Air Force grounds Wolf Pack, 45-42
Special to The R-C
The Nevada Wolf Pack knew what was coming Friday night and still couldn’t stop the Air Force Falcons.
The Falcons ran the ball 91 times for 550 yards to stun the Wolf Pack 45-42 in front of a chilled Mackay Stadium homecoming crowd of 16,789. The Falcons methodically marched 62 yards in a dozen plays for a game-winning 30-yard field goal by Luke Strebel as time expired, killing off the final four minutes of the game.
“It’s very difficult to watch somebody run the football on you like that,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “It just kind of goes to the heart of you as a football team when you can’t stop somebody from running the ball.”
The Falcons had three players with 100 or more yards rushing. Tim McVey had 139 on 18 carries, Ronald Cleveland had 118 on just eight carries and Taven Birdlow had 100 on 20 carries. Quarterback Arion Worthman also nearly joined the Falcons’ century club, picking up 92 yards on 20 carries.
“At the end of the day we just couldn’t get off the field on defense,” Norvell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game when somebody ran the ball 91 times. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”
The Pack defense did not get off the field with the game on the line as the Falcons took over the ball at their own 25-yard line with 3:57 to play. The Wolf Pack had just tied the game at 42-42 on a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ty Gangi to wide receiver Dayan Henley.
“All of us on defense feel we could have played better and should have played better,” said Pack safety Asauni Rufus, who set a career high with 24 tackles in the game.
McVey opened the game-winning drive with a 38-yard run to the Pack 37-yard line. From there it was just a matter of the Falcons moving closer to field goal range. The Falcons ran the ball 10 more times for 39 yards to set up Strebel’s game-winning kick.
“A game like that, it comes down to one stop on defense,” Norvell said.
The Falcons, who also completed four passes for 41 yards to finish with 591 total yards, controlled the ball for 41:20 and picked up 36 first downs.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Rufus said.
The loss eliminates the Wolf Pack from bowl consideration this season and all but wipes out its already slim chances at a division championship. The Pack now stand 1-7 overall and 1-3 in the Mountain West with just four games to play.
Air Force, which rallied from a 27-7 deficit last week to stun UNLV 34-30, improved to 3-4, 2-2. The win on Friday was the Falcons first on the road in four tries this season.
“It was a collective effort,” Pack center Sean Krepsz said. “The defense or special teams didn’t cost us this game. We all could have played better.”
The Pack offense played remarkably well considering it only had the ball for just 18:40. Gangi completed 17-of-39 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns and running back Kelton Moore gained 101 yards on 14 carries.
“We now have a lot of confidence,” Krepsz said. “We feel dangerous.”
The game might have been decided in the final three-plus minutes of the second quarter when the Falcons scored two touchdowns in a span of just 69 seconds to take a 28-20 halftime lead.
Air Force wiped out a 20-14 Wolf Pack lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by McVey and a 43-yard scoring run by Cleveland. McVey’s touchdown, with 3:18 to go in the half, gave the Falcons their first lead (21-20) of the game. The score capped a 75-yard, 15-play (all runs) drive that saw the Falcons pick up five first downs and eat up 7:07 of the clock.
The Falcons then surprised the Wolf Pack with an on-sides kick to get the ball right back at their own 46. It took Air Force just four plays to get into the end zone this time as Cleveland took a pitch from Worthman and outran the Pack defense down the left sideline.
“We talked about that,” said Norvell of the on-side kick. “We knew they liked to take chances. But we just didn’t execute and get on the ball. Possessions are critical in a game like this and that was a big play.”
Air Force, which attempted just two passes (both incomplete) in the first half, ran the ball 43 times in the first 30 minutes for 330 yards.
The Falcons also scored in the first half on a 5-yard run by Garrett Amy and a 3-yard run by Birdow. Amy’s score tied the game at 7-7 with 2:46 to go in the first quarter and Birdow’s touchdown evened things at 14-14 with 14:38 to go in the second quarter. Air Force had 20 first downs in the first half, all on the ground, and controlled the ball for 19:45 of the first 30 minutes.
The Wolf Pack, though, seemed to have control for the first 27 minutes of the half. The Pack took a 7-0 lead on a 14-yard pass from Gangi to McLane Mannix over the middle with 11:19 to go in the first quarter.
The Wolf Pack used a trick play to take a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. Gangi fired a backward pass to wide receiver Andrew Celis who, in turn, then lofted a 28-yard touchdown pass to Wyatt Demps down the left sideline.
The Pack, though, stumbled a bit on offense the rest of the first half, settling for a couple of Spencer Pettit field goals in the second quarter. A pass interference penalty on Air Force’s Marquis Griffin gave the Pack the ball at the Falcons’ 18-yard line on first down but a couple of incomplete Gangi passes and no gain on a run by Moore forced the Pack to settle for a 35-yard Pettit field goal and a 17-14 lead.
The Pack also had a short field to work with on its next drive, taking over at their own 46-yard line after a 20-yard punt by Air Force’s Charlie Scott. Moore exploded up the middle for a 32-yard run on the third play of the drive down to the Air Force 20-yard line. But that’s where the drive stalled as another wide receiver pass from Celis fell incomplete followed by two Gangi misfires. Pettit connected from 37 yards out this time for a 20-14 Nevada lead with 10:25 to go in the half.
The Pack did the bulk of its damage on offense in the first half through the air as Gangi completed nine-of-20 passes for 135 yards. The junior quarterback, though, was just 2-of-10 in the second quarter for seven yards.
Air Force had more first downs (20-11), plays (45-32) and total yards (330-260) than the Pack in the first half. But it took the Wolf Pack just three minutes to wipe out the Falcons’ halftime lead and tie the game at 28-28. The touchdown — a 13-yard run by Gangi — capped off a short 37-yard, six-play drive with 12:02 to go in the third quarter. The drive, which also included a 13-yard run by freshman Isaiah Hamilton, was set up by an Air Force fumble. Pack defensive end Malik Reed stripped Worthman of the ball and linebacker Austin Paulhus fell on it at the Falcons’ 37.
The Wolf Pack defense, though, continued to struggle. The Falcons’ offense then turned in its most impressive drive of the day, taking a 35-28 lead after devouring 9:47 of the clock on the way to a 20-play, 82-yard scoring drive. All but one of the plays (a 6-yard completion) were runs as five different Falcons carried the ball. The biggest play of the drive was a 22-yard run by Tim McVey down to the Pack 14. Worthman carried the ball on the final three plays of the drive, all from the 1-yard line. He scored on fourth down for the 35-28 lead with 2:09 to go in the third quarter.
Air Force, though, stepped out of character and helped the Wolf Pack get back in the game. Worthman, under pressure, tossed a wild interception with just over 14 minutes to play. The Air Force quarterback, who had been intercepted just once all season, tossed the ball down the middle and into the waiting arms of Pack defensive back Ahki Muhammad.
It took the Pack just seven plays to tie the game at 35-35 as Moore scored from a yard out for his second touchdown of the season. A 22-yard run by Gangi down to the Air Force 20, after a handoff fake to Moore, helped set up the score. Gangi also connected with wide receiver Daiyan Henley down to the Falcons’ 1-yard line.
Air Force answered right back with a 3-yard touchdown run by Worthman to take a 42-35 lead with 6:43 to go. The scoring drive covered 75 yards and 12 plays.
“We just have to be more physical on defense,” Norvell said. “And more aggressive. Defense is not complicated. It’s about shedding blocks and tackles and we have to play better.”
The Wolf Pack, 1-3 at home this year, now have a week off before heading to Boise State to play the Broncos on Nov. 4.
“We have to respond to this,” Rufus said.