AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Weston Steelhammer certainly proved he has a fitting football name and did so in the clutch against his team’s biggest rival.
The sophomore safety followed a drive-ending interception late in the fourth quarter by helping stuff a fourth-and-short in the final minute.
That set up Will Conant’s last career kick at Falcon Stadium as the senior sent a 39-yard field goal just inside the left upright with no time remaining, lifting Air Force to a 27-24 upset of No. 21 Colorado State on Friday to snap the Rams’ nine-game winning streak.
An improbable victory considering the Falcons (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West) were missing their starting quarterback, leading rusher and facing one of the hottest teams in the country.
Oh, and not to mention they needed Steelhammer’s interception and the fourth-down stop to thwart two potential game-winning drives by Colorado State (10-2, 6-2) late in the final quarter.
“It takes two to tango at a high level and this is one of those games where the teams played well,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “I thought our guys did a heck of a job hanging in there.”
Fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson scored for Air Force, which has now won six straight over the Rams at home.
Backup quarterback Nate Romine stepped in for starter Kale Pearson, who was a late scratch with a tender right ankle. Romine ran for a score and threw for 135 yards, including a 26-yard strike to Garrett Brown to get the Falcons in field-goal range.
This after Colorado State went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Air Force 42, only to have Dee Hart stopped short when he ran right into Steelhammer and Troy Timmerman. It gave Air Force good field position with 38 seconds left.
A few plays later, they were well within the range of Conant, the most accurate kicker in school history. After a timeout by the Rams — Conant used the break to grab a quick drink of water — he drilled the kick and was mobbed by teammates.
“I got out there, looked up and (the flags on the goal posts) were straight down,” Conant explained. “I was like, ‘Yes! Let’s go!’”
The loss by the Rams ended any chance of them representing the Mountain Division in the league’s title game.
It also opened the door to some armchair quarterbacking: Why would the Rams risk going for it on fourth and short?
“If you can’t get a yard, you probably don’t deserve to win the game anyway,” Colorado State coach Jim McElwain said. “We chose to go for it. They did a great job at the point of attack. And we didn’t stop them on defense coming back.
“You know me by now. I’m not here to get a participation ribbon. We are going to go and try to win the ball game.”
This has been quite a season at home for the Falcons, who finished 6-0 in friendly confines. They beat Boise State in September and now Colorado State, which was off to its best start since 1994.
It’s also been quite the turnaround, too. Air Force has gone from two wins a season ago to nine this year, the biggest bounce-back in team history, surpassing the ‘58 squad that went 9-0-2 after going 3-6-1 the year before.
Garrett Grayson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, completed 23 of 46 for 366 yards and three scores. He also threw his first interception since Oct. 4.
“They came out in the first half and punched us in the mouth, and we didn’t answer back,” Grayson said. “We weren’t used to it. If someone punched us, we punched them back. We waited until the second half. Sometimes, it’s too late when you play a good team.”
His top target, Rashard Higgins, finished with 12 catches for 193 yards. Xavier Williams also added a 76-yard score.
“It’s disappointing and yet we’ve done some good things, too,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a bowl game coming up and we’ll have an opportunity to get some more practice in and play another game.”
Air Force was thin at tailback with leading rusher Jacobi Owens out for the season due to a foot injury and senior Jon Lee unavailable to play after the Academy announced just before kickoff he was no longer a cadet in good standing. The team wouldn’t elaborate on a reason, citing the privacy act.
Davern and Johnson picked up the slack, combining for 118 tough yards up the middle.