defensive staff not because of a lack of confidence in personnel, but because Calhoun knows this team’s front seven has to be tougher, and the right voices need to be heard on the practice field.
Two elements of Air Force’s 2017 season were supremely disappointing. One is that the Falcons were outclassed by opponents which run similar offenses with a lot of concepts the Falcons are commonly exposed to in practice: New Mexico, Navy and Army. The Falcons’ defense was destroyed by UNM and Navy, allowing 48 or more points in those two contests and wasting an offense which scored at least 38 points in both games. AFA’s defense was more competent against Army, but the Falcons still got worked up front and Army was able to convert 10 of 12 third downs, a totally unacceptable conversion rate for any defense against an offense which purposefully refuses to throw the ball.
Air Force’s defense lacked toughness for much (though not all) of the 2017 season, and with changes occurring on the defensive staff, Calhoun — a month after his team’s spring game — is wise to not rush a decision on how he wants his defense to be operated. This is one part of a very conscious attempt to right what went wrong last year. Air Force’s defense can’t be pushed around up front — not if the Falcons are going to go from 0-2 in the Commander-in-Chief’s series to 2-0 and reclaim the trophy Army snagged last season.
We now pivot to the other big failure of last season’s team: the offense’s volatility.
Getting shut down by Michigan’s offense in early September carried no shame, and being limited by Boise State doesn’t rate as a news story either. Yet, after flourishing in the middle third of the season — even in losses against New Mexico and Navy — Air Force’s offense fell apart.
The Falcons got shut out at home by Army, snapping a streak of 306 consecutive games in which AFA scored points. Air Force managed just three third-down conversions in that game and collected only 184 total yards, under 96 both running and passing. This wasn’t the product of one player failing to do his job. This was a complete team regression. After that game, quarterback Arion Worthman made the kind of frank admission which is both laudable for its candor yet alarming in its content:
“You could tell they (Army) wanted it more — from the first snap,” Worthman conceded. It was a butt-kicking, the kind of thrashing which is impossible to spin. Worthman did not try to spin this, but he went one step further. He didn’t merely think of the shutout loss to Army as a bad performance, but a display of deficient effort and determination.
Whether Calhoun agreed with that assessment isn’t irrelevant to this discussion, but it seems peripheral. Army got a lot better last season, and that fact has to be honored. The better team won that day in Colorado Springs. If forced to determine whether Air Force’s disaster against Army was more a bad performance or a lack of effort, the former view merits more support than the latter.
However, with that point having been made, Air Force’s offense remained poor each of the next two weeks against Wyoming and Boise State, failing to correct problems and respond the way a team needs to after a shattering week. Letdowns are part of college sports, and last year’s Army game marked the moment Air Force couldn’t handle. The Falcons didn’t recover from that day, and that’s why they didn’t qualify for a bowl bid.
This leads to the ultimate concern heading into 2018, something bigger than the defensive front seven’s limitations: Air Force lost games in all sorts of ways last season. It lost the shootouts in the middle portion of the slate. It lost late to San Diego State. It lost in blowouts to Army and Boise State. It lost without committing turnovers against Army and then while committing three turnovers against Wyoming. It lost due to poor defense against New Mexico and due to poor offense against Wyoming.
There is something counterintuitively reassuring about losing in one way during a season — it makes the recipe for renewal easier to identify going into the following season. Air Force lost games on both sides of the ball in 2017, which makes Calhoun’s task a lot more complicated this season. He does get Worthman back, and he showed in 2014 that he can respond to a bad season with a great bounce-back effort the next year, but again, easy assumptions should not be made for this team.
The Falcons have to re-earn a reemergence every week.