By John Kekis
WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) When Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson was knocked to the Michie Stadium turf and out of the game against Army in the second quarter, he wasn’t about to remain on the sideline. Not with the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy within his grasp.
Jefferson scored twice and hit Jonathan Warzeka on touchdown passes of 53 and 63 yards, and the Air Force defense forced two turnovers the Falcons converted into touchdowns in a 42-22 victory on Saturday to win that elusive piece of hardware – emblematic of supremacy among the three service academies – outright for the 17th time.
“For our players, it’s neat, really neat,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Looking at the last 56 days, our best football could be in front of us.”
Navy had won the past seven CICs, but the Falcons beat the Middies 14-6 in October behind Jefferson’s two touchdowns. Saturday’s victory gave Air Force (6-4) its first CIC trophy since 2002, snapped a three-game losing streak, and made the Falcons eligible for a bowl game.
“Not even being able to see the trophy, we weren’t just winning this for my class, we were winning it for everyone that’s played Air Force football,” senior defensive end Rick Ricketts said after the Falcons’ seventh straight win at Michie Stadium.
Jefferson scored the Falcons’ first touchdown on a 3-yard run to give them a 7-6 lead early in the second, then hit Warzeka on a broken play for the 53-yard score for a 14-6 lead.
When Jacob Bohn bolted up the middle for an 18-yard touchdown, the Black Knights (5-4) were back within a point and seemed set to take command when Donnie Dixon slammed Jefferson to the turf.
The Falcons punted when they couldn’t get anything going behind backup Connor Dietz, but Anthony Wright intercepted Army quarterback Trent Steelman in the final minute of the second quarter and returned it 32 yards to the Army 23. That gave the Falcons an important momentum swing, and Jefferson, a junior, came right back in.
“I sensed he’d be back. He’s a tough guy. He’s a gamer,” Ricketts said. “He’s a leader, even though he doesn’t say that much. We can just look at him.”
Four plays later and with only 14 seconds left, Nathan Walker scored on a 2-yard run to give Air Force a 21-13 halftime lead.
It was the beginning of sweet redemption from a week ago, when the Falcons had five turnovers in a 28-23 loss at home to then-No. 8 Utah. Jordan Waiwaiole returned a fumble for another touchdown that gave Air Force a commanding 35-16 lead early in the fourth.
“The last two games, we were the ones hurt by turnovers,” Jefferson said. “This game, we kind of turned that around. We knew whoever won the turnover battle was going to have a great chance to win. Army was doing a real good job on turnovers all season. Our defense did a great job.”
Army was the only remaining team in the country that had not thrown an interception, and the Black Knights entered the game with a +1.25 turnover margin, fifth-best in the country. But they were done in by some timely passing by the usually ground-oriented Falcons and those two huge turnovers on a sun-splashed day.
“You can do so many good things on defense,” second-year Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “That’s the game. That shows how critical those things are.”
Army gained a 6-0 lead on field goals of 30 and 41 yards by Alex Carlton before Jefferson got the Falcons going. He scored on a 3-yard run on the first play of the second quarter and hit Warzeka for a 53-yard score.
“I thought he was throwing it to me. It came off his hand funny,” said Warzeka, who found out after he went to the bench that the pass was intended for wideout Mikel Hunter. “All in all, it worked out.”
Carlton’s third field goal, a season-long from 46 yards out, moved the Black Knights within 21-16 with 2:22 left in the third.
But Jefferson, who was just 3 of 7 passing for 124 yards, then avoided a blitzing Donnie Dixon and hit Warzeka for a 63-yard score in the final minute of the period to give the Falcons a 28-16 lead.
“We knew we had to come out with a certain amount of punch,” Warzeka said. “We stumbled a little bit from the get-go, but…”
The Black Knights lost any chance at a comeback when Waiwaiole scooped up a fumble near midfield by Jared Hassin and ran it back 52 yards for a score and a commanding 35-16 lead with 12:39 left.
Air Force finished with 277 yards rushing to Army’s 244 in a battle of option attacks. Walker finished with 109 yards on 15 carries to lead the Falcons, and Hassin led the Black Knights with 114, his fourth straight 100-yard game.
Army played much of the game without standout defensive lineman Josh McNary, who was suffering from a strained hamstring. And when the Black Knights – who have thrived on fourth down, converting 10 of 13 on the season – elected to kick a field goal on a fourth-and-1 from the Air Force 13 on the first drive of the game, the Falcons knew it might be their day.
“That was huge,” Warzeka said. “A team like Army thrives off of momentum. If they had jumped out on us 14-0, it probably would have been a completely different game.”
It was the final home game of the season for the Black Knights, who close with Kent, Notre Dame and Navy, and it brought out a sports celebrity crowd. In the press box was New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, as well as former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason.
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