Khampha Bouaphanh/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas, Troy Calhoun remembers the day almost six years ago when he returned to Air Force as the first academy graduate to become the head coach.
The Falcons were coming off three consecutive losing seasons, and Calhoun recalls what he was told after taking the job.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, realistically, these first five years, if you can catch lightning in a bottle one time, maybe you get to a bowl game,’” Calhoun said Friday.
Try six bowls in six seasons.
Air Force (6-6) made its school-record sixth consecutive bowl appearance Saturday against Rice (6-6) in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Calhoun’s first season ended with a loss to California in the 2007 Armed Forces Bowl, where the Falcons played three consecutive years before going to the Independence and Military bowls the last two years. They were back in Fort Worth after overcoming the loss of 17 senior starters from last season.
“I first found out about this opportunity back in the summer. We knew it would be really a goal for our squad,” said Calhoun. “We had only five starters coming back into this season. ... The first two weeks in August, we were a long, long ways away from being a bowl team.”
Even with the huge turnover in the starting lineup, the Falcons still do well what they have for so long: They run. Air Force came into Saturday second natinally with 329 yards rushing per game and won against Hawaii, the victory that got it bowl eligible, without throwing a single pass.
“They are a very disciplined team,” Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines said. “You can’t try to do too much against this team because that’s when they break the big plays. So you just have to be sound, and everything else will take care of itself.”
With only seven seniors (three of them tight ends), Rice was in its first bowl game since 2008. The Owls, who lost three games by four points or less, were 1-5 after a 14-10 loss at Memphis the first weekend of October.
“We set our goals to go to a bowl game this season. It was one where we were 1-5 at one point and had to get on a roll,” coach David Bailiff said. “It’s a tribute to our seniors who every day when our football team came over there, we would not let them have bad days. We drew a line in the sand. We used a lot of the hard lessons early that put us on a roll late.”
Like Calhoun at Air Force, Bailiff is in his sixth season at Rice. The Owls made it to the Texas Bowl in Bailiff’s second season, but this is their third bowl since two postseason games during the 1961 calendar year, the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 and the Bluebonnet Bowl in December of that year.
Since the Falcons’ last regular season game, senior quarterback Connor Dietz graduated from the academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
“He’s an officer now, so we have to take orders from him and actually listen to him now,” senior defensive lineman Nick DeJulio said with a chuckle. “He’s one of our influential leaders.”
Dietz, who followed a pair of four-year starting quarterbacks, was feeling healthy after being banged up toward the end of the regular season, when Air Force lost three of its last four games. He has thrown for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns and run for 658 yards with five scores.
While Dietz only attempted four passes in the regular season finale after the zero-pass game against Hawaii, he expected the Falcons to mix in a few more passing plays against Rice, if needed.
“We’re not the same offense every year; we’re not the same offense every game,” Dietz said. “When we have to throw, we throw. When we have to run, we run. It’s kind of one of those things where if it’s working, why change it? That’s kind of how we approach every game. We go in with a big game plan, but if a certain little thing is working, why get away from it?”