FORT COLLINS — In the end, an overachieving CSU Rams defense, after three quarters of playing as if its hair was on fire, finally got … burned.
The Rams surrendered 24 straight points, including two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, in falling to Air Force 38-21 at Canvas Stadium on Saturday night.
It was the fourth straight defeat in the series for CSU (4-6, 3-3 Mountain West), which hasn’t won a Ram-Falcon Trophy game since 2015, coach Mike Bobo’s first with the Rams.
CSU has now dropped 11 straight regular-season games in which a rivalry trophy was on the line. Since 2015, Bobo is 1-4 against Air Force, 0-5 against the CU Buffs and 1-3 against Wyoming, which the Rams face Friday in Laramie.
The Falcons, meanwhile, can claim their first undisputed state collegiate championship since 1958, the last autumn in which all of Colorado’s Division I football teams played one another in a round-robin format.
Air Force (8-2, 5-1) defeated the Buffs 30-23 in overtime back on Sept. 14 in the first meeting between the schools since 1974. It’s the first time the Zoomies have swept the Buffs and Rams in the same season since 1968.
Air Force scored 24 straight points in quarters 2 through 4, including two touchdowns over a 6: 23 span to open the final period, both on long throws from Falcons quarterback Donald Hammond.
The first, a 50-yard pitch-and-catch to wideout Geraud Sanders, gave the visitors their first lead of the evening with 13: 44 left in the contest. The second capped AFA’s next drive, on a 28-yard scoring toss from Hammond to wide receiver Benjamin Waters.
CSU, which had come in on a three-game winning streak, watched leads of 14-0 after the first quarter and 14-10 at halftime go up in smoke on a bitterly cold night that saw just 24,914 attend the 40th Battle For The Ram-Falcon Trophy.
Hammond (three passing touchdowns, one interceptions) eventually outdueled Rams quarterback Patrick O’Brien, who threw two scores in a losing effort but whose interception at the AFA 1-yard line with 1: 22 left was returned 99 yards for a touchdown by Falcons cornerback Zane Lewis, extending the Zoomies’ cushion to 37-21.
The frenetic end of the contest was ironic, given that the Rams, who came into the weekend giving up 5.1 yards per rush (10th in the MWC) and 204.4 opponent yards on the ground per game (ninth), actually led with their defense in the early going — showing strong pursuit, tackling, and recognition of the Falcons’ sleight-of-hand option tricks.
The Zoomies, by contrast, looked completely out of sorts for the contest’s first 20 minutes. With the hosts leading 7-0, Hammond lost the ball on a miscommunication in the backfield, and CSU defender Mohamed Kamara picked up the rock at the Rams’ 35-yard-line. With a full head of steam, the freshman linebacker ran the scoop-and-score all the way back for a 65-yard touchdown. It was CSU’s first defensive score off a fumble return since 2015 and the first Rams scoop-and-score ever at Canvas, which opened in 2017.
The Rams had a chance to take a three-score lead with nine minutes until halftime, but Cayden Camper’s field goal attempt from 53 yards out, with the wind at his back, sailed wide left.
AFA finally got on the board with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Hammond to Benjamin Waters with 6: 42 left in the half, but a clutch Logan Stewart tackle on third down at the Rams’ 13 with 1: 16 left in the second quarter forced the Falcons into a field goal and helped the hosts hold on to a 14-10 cushion at the break.
With a wind gusting out of the north up to 25 miles per hour and wind chills dropping into the high 20s in the first half, Bobo wasn’t messing around early. The Rams took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards on 14 plays to take an early 7-0 lead. More impressive, they converted on two fourth-down attempts in AFA territory — an 11-yard toss from O’Brien to Warren Jackson on fourth-and-2 at the 36, and a 4-yard screen pass for a score to tight end Trey McBride on fourth-and-goal.