Air Force soars, then falls flat, in 37-20 victory

Air Force wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka breaks into the open field during the Falcons' game versus South Dakota at Falcon Stadium Sept. 3, 2011. Warzeka, a native of Lake Elsinore, Calif., had one reception for 22 yards and one rush for 9 yards. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

Air Force wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka breaks into the open field during the Falcons' game versus South Dakota at Falcon Stadium Sept. 3, 2011. Warzeka, a native of Lake Elsinore, Calif., had one reception for 22 yards and one rush for 9 yards. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

Air Force defensive back Chris Miller breaks up a pass from South Dakota's Dante Warren during the Falcons-Coyotes game in Falcon Stadium Sept. 3, 2011. Miller, a native of Copperas Cove, Texas, had two pass breakups and seven tackles in the Falcons' 37-20 victory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

Air Force defensive back Chris Miller breaks up a pass from South Dakota's Dante Warren during the Falcons-Coyotes game in Falcon Stadium Sept. 3, 2011. Miller, a native of Copperas Cove, Texas, had two pass breakups and seven tackles in the Falcons' 37-20 victory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

FALCON STADIUM, Colo. -- With apologies to Charles Dickens: It was the best of games, it was the worst of games.

Air Force thundered to a 30-7 lead in the first half against Football Championship Subdivision's South Dakota but floundered in the second half, finishing with a 37-20 win over the Coyotes.

The win marks Air Force's fifth-straight home opener victory but showcases the adjustments Troy Calhoun's Falcons will have to make before facing Mountain West Conference powerhouse Texas Christian Sept. 11.

"First games are unique - always have been, probably always will be a little bit," said Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun, who has led Air Force to two-straight bowl game wins. "I don't care if you're the defending national champs and you're playing at home; there are going to be some challenges in the initial outings."

Air Force set a blistering tempo on its first play from scrimmage. Wide receiver Mikel Hunter took off on a reverse and blazed a trail into the end zone to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead 16 seconds into regulation. Defensive back Jon Davis picked off South Dakota's Dante Warren on the Coyotes' second play to further bolster Air Force's momentum.

The Falcons started showing signs of trouble on their second possession, however. Quarterback Tim Jefferson was sacked on the successive first down and fumbled the ball, which Air Force recovered. Two plays later, he overthrew his intended receiver, and South Dakota's Jim Thompson intercepted him at the Coyote 25.

South Dakota drove from its 34 to the Falcons' 26 on their next possession, making it as far as the Air Force 30 before a sack by Alex Means pushed the Coyotes out of field goal range. It was the closest South Dakota would get to the Falcons' end zone until their touchdown drive in the first minutes of the second quarter.

The Falcons, up 14-7, scored on each of their next three possessions, on a field goal by Parker Herrington and two rushing touchdowns by Jefferson. Herrington missed the extra point on the second touchdown, leading to a 30-7 halftime lead.

But while Air Force generally comes out stronger after making halftime adjustments, the second half belonged to South Dakota. The Falcons looked at first like they would coast to a victory reminiscent of the 65-21 win over Northwestern State or the 72-0 drubbing of Nichols State, with Jefferson completing a 55-yard strike to Hunter to lead 37-7.

But the Coyotes out-Falconed the Falcons on their next drive, marching down the field on a 14-play drive that took 8:45 off the clock. Anthony Wright intercepted South Dakota's Warren at the Air Force 2-yard line to end that scoring threat.

"I'm not happy with the way we played offensively," said South Dakota head coach Ed Meierkort. "I think we could have stretched these guys (out) more, which then turns around and helps get our defense off the field."

Another Jefferson interception gave the Coyotes the ball back at the Air Force 36. South Dakota capitalized on its field position, cutting the Falcons' lead to 23 with a six-play touchdown drive.

"I thought we adjusted at halftime," Meierkort said. "We came out completely vanilla and just let the kids play. That helped us - get 11 out there and play fast."

The successive two Air Force possessions ended in turnovers - Jefferson's third interception of the day and a fumble by running back Wesley Cobb, who otherwise had a strong showing with 60 in-your-face rushing yards and a touchdown. South Dakota couldn't capitalize on the interception thanks to sacks by Means and Kevin Jablonsky, but the Coyotes struck gold after Cobb's fumble on a 35-yard pass completion from Warren to receiver Jeremy Blount to make it 37-20.

"We have an enormous amount of work to do," Calhoun said. "That's not a surprise. We've got a game under our belt, but we need more games within our intestines."

Nonetheless, the win gives Jefferson a tie for most victories by an Air Force quarterback since Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Famer Dee Dowis, who led the Falcons from 1986-1989. He has scored two rushing touchdowns in six of his last seven games, to move him into a tie with Brian Bream (1969-1971) for seventh in the Air Force record books.