TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Air Force could not get its usually reliable triple option rolling. South Alabama’s defenders clogged the inside lanes and used their speed to keep the Falcons from getting to the edge.
Air Force countered by going to the air, something it rarely does.
Arion Worthman threw for 207 yards to balance out Air Force’s run-heavy offense, Jacobi Owens scored two touchdowns and the Falcons overcame a sluggish start to beat South Alabama 45-21 in Arizona Bowl on Friday.
“They really were committed to the run and force us to throw,” said Worthman, who also had 71 yards on 21 carries. “We were able to hit some passes early and throughout the entire game.”
Air Force (10-3) struggled to get its triple-option going, falling into an 18-point first-half hole. Once the Falcons got rolling, they couldn’t be stopped, scoring 42 straight points to turn it into a rout.
Worthman was the trigger, jump-starting Air Force’s option while completing 7 of 10 passes, including a 75-yard touchdown to Jalen Robinette to open the second half.
The surprise contribution from Worthman — he had 339 total yards entering Friday — caught the Jaguars off-guard and opened up the run game a little more for the Falcons.
“They did some things in the passing game that we didn’t see coming into the game,” South Alabama linebacker Darrell Songy said. “We just needed to adjust better during the game.”
South Alabama (6-7) appeared to be headed toward its first bowl win after jumping on the Falcons early, starting with Dallas Davis’ 75-yard touchdown pass to Josh Magee on the game’s first play.
The Jaguars couldn’t sustain their early offensive success or stop the Falcons to lose a bowl game for the second time in three seasons.
Davis threw for 245 yards and a touchdown, but also had an interception and lost a fumble. Magee had five catches for 154 yards.
“I told the kids in the locker room that we’ve been a Division I program for four years and we’re not where you want to be yet,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said “But they pushed the cart way up the hill today.”
South Alabama landed the first blows by hitting a few long passes.
Davis followed his opening TD throwing by hitting Chris Lewis on a 51-yard pass to set up Dami Ayoola’s 2-yard TD run. Davis next found Magee on a 37-yard pass, then scored himself on a 4-yard run that put the Jaguars up 21-3.
South Alabama also seemed to have the combination for stopping Air Force’s tricky triple-option, the Falcons to a pair of field goals into the second quarter.
“They shocked us to a degree,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “No matter how well you try to prepare, their speed in the open field and their defensive front knocked us on our heels a little, too.”
Air Force finally unlocked its option late in the half after hitting a couple of mid-range passes. Ronald Cleveland scored on 14-yard run , then Owens on a 2-yard run after Santo Coppola returned Davis’ fumble to 1-yard line.
Once down 21-3, Air Force found itself at halftime after converting the 2-point conversion .
The Falcons took their first lead by doing exactly what South Alabama did to open the game: a 75-yard TD pass on the first play of the second half, from Worthman to Robinette.
Tyler Williams later took a pitch left to the pylon for a 6-yard TD and Owens scored on a 22-yard run to put Air Force up 45-21, well on its way to ending the season with a victory.
Air Force is typically dominant running team, but had a nice balance in the Arizona Bowl to win 10 games for the second time in three seasons.
South Alabama was unable to hit long passes after its initial first-half flurry and fell short of its first winning season in four years as a Division I program.
SPECTACULAR CATCH THAT WASN’T
Robinette finished with 124 yards on two catches, but one catch that didn’t count — it was called back was the best play of the night by either team.
Despite being tightly covered, he snagged the ball one handed for an apparent touchdown. Instead, it was called back for an illegal man downfield penalty.
South Alabama will get Davis back and several defensive starters next season, but will have to replace tight end Gerald Everett and receiver Tyrone Williams, two of its best playmakers.
Air Force will have plenty of holes to fill after losing the largest senior class in school history of 32 players.
By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Sports Writer
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