It figured, in this matchup between prolific offenses and sieve-like defenses, that the last team to have the ball would win.
So it was, though not as dramatically as one might have thought.
The drama came earlier.
Carlos Wiggins gathered in Air Force’s last-gasp onside kick attempt, quarterback Cole Gautsche knelt to the ground three times, and the New Mexico Lobos had secured an exciting 45-37 victory over the Falcons on Saturday at University Stadium.
New Mexico is 3-6 on the year, 1-4 in Mountain West Conference play. Air Force is 2-8, 0-6.
“There was no margin for error, as there’s never a margin for error with us right now,” UNM coach Bob Davie said. “… It’s a big win for us.”
The Lobos rushed for 451 yards and scored on seven of their eight possessions – not counting the “victory formation” series at the end – in securing their first conference victory of the year.
Attendance was announced as 21,833.
Senior running back Kasey Carrier, who rushed for a UNM- and Mountain West-record 338 yards in a 28-23 loss to the Falcons last year at the Academy, finished with 179 yards on 27 carries Saturday. Gautsche rushed for 140 yards, and running back Jhurell Pressley had a 61-yard touchdown run.
“It seemed like (Air Force) didn’t really know where the ball was going,” Carrier said. “We mixed it up so much and had so many backs coming in to where you didn’t know who was the blocking back, dive back or option back.”
On the other side of the ball, UNM was gashed for 445 yards rushing and passing and had only two defensive stops.
But those two stops, as much as the seven scores, won the game for New Mexico.
In the fourth quarter, with the Lobos leading 42-34, Air Force paid the UNM offense the high compliment of going for it on a fourth-and-24 from the New Mexico 39. Lobos defensive end Brett Bowers sacked Air Force quarterback Nate Romine for a 13-yard loss.
Eight plays later, UNM’s Justus Adams kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Lobos a 45-34 lead. Air Force responded with a 52-yard Will Conant field goal, but Wiggins got the ensuing onside kick.
Air Force led only once, 28-27, after a 74-yard drive in the third quarter. But Pressley’s 61-yard TD run put the Lobos back in front. The teams traded touchdowns from there until an Air Force chop-block penalty helped set up the fateful fourth-and-24.
The Lobos led at halftime, 21-14.
In a game that featured running backs named Carrier (Kasey, UNM) and Rushing (Devin, Air Force), it was no surprise that these two offenses ran up and down the field in the first half.
Somewhat surprising, though, was the Falcons’ passing game. Romine was 6-of-7 through the air in the first half and hit Garrett Brown with a 19-yard touchdown pass – on a fourth-and-3 – that cut UNM’s lead to seven with 3:08 left in the second quarter.
The Lobos, who had scored touchdowns on their previous three possessions, drove from their 28 to the Air Force 23 as the seconds ticked away. But with Gautsche out of the game after taking a big hit, the final series of downs with Clayton Mitchem at quarterback resulted in a minus-11 yards, two sacks and a harmless fumble on the final play.
The UNM offense had stormed out of the gate.
The Lobos took the opening kickoff and drove 66 yards on 10 plays. With the Air Force defense cheating up to stop the run, Gautsche hit Jeric Magnant for the touchdown from 28 yards out.
After the UNM defense forced a three-and-out – the Lobos’ only stop of the first half – UNM drove 71 yards in 11 plays, all on the ground, for a 14-0 lead.
Air Force responded with 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive, but the Lobos again stretched their lead to 14 with a 10-play, 75-yard march. But again, the Falcons answered with a 15-play, 79-yard drive finished by the Romine-to-Brown touchdown pass.