Worthman scores 5 TDs; Air Force rallies past UNLV 34-30

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: October 15, 2017

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Arion Worthman shooed away his teammates who came looking for a celebration after his first touchdown Saturday.

This Air Force quarterback knew more had to follow. And he had the been-there, done-that confidence to believe they would.

They did.

Worthman scored all five Falcons touchdowns as they spotted UNLV a 27-point lead and stormed back for a 34-30 victory at Falcon Stadium that snapped a four-game losing streak.

“There was never a moment in the game where I thought we were going to lose,” said Worthman, who carried 30 times for 166 yards and hit 4 of 8 passes for 72 yards. “Even down 27-0, I knew we were going to find a way to win the game. We did it last week. We’ve done it in the past. So, as long as there’s still time on clock I think we’re going to win the game.”

Worthman has directed Air Force (2-4, 1-2 Mountain West) to eight victories in his tenure as Air Force’s quarterback. Of those, six required the team to overcome a deficit and four reached double digits.

But none were as large as the 27-point gap separating Air Force and UNLV (2-3, 1-2) on Saturday. In fact, only a 28-point comeback against Fresno State in 1996 ranked as a bigger comeback in program history. Nor was there a time the Falcons were so mistake-prone.

They lost four fumbles — two coming on the first two offensive plays of the second half. They lost a windblown ball on a kickoff return when it was allowed to bounce and the Rebels jumped on it. They also had a high snap on a field-goal attempt that squirted away and resulted in a turnover on downs.

“We did what we could to keep pouring gas on the fire,” coach Troy Calhoun said.

But Air Force made some momentum-changing plays, too. Freshman outside linebacker Lakota Wills intercepted a pass in the second quarter, an important finger in the dam that resulted in one of UNLV’s few empty possessions at that point. Sophomore linebacker Kyle Johnson blocked a punt in the third quarter, setting up a touchdown. And, probably biggest of all, nose guard Cody Gessler hustled 40 yards down field to swat away a UNLV fumble that was batted and kicked toward the end zone until a Rebel nearly scooped it up for a touchdown. Instead, Gessler’s efforts kept it loose and Falcons outside linebacker Shaq Vereen recovered it for a touchback.

Worthman — whose scores covered 14, 1, 5, 6 and 1 yard — then led an 80-yard march for the winning touchdown.

“We’re at a point where we’ve got to grow up and be mature and understand how to execute at a high level in intense situations, and we didn’t do that,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said.

“When you have a 27-7 lead at halftime, you’ve got to close that game out.”

But it wasn’t the turnovers that changed the game, but rather the overall play of Air Force on offense and defense. A defense that was shredded for 304 yards in the first half buckled down to permit just 107 in the second.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that anything changed,” said senior linebacker Jack Flor, who made a team-high eight tackles. “You make mistakes and that happens. You’ve just got to keep fighting, and that’s what our defense is good at.”

An offense that put up 151 yards in the first half exploded for 322 in the second half in all but the three possessions that ended in turnovers or the one that ended in victory-formation kneel downs.

This is what almost happened last week. The Falcons trailed Navy by 21 points on three occasions, yet Worthman led a charge that put them ahead briefly in the final two minutes.

But the Midshipmen responded with the winning touchdown on their final drive to escape 48-45.

UNLV had the same opportunity, as it got the ball back with 2:14 remaining after Air Force posted the go-ahead score. This time, the Falcons made the stop.

“We finished today,” Worthman said. “That shows growth. We learned from our mistakes from last week. We’ll work on starting faster, but I’m extremely proud of the way we finished today.”

While Worthman eschewed celebrating on a second-quarter touchdown that made the score 27-7, he was fine with enjoying this one after it ended.

“I forgot what it felt like to win a football game,” he said. “Going a whole month without a win, it’s just very relieving to get a ‘W.’”

©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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