Jerilee Bennett/Associated Press
Jerilee Bennett/Associated Press
AIR FORCE ACADEMY – Air Force linebacker Alex Means single-handedly turned the tide with an interception return for a touchdown he said was pure luck, then snuffed out New Mexico’s comeback with a fourth-down stop in the closing minutes.
The senior reached high with his right hand to tip B.R. Holbrook’s pass to running back Chase Clayton in the right flat during the first half Saturday night, gathered in the fluttering football and sprinted 65 yards untouched for his first career TD.
Then, he helped seal the Falcons’ 28-23 win by stuffing Lamaar Thomas for a 4-yard loss on fourth-and-4 from the Falcons 12 after missing a series while shaking off the effects of a chop block.
Thanks to Means’ pair of big plays and a trio of 1-yard TD runs by Wes Cobb, the Falcons (4-3, 3-1) overcame Kasey Carrier’s Mountain West Conference-record 338 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Means particularly was fond of his fourth-down stop.
“I think that was a more critical point of the game,” he said. “The interception, I actually didn’t run the right play. We had a little miscommunication on what the play was. I kind of ran it late, and I was in no man’s land, and ... we got lucky, but we’ll take it.”
Late on a blitz call, Means found himself between the quarterback and the receiver in the backfield and used every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame to make sure Holbrook’s floater didn’t reach its target.
“I just put my hand up, and it tipped and popped up in the air, and the whole time I said, ‘No way, no way, no way!’” Means said. “And the next thing I know, I was in the end zone about to have a heart attack.”
The Falcons won despite losing Cody Getz, the nation’s second-leading rusher, on their first snap when he aggravated a sprained left ankle. They ended up rushing for 291 yards to New Mexico’s 409.
The Lobos (4-4, 1-2) lost Holbrook to a concussion just before halftime and mostly ran the ball in the second half behind backup quarterback Quinton McCown and with Carrier and Thomas, a wide receiver, taking some direct snaps.
Trailing by five, the Lobos reached the Air Force 18 after a strip by Tim Foley of Falcons receiver Ty MacArthur. But Carrier had to take a breather on the sideline and then gained just 1 yard on third-and-5. Then, he watched Thomas get stuffed by Means on fourth down.
The Falcons took over and chewed up the final 3:57 to secure their fifth consecutive win over New Mexico.
Under coach Bob Davie, the Lobos have already halted a 24-game road losing streak, put a stop to a 26-game skid outside of New Mexico and ended an 18-game losing streak on the road in league play.
“That’s a good team now,” Means said. “That’s not the New Mexico that I’m used to. No disrespect to that program, but I remember my freshman, sophomore, junior years, they were not nearly that good. And I think that’s probably the coaching staff. They had the athletes and this year, that coaching staff has done wonders with that team.
“They’re not looking to lose. This is not the old New Mexico. This is a good squad.”
And Carrier’s a heck of a ball carrier, Means added.
He ran the ball 39 times, scored on runs of 1, 1 and 37 yards and was chased down after runs of 68 and 59 yards that set up New Mexico’s first two scores.
Carrier, whose 37-yard TD run in the third quarter pulled the Lobos to within 28-23, broke New Mexico’s single-game rushing mark of 265 yards set by Quincy Wright against Weber State 10 years ago. He also surpassed the conference mark of 285 yards set by Gartrell Johnson of Colorado State against Fresno State in the 2008 New Mexico Bowl.
By halftime, he had amassed 227 yards on 22 carries, surpassing his career high of 191 yards set just two weeks ago against Texas State. The Lobos, however, trailed 14-10 at the break thanks to Means’ first career touchdown.
Carrier stepped through the line and raced 68 yards on his first carry before Steffon Batts chased him down and knocked him out of bounds at the 7.
“It definitely set the tone for the game and our offense,” Carrier said. “We came out running the ball, and that’s what we do. That first play just gave us some momentum.”
The Lobos, however, had to settle for Justus Adams’ short field goal.
Carrier also was chased down just shy of the goal line minutes later, when he burst up the middle for a 59-yard run and was tripped up by Christian Spears at the 1. This time, Carrier took it in from there for a 10-0 lead.
Carrier capped New Mexico’s first drive of the second half with a 1-yard TD that put the Lobos back on top 17-14 before Cobb scored twice more.
“A game like this definitely makes us a lot stronger,” Foley said. “We’re coming together as a team really well. We’re meshing really well, and we’re anticipating the rest of the five games this season to be like this and ... we’re going to work to come out on top next time.”