AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — Receiver or running back — Ronald Cleveland doesn’t know how to classify himself.
How about this: Burgeoning playmaker.
Cleveland rushed for a score and caught a 62-yard TD pass as Air Force beat Abilene Christian 37-21 on Saturday for its 13th straight win at home.
The sophomore plays a hybrid position in the Air Force’s triple-option offense. His 33-yard TD run in the second quarter began a spurt of 21 straight points to help the Falcons (1-0) pull away from pesky Abilene Christian (0-1). Cleveland entered the game with one career carry.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys if I come in the defense can key on me,” said Cleveland, a football, basketball, track and soccer standout during his high school career in Franklin, Tennessee. “I want to focus on getting stronger and being able to make those blocks you need to make on the linebackers and defensive ends. Do whatever I need to do.”
He’s certainly getting stronger. He can already bench about 60 pounds more than he could a season ago.
“Tremendous athlete. Highly skilled,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “The thing he’s done — finally has arms. When he first got here, this (microphone) cord right here was thicker than his arms. He’s added a little bit that way. It was good to see him contribute.”
Quarterback Nate Romine guided the offense in his return from a knee injury that sidelined him most of last season. He finished with two TD passes as Air Force improved to 21-0 all-time against Football Championship Subdivision teams.
But he didn’t play late in the fourth quarter, with backup Arion Worthman taking some snaps. Worthman threw a 17-yard TD pass to Jalen Robinette with 5:27 remaining.
Asked if Romine was banged up, Calhoun simply responded: “We chose to put Arion in there. We thought we needed to get him out there.”
Abilene Christian kept it close for most of the game thanks to a defense that recovered two early fumbles. Dallas Sealey threw three TD passes, including a 76-yard strike to Tracy James with 4:14 remaining that made it 37-21.
“We always say around our place, when you get squeezed the real you comes out,” Wildcats coach Ken Collums said. “You saw the real us and I like what I see.”
Air Force hasn’t lost at Falcon Stadium since Nov. 21, 2013, against UNLV. It’s the longest home winning streak in team history.
Abilene Christian: Dropped to 11-34 all-time against FBS teams, but proved they could hang with the bigger schools. It could’ve been even closer, but James tripped over the turf after breaking into the clear in the second quarter and Brendan Conn missed a 35-yard field goal late in the third.
“These guys are a high-class outfit. They go to bowl games every single year,” Collums said. “They are tough, and they are relentless, and they are disciplined.”
Air Force: A ho-hum performance. The Falcons improve to 10-0 in season openers under Calhoun.
This was a difficult day for the Falcon family as they honored former quarterback Dee Dowis by wearing helmet decals that featured his initials and No. 6. The school also stenciled “DD” on the 6-yard-line at both ends of the field and held a moment of silence.
Dowis died Monday morning in a car accident outside Atlanta. He was 48.
A technician at running the option offense, Dowis graduated as the academy’s career leading rusher.
“He’d make plays on his own that were beyond sensational and yet the first thing — and I don’t know why this phrase sticks in my mind, but I heard it over and over and over — ‘Hey, good job, y’all,'” Calhoun recounted. “That tells you a little bit in terms of how strongly he felt about the guys alongside him.”
Abilene Christian: Host Northern Colorado, Sept. 10. The Wildcats lead the series, 10-5-1, but have dropped five straight.
Air Force: Host Georgia State, Sept. 10. The Falcons beat the Panthers 48-34 on Sept. 13, 2014, in the only meeting between the two teams.
– By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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