FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – Arion Worthman is supposed to be the Air Force quarterback of tomorrow. Problem was, the Falcons needed him Friday to keep their free-falling bowl game hopes solvent.
With the starting quarterback injured, and Air Force staring at a fourth straight loss, Worthman came off the bench midway through the third quarter and rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns to rally the Falcons to a 31-21 win at Fresno State.
“Coming off three straight losses, I knew I had to do everything I could to give us a chance to win,” said Worthman, who entered the game with one rush and one pass in his career. “I wanted to help our seniors finish strong.”
Air Force (5-3, 2-3 Mountain West Conference) can clinch a third straight postseason bowl with a victory Saturday at Army, or in any other of its final four games.
As for the Bulldogs (1-8, 0-5), they lost a seventh consecutive game for just the second time in school history, joining the 1929 team, and matched the second-worst start in program history.
Worthman was just the spark the Air Force game, and season, needed. Falcons coach Troy Calhoun was in no mood to discuss any potential quarterback controversy when asked who will start next week.
“That’s not something we have to answer right now,” Calhoun said.
Senior captain Nate Romine appeared to injure his ankle on a 2-yard carry with 6:19 remaining in the third quarter. Fresno State had just taken a 21-17 lead on KeeSean Johnson’s third touchdown of the day, a 52-yard catch and dive to the pylon.
“It was crazy,” Worthman said. “Nate went down, and our whole sideline went quiet. I heard them shouting my number – ‘2-2-2!’ and I knew it was my time to go.”
Fresno State, playing its first game since head coach Tim DeRuyter was fired, soon wished it hadn’t knocked out the starting quarterback.
Worthman showed an instant burst of speed running the triple option on keepers around the edge, and used his stout frame to muscle through the pile on interior runs.
And, run, Air Force did. Worthman dropped back for one pass out of 31 plays, and was dropped for a sack with no attempted throws. Everything else was Air Force showing off the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing offense – this time, with a quarterback leading the way.
Worthman leaped into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 24-21 lead with 13:02 left in the game. He sealed the win with a 4-yard keeper with 2:34 to play.
“Oh my gosh, Arion was awesome,” senior tailback Jacobi Owens said. “I’m proud of him. It makes our team even better. We definitely needed to win. We’re happy to get out of that slump.”
AIR FORCE: The Falcons have struggled on pass defense all season, but used four interceptions to turn back the Bulldogs. One, an end zone interception by Brodie Hicks, stopped Fresno State from taking a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. Another, by Patrick Healy for a 35-yard touchdown return, capped a 17-0 Falcons run. “The (first) pick was really huge,” Calhoun said. “One stopped points, one converted into points. We needed both.”
FRESNO STATE: The Bulldogs are out of bowl-game contention, so their attention is focused on finding the next head coach to replace DeRuyter. Local media reports name former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, a former Fresno State player and offensive coordinator, as the clear front runner. Tedford has long-running ties with Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko from their mutual time at Oregon. Other potential candidates include Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, a former Fresno State quarterback, and former USC coach Steve Sarkisian.
Air Force: Kicker Luke Strebel made a conference-record 22 consecutive field goals before missing one in the previous game against Hawaii – and then missed a 27-yard attempt in his first try Friday. The junior made up for it with a 27-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Fresno State: Sophomore wide receiver KeeSean Johnson entered the game with three career touchdowns – then matched that in a single game with scores of 36-, 2- and 52-yards. Johnson finished with 10 catches for a career-best 142 yards.
“Sometimes I think we tend to give up on kids too quickly after they make mistakes, and that sends a bad message. I believe that leaving Chason (Virgil) in was the right decision.” — Fresno State interim coach Eric Kiesau, on not changing quarterbacks.
AIR FORCE: The Falcons can win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for a record 19th outright time with a win next Saturday at Army. Air Force beat Navy 28-14 on Oct. 1 in the first leg of the round robin.
FRESNO STATE: The Bulldogs hope to avoid the second 1-8 start in school history, dating to 1921, in next Saturday’s trip to Colorado State.
– By DAVID WHITE, AP Sports Writer
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