In 1978, the Air Force football team had suffered four straight losing years under longtime coach Ben Martin. Coach Martin decided it was time to retire and become a color analyst for ABC Sports. He was succeeded by Bill Parcels, who only coached the Falcons for one year before leaving for a job with the New York Giants. The Falcons then hired Parcell’s offensive coordinator, Ken Hatfield as the new head coach. The following year, Hatfield hired an assistant coach from Appalachian State, Fisher DeBerry, to be his quarterback coach, promoting him to offensive coordinator the following year. DeBerry immediately got to work converting the offense to the triple option. By 1982, the offense started producing the 300 yards per game that everyone now expects from the Falcons every year.
By 1985, a rare combination of football talent had gathered at the Academy. Quarterback Bart Weiss had an excellent grasp of executing the option and was a slippery runner with a strong arm. Fullbacks Johnny Smith and Pat Evans were good power runners in the middle of the line. Wide receiver Ken Carpenter was the deep threat on throws. On defense, Terry Maki was an All-American linebacker who had 475 tackles in his career at Air Force. Scott Thomas was an All-American defensive back who doubled as a kick returner, with touchdowns on both a kickoff and a punt. Chad Hennings was in his first year as a defensive lineman, later to win All-American honors and the Outland Trophy as best lineman in the country. Punter Mark Simon averaged 44.4 yards per kick during his time at the Academy, and was the number 1 punter in college football for 1985. The nose guard was Dick Clark, now known as Lt General Richard Clark, Superintendent of the Air Force Academy.
When the season started, the Falcons immediately started out dominating their opponents. They beat UTEP on opening day 48-6, followed up by a victory at Wyoming 49-7 and then against Rice at home 59-17. That start pushed then into 19th place on the AP poll. After beating New Mexico by 49-12, they faced off against Notre Dame at home. The Falcons were in the midst of a three game winning streak against Notre Dame. Much like Boise State years later, the Irish couldn’t initially get their heads wrapped around the triple option run by Air Force.
The Fighting Irish were led by two future NFL players QB Steve Beuerlein, and RB Alan Pinkett, and had started the season ranked #14 in the AP poll. On the very first play from scrimmage, Weiss botched the handoff to Johnny Smith, and the Irish recovered the fumble at the Falcon 16 yard line. After an 11 yard gain by Pinkett, the Falcon defense stiffened and forced a Notre Dame 28 yard field goal. The next six Falcon offensive plays resulted in two more fumbles, the second being recovered by the Irish. The Falcon defense was up to the task and the Irish were unable to take advantage. On the next drive, the Irish stopped the Falcons at the Irish 35, and moved down the field, finally stalling out and settling for a 33 yard field goal to make it 6-0.
The Falcon offense finally got moving and got a touchdown out of a 6 play 80 yard drive to make it 7-6. After that, the Falcons and the Irish traded field goals, ending the half with a score of 10-9.
Again at the start of the second half, the Falcons seemed tense and Weiss again fumbled the ball away on the first play from scrimmage. This time the Irish were able to convert the turnover into a touchdown on a two yard carry by Pinkett, making the score 15-10. Notre Dame attempted a two point conversion but Joel Williams dropped the pass from Beuerlein in the end zone. Another unsuccessful drive by the Falcon led to a punt that was dropped by the punt returner, and the Falcons recovered it. After a short drive, they had to settle for a field goal to make the score 15-13.
The deciding play of the game occured after the Irish started a long drive with 10:16 to go in the game. They easily moved the ball down to the Falcon 2 yard line after 7 plays, but again the Falcon defense stiffened. Two tackles for a loss and one penalty later, the Irish now had a 4th and goal at the 20. The Irish lined up for the kick, the snap was good, but knifing through the line came Terry Maki, who blocked the kick. The ball fell into the arms of AJ Scott, who ran down the sidelines past the Notre Dame bench 77 yards for a touchdown. The Falcon defense held for one more drive and won the game 21-15. Maki finished the game with 30 tackles, 19 of them solo.
The Falcons then went on to win the next five games in convincing fashion including Napolean McCallum-led Navy, 24-7, and Army, a beautiful 45-7, and Utah 37-15. That brought them a #4 ranking in the AP poll as they entered a big showdown against #16 BYU at Cougar Stadium (now LaVell Edwards Stadium, named for the BYU coach of this game) in Provo. BYU had won the national championship the previous year, but came into this game with an 8-2 record, having lost to UCLA and to UTEP.
The Falcons came out strong in the first half, mostly due to a ball-hawking defense. After a 22 yard touchdown pass from Weiss to Randy Jones early in the first quarter, Tom Rotello returned an intercepted pass 25 yards for another Falcon touchdown. BYU responded with a touchdown pass from Robbie Bosco to Mark Bellini. The final touchdown of the first half came on another interception, Dwan Wilson with a 58 yard return of a Bosco pass to make the score 21-7.
The second half was a different story, starting with a 72 yard punt return by Vai Sikahema and another touchdown pass from Bosco to Bellini to tie the game at 21-21. After a few unsuccessful drives by both teams, with 6 minutes to go in the game, Bosco hit Sikahema on a long 69 yard touchdown pass. The Falcons were able to move the ball down the field on their next drive, but in the final minutes, Weiss was intercepted on a pass into the end zone.
In a remarkable season, this game ended the hopes for a national championship. A win would have most likely given the Falcons the title, as they would have been the only undefeated team in the AP Poll. They finished the season with wins at Hawaii 27-20 and in the Bluebonnet Bowl against Texas in front of a Texas crowd, 24-16. All season long the defense and special teams were the deciding factor, making key plays at opportune times to put Air Force in command. The Falcon DBs finished the year with 28 interceptions and 5 touchdown, and in the two biggest games against Notre Dame and Texas, the biggest plays were the Maki block of the field goal and a pooch kickoff by kicker Tom Ruby recovered by the Falcons that turned into a touchdown. It was a different era of college football and we may never see another performance like this out of the Falcons, but we can always hope.