New Mexico picks off “Cotton Bowl” win at Air Force’s expense

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2015, file photo, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun walks along the sideline during the team's NCAA college football game against Fresno State at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force faces New Mexico on Saturday in Dallas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The wide-open flatlands of Texas make it easy to find places to land a plane. The Lone Star State numbers six Air Force bases spanning from Dyess AFB in Abilene to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls.

Believe it or not, that’s why Air Force gave up a Mountain West Conference home game to “host” New Mexico Saturday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

The Lobos (3-3, 2-1 MW Mountain) took advantage of not having to be the visitors at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs by taking home a 45-40 victory over the suddenly swooning Falcons (4-2, 1-2 MW Mountain). Air Force has a 15-game winning streak at Falcon Stadium and had defeated New Mexico seven straight times in Colorado Springs.

First-year Air Force athletic director Jim Knowlton thought that was a good idea to play a game at the venerable Cotton Bowl. Army and Navy have their historic Army-Navy Game that is like a “bowl” experience. Why not something for Air Force?

Knowlton also viewed it as more than a chance to bring the academy’s football program closer to airmen and officers serving in Texas. He intended it to be an educational experience for 600 cadets that traveled to Dallas.
They visited locations throughout the Dallas area that included Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter and the Dallas VA Medical Center. They also marched into the Cotton Bowl as part of the pregame pageantry.

The Falcons’ football roster includes 28 players from Texas, but it didn’t turn out to be much of a homecoming.

Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun was rumored to be upset last spring with the mid-season “bowl” experience announcement at the expense of Mountain West home game, but he’s a former Air Force quarterback and officer. He understands the chain of command. He kept his thoughts to himself and carried out his orders. Air Force still had six home games, but only three of eight Mountain West contests at Falcon Stadium.

New Mexico, which entered the game leading the nation in rushing with 354 yards a game, added to that statistic with 373 to go with 70 passing for 443 total yards.

Air Force rolled up 531 yards with 251 rushing and 280 passing, but the Falcons suddenly can’t stop anybody. It was just two weeks ago Air Force held Navy to 57 yards rushing on 38 attempts in a 28-14 victory at Falcon Stadium.

That impressive victory had Air Force in the driver’s seat for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. All the Falcons need to clinch the CIC is to beat Army Nov. 5 at West Point.

But since the Navy game, Air Force yielded 189 yards rushing and 362 total yards in a 35-26 loss at Wyoming followed by the New Mexico head-scratcher.

The Falcons look vulnerable with the improvement Army has managed in its third year under head coach Jeff Monken. Army started the season 3-0, including a win at Temple, before back-to-back losses at Buffalo and Duke. However, the Black Knights returned home to Michie Stadium Saturday with a 62-7 win over Lafayette (1-6), a struggling Football Championship Subdivision member.

Army (4-2) will be motivated to knock off Air Force and to set up playing Navy (4-1) for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy when they meet in the 117th Army-Navy Game on Dec. 10 in Baltimore.

Air Force’s two-game losing streak is more confounding when measured against Navy’s bounce-back from its loss to the Falcons. The Midshipmen beat then-No. 6 Houston, 46-40. They vaulted into the AP rankings at No. 25 and are “among others” in the USA Today poll, equal to No. 28.

Air Force returns home to face Hawaii and then travels to Fresno State before the Falcons fly to West Point. Air Force will be traveling for the fourth time in five weeks.

Knowlton might have good reasons for a “bowl” experience in Dallas, but the timing has inexplicably backfired.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055

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