Air Force third-year starting seniors Weston Steelhammer, Jacobi Owens, Shayne Davern, Jalen Robinette and Colin Sander will fly home to Colorado Springs knowing they’ll return east for another important football visit in the spring.
The Falcons (6-3) will visit the White House as a result of their 31-12 victory over Army (5-4) Saturday at West Point to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. The CIC Trophy earns a White House ceremony with the President for the winning team’s seniors.
When Air Force’s 2016 seniors were sophomore stars, they helped Air Force’s 2014 seniors visit the White House by claiming the round-robin series among the service academies. The role of underclassmen is not to be overlooked.
Christian Spears was a 2014 senior that Steelhammer, et al., helped earn a White House trip. I wrote a story on him following the White House visit on how he went from playing on the JV team to standing next to the President during the White House ceremony. He gave me a feel for what it means to the seniors and the underclassmen to win the CIC.
“The younger guys on the team always want to see the seniors win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and go to the White House,” Spears told me in a May 2015 story I wrote. “When you’re younger on the team, you know the trials and tribulations the seniors have been through.”
It’s been an up-and-down season for Air Force. October struggles cost the Falcons a chance to repeat as the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division champions, but all three academies consider the CIC their No. 1 goal.
Air Force accomplished the first half of the task with a convincing 28-14 win over Navy a month ago. The Falcons slumped through a three-game losing streak before coming from behind last week to beat lowly Fresno State, but all that matters is they were ready for their two most important games of the season.
Never mind that Navy, which beat Notre Dame 28-27 on Saturday to improve to 6-2, may end up ranked in the Top 25 ahead of Air Force. Navy wasn’t ready on Oct. 1 in Colorado Springs. The Army-Navy Game is a major slice of Americana, but this year it is a consolation game in the CIC series.
This year’s Air Force sophomore who did the most to help his senior teammates was quarterback Arion Worthman. Last week he rescued the Falcons off the bench when he replaced injured senior Nate Romine. This week he made his first career start.
Worthman, a 5-foot-11, 201-pounder from Normal, Ill., finished with 258 total yards and two touchdowns. He completed 6-of-9 passes for 195 yards with a 46-yard TD pass to Owens. Worthman also rushed 19 times for 63 yards and a 4-yard score.
Owens led the Falcons with 12 carries for 106 yards rushing and his one reception.
Air Force’s other touchdowns were a 17-yard run by Davern, a fullback, and a 4-yard run by junior Timothy McVey.
Two other seniors helping their cause on defense with interceptions were Steelhammer, a safety, and cornerback Roland Ladipo.
Steelhammer’s early second-quarter interception of Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw was a sign the Black Knights aren’t ready to compete with Air Force and Navy on a consistent basis.
It was Army’s second wasted scoring opportunity before Air Force put up its first points. Army had a chance to lead by as much as 14-0, but couldn’t even get three or six points to set a more favorable tone.
The game opened with Army driving to Air Force’s 28-yard line, but 6-yard loss on a run and an 8-yard sack force the Black Knights to punt.
Early in the second quarter with the game still scoreless, Army’s Andrew King forced a fumble recovered by Alex Aukerman for a first down at the Falcons’ 17-yard line. However, an Army procedure penalty turned a third-and-5 play into third-and-10. Bradshaw subsequently was intercepted in the end zone by Steelhammer.
Army can’t win the CIC, but it still has two goals left: bowl eligibility and ending a 14-year losing streak to Navy.
However, despite Army’s five-win record, the Black Knights are two wins shy of bowl eligibility. The reason is they have two teams on their schedule that are Bowl Championship Subdivision members. That means they can’t count the 62-7 win over Lafayette since they still have a game Nov. 19 against Morgan State.
In other words, Army needs to beat Morgan State and either Notre Dame on Nov. 12 in San Antonio or Navy on Dec. 10 in Baltimore to finish the regular season 7-5 to gain bowl eligibility.
Army has shown signs it is gaining ground on Air Force and Navy in the CIC series. It has beaten Temple in the season opener and Wake Forest last week, but Saturday’s loss to Air Force demonstrated the Black Knights are still on an uphill climb.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055