Rocky Long was relieved he didn’t have to make a fourth-down decision deep in Air Force territory with the game on the line.
After all, the San Diego State coach’s confidence in his kickers was severely shaken after watching them miss two extra points and a field goal.
Turns out, Long didn’t have to worry as Donnel Pumphrey scored on a 10-yard run with 1:39 remaining, helping the Aztecs rally for a 27-20 victory over the Falcons on Thursday night in a game that was played despite the partial government shutdown.
Had Pumphrey not scored on that third-down play up the middle, Long was actually contemplating going for it rather than attempt a field goal.
”Because our kickers had been so poor all day long,” Long explained. ”It was going to be a tough decision. I’m very happy, because if we’d have gotten it down to the 5-yard line, and it was going to be fourth down, it was going to be a heck of a hard decision.”
Down by 14 heading into the fourth quarter, the Aztecs (3-3, 2-0 Mountain West) scored 21 straight points to escape with the win even with their kicking difficulties. San Diego State is 2-151-1 in program history when trailing by 14 or more points in the final quarter.
Quinn Kaehler finished 15 of 26 for 249 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter. Pumphrey had 117 yards rushing along with another 43 receiving and a score.
”We’ve got a lot of tough games ahead, and we’ve definitely got to get better if we’re going to achieve what we want to,” Kaehler said.
Backup Nate Romine scored on a 16-yard run and threw a 71-yard TD pass for the Falcons (1-6, 0-5) in a game they didn’t know would even be staged until it was given the official go-ahead about 27 hours before kickoff.
Will Conant made two long field goals, including a 52-yarder that bounced in off the left upright. His counterpart, Wes Feer, had a field goal and an extra point clang away off the same left goal post.
When Kaehler hit Pumphrey for a 20-yard TD early in the fourth quarter to begin San Diego State’s comeback, Long sent out backup kicker Seamus McMorrow, who made the extra point.
A few plays later, Kaehler found a wide open Ezell Ruffin for a 62-yard score. But McMorrow had his point-after attempt blocked by Troy Timmerman, making it 20-19.
After forcing the Falcons to punt, Kaehler marched the Aztecs down the field and Pumphrey punctuated the winning drive with a run up the middle for a score. Kaehler threw a pass to Tim Vizzi for the 2-point conversion.
”Quite frankly, my biggest concern coming into the game was whether or not we could tackle Pumphrey,” said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose team has lost six in a row. ”I’ve seen him all season long, he’s just extremely electric. A couple of times we were in pretty good position and he gave us a wiggle and a juke and couldn’t get him down.”
The Aztecs have won three straight to even their record. According to San Diego State, of the 45 schools that opened 0-3 since 2010, the Aztecs join Houston (2012) as the only teams to even its record at 3-3 after six games.
Just 40 days ago, Romine was buried deep on Air Force’s depth chart. He moved up when Kale Pearson suffered a season-ending right knee injury in the opener and again after backup Jaleel Awini was declared ineligible by the academy.
Romine received the call to go in Thursday night shortly after starter Karson Roberts came off the field in the first quarter with a concussion. Romine directed a scoring drive in his first series, capping it off with a 16-yard TD run early in the second quarter.
His 71-yard TD pass to Sam Gagliano was the longest by a Falcons QB in four years.
San Diego State controlled the clock and outgained the Falcons in the first half, only to trail 10-6 when Conant connected on a 48-yard field goal on the last play before halftime.
For a third straight week, the Falcons let a halftime lead slip away.
Hours before the game, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the decision that football games and other sports will go on at the military service academies through the end of the month. The issue will be reassessed later this month if Congress has still not passed a budget to fund the federal government.
Air Force is off next weekend before hosting Notre Dame.
”We played our souls out,” Calhoun said. ”Hats off to San Diego State, winning a game down the stretch.”