WEST POINT, N.Y. – Connor Dietz and Alex Means never knew the feeling of losing at Michie Stadium. Beating Army on its home turf had become such a wonderful habit for the Air Force Falcons.
On Saturday, that all changed as Trent Steelman rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns and the Army defense held Air Force's high-powered offense in check en route to a convincing 41-21 victory.
Air Force (5-4), had won six straight in the series and hadn't lost at Michie Stadium since 1996.
"It hurts. It sucks. That's what is going through my mind right now," said Means, a senior linebacker. "Down here at Army is a tough place to win. They hit us right in the mouth and they kept hitting us, and we didn't respond."
Army (2-7) also stopped a 13-game skid in service academy games and stayed in the hunt for its first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 1996. The coveted hardware goes to the academy with the best record in the annual round-robin competition. Air Force has won it outright the past two seasons. Navy beat the Falcons 28-21 in overtime a month ago.
"That was fun, huh?" Army coach Rich Ellerson said afterward with a big smile. "This is a milestone for us. I'm really proud of how the guys prepared. This is a good football team. It doesn't have a good record."
Steelman was injured and did not play against Air Force last season in a 24-14 road loss. He more than made up for that absence on this day in a contest featuring the top two rushing teams in the nation. Steelman, who moved past the great Glenn Davis into third place all-time in rushing at West Point with 2,983 yards, passed for 100 yards and guided a ground attack that netted 314.
Army entered the game leading the nation in rushing at 383 yards per game, just 17 more than the second-place Falcons.
The Army defense intercepted three passes, stopped a fourth-down run from its own 1, forced Air Force to punt four times, and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Air Force, which had only punted 15 times in its first eight games, finished with 103 yards rushing on 43 attempts after averaging 5.8 yards per carry in its first eight games.
"They played a great game, offensively, defensively," said Dietz, who was 10 of 17 passing for a career-high 185 yards and rushed for 37 yards on 10 carries. "They did everything we didn't. They smacked us in the mouth all game."
With the help of a successful onside kick, Air Force scored twice in the fourth quarter to throw a brief scare into the home crowd. Jon Lee scored on a 4-yard run and Dietz ran in from the 13, but Army linebacker Nate Combs recovered a bad snap in the end zone that had gone through Dietz's hands to stop the rally with 2:50 left. Combs also intercepted backup quarterback Kale Pearson at the goal line in the final seconds.
"We didn't budge them. We didn't move them an inch," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "We didn't do what we had to do, and they had a lot to do with that."
Cody Getz, who did not play in last week's win over Nevada because of an injured ankle, finished with 23 yards rushing on 14 carries. He entered the game averaging 132.6, fourth best in the nation.
The Army defense played its best game of the season and began to turn the tide in the second quarter. The Black Knights stopped Air Force on fourth down from the 1 and intercepted two passes that the offense turned into 13 points as Army gained a 20-7 halftime lead.
The Falcons entered the game ranked near last nationally in passing but first in pass efficiency, and the Black Knights became victims on Air Force's first two drives.
After taking a 7-0 lead to start the game, Army, desperate for a victory, used two timeouts on the Falcons' first possession, the second coming before the snap on a third-and-goal play from the 13. Whatever strategy the Black Knights devised went for naught when Josh Jackson was called for pass interference at the goal line. Wes Cobb scored on a 1-yard run two plays later to tie it.
Fourth-down gambles are the norm for both teams with their high-powered run games, and when Air Force forced Army to punt after three downs and drove to the Army 1 there was no hesitation with so much at stake. But the Black Knights stuffed Dietz for no gain on fourth down. The Falcons asked for a review of the play, but the power was out at Michie Stadium and the officials were unable to do it.
"It's one play. That's all it is," Calhoun said. "There are more aspects to the game than that. Today was convincing. That's a credit to Army, big-time credit to Army."
Pinned at his own goal line, Steelman then stunned the Falcons with just his 26th completion of the year, a pass in the right flat to a wide-open Raymond Maples, who turned it into a 53-yard gain up the right side. The Air Force defense stiffened, and Army had to settle for Daniel Grochowski's 20-yard and a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Dietz completed his first three passes to run his season total to 79 attempts without an interception, a big part of why Air Force has been so successful with its limited passing attack. That streak ended when freshman defensive back Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires picked off a Dietz pass in the left flat near midfield.
Army capitalized again with the pass as Steelman rolled out and hit Chevaughn Lawrence for 17 yards on a third-and-7 play to set up a first-and-goal at the 7. Two timeouts by the Falcons didn't help them as Steelman scored from the 1 for a 17-7 lead with 1:39 left in the second quarter.
Unfazed, Dietz hit Marcus Hendricks with a 28-yard pass to get the Falcons moving after the ensuing kickoff, and a 19-yard completion to Ty MacArthur gave Air Force a first down at the Army 28. But when Dietz tried to strike again with a pass down the middle, linebacker Geoffery Bacon intercepted and returned it 31 yards.
With the clock winding down, Army settled for Grochowski's 36-yard field goal with 3 seconds remaining.
Air Force trailed Army 14-0 at the half last year and rallied for a 24-14 victory at Falcon Stadium. The Black Knights didn't let that happen this time, forcing Air Force to punt on its first three possessions of the second half and scoring two straight touchdowns to take a commanding 35-7 lead.