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Falcons taking grounded approach

The Baltimore Sun

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun knows what it's like to play for the Commander in Chief's Trophy. He has felt the pride and the thrill that come with victory over Navy and Army.

He's the first Academy graduate to lead the program and has a clear understanding of the rivalry that exists among the three military schools.

Still, several stories have emerged from Colorado this week saying the coach and his players are viewing today's contest at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium as just another game.

It's in direct contrast to the feeling swirling around Navy, which has been excited just going to practice in preparation for Air Force.

Calhoun was momentarily silent when asked about the reported low-key approach. He acknowledged he has been striving to bring more balance to the Air Force attack - focusing on not only the service academy games, but also on winning the Mountain West Conference and going to a bowl game.

But he said he is not trying to undermine the meaningfulness of the game.

"You don't have to talk about it," he said. "It's just there. Deep down, as competitive as the schools are and the players are, it's a natural rivalry. But in the big picture and over the long haul of life, when you're going to fight against a different foe, you're just big-time proud that you're part of the tradition that includes the kids at West Point and Navy. There is tremendous mutual respect among the three academies."

That respect, Calhoun said, comes from a shared bond connected by just a few words, and he rattled them off: "Patriotism, guts, courage and toughness."

To beat such a determined foe can generate a kind of euphoria the Air Force coach wants to avoid.

"The key, maturitywise, is working hard every day and being well prepared every week," he said. "This game is very special, but not the end-all. We'll still have seven more to play. When this one is done and if we win, I don't want my guys getting up the next morning saying, 'I'm really hung over and it's OK, we beat Navy.' It's meaningful and important, but every game you play is.

"My goal since the day I walked in the door is to prepare this team to play better in games eight through 12 than they did in one through seven."

Calhoun was drawn back to Air Force after an absence of 16 years, the last four in the NFL, where he found success for three years as an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos and then last year as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Houston Texans.

"In truth, I never gave being the head coach here a thought until about two days after coach [Fisher] DeBerry retired," Calhoun said.

The Falcons' new coach played for and later worked as a graduate assistant for DeBerry, who retired last season after 23 years.

"In my own heart, I wanted him to always be the head coach," Calhoun said. "A couple days after he retired, a single thought came to me that the job was open."

Calhoun had just settled his family in Houston. He told his wife in November they would be settling in for a long while.

"We both had family there, the schools were good and we thought the Texans had a chance to be a playoff team in the coming season," he said. "And yet, one morning I woke up very early. My wife said, 'What are you doing up?' And I said, 'I know what I said about staying here. But the job at the Academy is open. It's the Academy. We better think about that.'"

Calhoun took the job and has the Falcons off to their best start in five years at 3-1, the only loss coming last week at Brigham Young, 31-6. Before that, Air Force clobbered South Carolina State, 34-3, and surprised both Utah, 20-12, and TCU, 20-17, in overtime.

"We play in a conference that has size and athletic quickness," Calhoun said. "What I wanted to do was have a little more balanced attack and a simple plan."

Calhoun said the difference in today's game rests with execution.

"It will be determined by the most elementary fundamentals," Calhoun said. "By special teams and turnover margin. These games, they mean a tremendous amount to everyone. You just have to go in entirely focused with your ears pinned back."

The message evidently is getting through. Air Force senior wide receiver-fullback Chad Hall, who leads the team in receptions with 17 for 173 yards, said every player knows he has to be ready.

"During practice, Coach's goal is to get in as many repetitions as possible," Hall said. "We know we have to be ready from the first play to the last play, and every player on our team wants to make a game-changing play."

Before returning to Air Force, Calhoun said he loved watching Army, Navy and Air Force play no matter where he was coaching. Today, he will be on the sideline calling the plays, enjoying an old rivalry.

"I love the academy," he said. "I love the grit, the passion and the integrity. I went here and my sister went here. You can tell I'm pretty fond of it."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Today's game

Matchup -- Air Force (3-1) at Navy (2-2)

Site -- Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time -- 1 p.m.

TV -- CSTV

Radio -- 1090 AM

Line -- Navy by 2 1/2

Series -- Air Force leads, 25-14

Navy offense vs. Air Force defense -- The Navy offense leads the country in rushing with 360 yards per game, while Air Force's defense has allowed its opponents a stingy average of just 97.8 yards per game. Navy will try to extend its four-game winning streak against the Falcons, all wins that have come by seven points or fewer. Despite having a veteran team last year, the Midshipmen had to pull out a 24-17 victory. The Mids should have momentum on their side after scoring 46 points last week to beat Duke, while Air Force lost, 31-6, to Brigham Young. Some of the players at Air Force are downplaying the excitement surrounding this game - the first in a round-robin series among Navy, Air Force and Army for the Commander in Chief's Trophy - but the Mids are saying what they really feel. "It's definitely one of the biggest games of the year," Navy's No. 1 quarterback, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, said. "Nobody has to say anything; you can just feel it. This is the first step in winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy. It's one of the highest goals on our list."

Navy defense vs. Air Force offense -- Navy coach Paul Johnson said he is aware Air Force's new coach, Troy Calhoun, has changed some of the Falcons' offensive formations but said Air Force still is an option team that throws the ball a little bit more. Navy's defense, which has allowed 292.5 passing yards a game, worked hard this week learning reads and knowing where to be when. Air Force's offense has averaged 130.8 yards through the air and 223 on the ground, about 90 yards fewer than Navy has been allowing in total offense. Calhoun said that though he has inherited a more mature team, he has been trying to simplify the offensive scheme and present a more balanced attack. He believes that approach benefits his defensive unit because it will see more conventional sets - run by most other teams in the Mountain West Conference - during practice.

SANDRA MCKEE

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