Air Force veteran head coach Troy Calhoun and at least some of the Falcons fans who understand the nuances of the triple-option offense were reminded life can be miserable without quarterback.
Kale Pearson, a junior in 2013, got the Falcons off to a fast start with a 38-15 victory over Colgate. But Pearson’s season ended with torn knee ligaments in the second quarter. He had rushed three times for 15 yards and completed 5 of 8 passes for 46 at the point he went down – not a bad day if projected over another two-and-a-half quarters.
Without Pearson, Air Force proceeded to lose seven straight and 10 of 11. The only victory was at home against Army, which has struggled with its own quarterback play last year.
Air Force has a history of thriving under quarterbacks who put up big rushing numbers.
Retired head coach Fisher DeBerry’s successful teams featured Dee Dowis, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1989, and Beau Morgan, a third-team Associated Press pick in 1996.
Calhoun, a former Falcons quarterback, carried on Air Force’s winning ways with six bowl trips his first six years as he enters his eighth season. His cast under center has included Shaun Carney and Tim Jefferson.
Pearson isn’t expected to match the numbers of Dowis, Morgan, Carney and Jefferson, but he has led the Falcons to a 2-1 start; the only loss was a 17-13 decision at Wyoming in the Mountain West opener.
“I knew I was going into my senior year and this would be my last opportunity,” Pearson said. “I worked hard in the offseason. It was hard work and there were times when I didn’t want to put in the work, but I didn’t want to come back (less than 100 percent) and let the same thing happen with another injury. If I didn’t work hard, it could easily happen.”
He didn’t say it, but he could have been referring to the team’s record, too.
Air Force opened 2014 with a 44-16 win over Nicholls State, a Football Championship Subdivision member. Then they lost to Wyoming followed by a 48-38 victory over Georgia State, a Football Bowl Subdivision member from the Sun Belt Conference.
The Falcons are coming off a bye week while preparing for a home game with Mountain West power Boise State at 5 pm MT Saturday at Falcon Stadium. The 3-1 Broncos are in transition under new coach Bryan Harsin, but they have a decade-plus of recruiting success.
“They’re a physical team, and we’ve got to be able to run our offense,” Pearson said. “We feel we can beat them if we execute our offense and get a few stops on defense.”
That’s why the triple-option is so tricky; it requires a quarterback who can make the right reads with the ball. For Pearson through three games, most of the reads have been giving up the ball.
Pearson says teams are playing him to run, so he’s giving up the ball. He’s only fifth in rushing with 28 carries for 73 yards (28 yards lost on sacks) and two touchdowns with a long run of 17.
Jacobi Owens, a 5-11, 190-pound running back from Las Vegas Centennial, leads the team with 431 yards for averages of 6.5 a carry and 143.7 a game with three touchdowns. Garrett Brown has 124 yards with 6.9 per carry and one TD, aptly named Devin Rushing 113 yards, a 6.6 average and two touchdowns and Broam Hart 86 yards, a 4.1 average and one TD.
“We start every game thinking whatever works, we’ll roll with it,” Pearson said. “Some days we’re running to Jacobi, some days to Garrett and some I’ll run it more,” Pearson said. “More recently, they’re trying to force us to throw since we are a running team. We won’t change our offense much. We execute what they’re letting us do.”
The doubt Pearson felt during rehab wasn’t the first time life at Air Force tested him. He’s not from a military family and hadn’t considered a military career until the Falcons began recruiting him out of Tulsa Union.
“Air Force reached out to me, and I wanted a challenge,” Pearson said. “I wanted to say I had accomplished something important.”
But even the most rugged recruits face doubts about meeting the demands of a military academy. Pearson felt uneasy first semester as a direct admit to the academy.
“I actually called home to my Dad about wanting to come home, and he wouldn’t let me. He told me to stick it out another semester and then make a decision. In that semester, I changed my mind 180 degrees. I’m so happy I came here.”
Not to mention Calhoun and Air Force’s fans.