Air Force Falcon wide receiver Garrett Brown, left, reels in a pass over Amy Black Knights defensive back Reggie Nesbit on Nov. 2 in Air Force Academy, Colo. The Falcons won 42-28. (Kent Nishimura / AP)
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, COLO. — Army will have to wait another year for a chance at the Commander in Chief’s Trophy.
Angel Santiago ran for three scores, but Air Force’s Anthony LaCoste rushed for a career-high 263 yards and scored three touchdowns, helping the Falcons snap a seven-game skid by holding off the Black Knights 42-28 on Saturday.
Even if Army were to beat Navy in the season finale next month, the Midshipmen will retain the crown, courtesy of being the defending champions and having already beaten the Falcons earlier this season.
“They do some things that are tough on your eyes, and we didn’t handle that well,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We practiced for it, but we didn’t handle it. They won enough of the physical fights.”
Down 35-21 midway through the fourth quarter, Army (3-6) caught a break when Air Force returner Garrett Brown muffed a punt. Four plays later, Baggett scored on a 10-yard run to trim the deficit.
But Broam Hart sealed the win for the Falcons (2-7) — ending the team’s longest losing streak since 1979 — on a 3-yard scamper with 3:41 remaining.
“This is a big rival, so it definitely hurts,” Santiago said. “Air Force is a good squad, and we knew that. We just didn’t come through in the end.”
There was a scary moment late in the second quarter, when Army linebacker Julian Holloway was carted off the field with his right leg in a splint after being hurt trying to tackle LaCoste on a long run up the middle. Ellerson said Holloway “will be OK,” but that the junior would likely stay in Colorado Springs overnight.
Army led 7-0 and 14-7 in the first quarter and had a chance to widen that lead, but Air Force’s Nick Fitzgerald blocked Daniel Grochowski’s 48-yard field-goal attempt early in the second. Grochowski also pushed his attempt from 39 yards wide right in the third quarter on the Black Knights’ opening drive of the half with the game tied 21-21.
“We’ve got to be able to finish with points,” Ellerson said. “We didn’t finish with points.”
The Falcons took advantage on the next play as LaCoste broke free for a 78-yard touchdown to give Air Force the lead for good.
“He’s a hard guy to get on the ground, and we’ve got to win some of those fights,” Ellerson said of LaCoste. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to get off blocks and tackle.”
All three of Santiago’s touchdowns came in the first half and despite the junior hobbling on a bothersome left ankle. Terry Baggett had 121 yards rushing and a score for Army, which was trying to beat Air Force for a second straight season.
Air Force, the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack, finished with 343 yards, 35 more than the Black Knights’ top-ranked ground game.
“I thought both squads played with tremendous heart,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “It was competitive like you’d expect from a service academy game. We had several seniors play both offensively and defensively and do all sorts of good things for us today, and I know that this game means a lot to them.
“I’m glad we were able to give them this win.”
LaCoste finished with the second-most yards rushing for a program that’s known for its ground game. He was just shy of the school record held by Chad Hall, who had 275 yards against Army in 2007.
The elusive LaCoste also had long TD runs of 73 and 78 yards, along with a 1-yard burst early in the fourth quarter to give the Falcons a two-touchdown lead.
Ellerson knows his team still has goals to accomplish this season.
“We’ve got to keep fighting, we’ve got to keep believing, and we’ve got to keep doing the things that are consistent with winning,” Ellerson said.