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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — As much as coach Troy Calhoun wanted to reject the notion that this was a signature win for his recovering program, the Air Force players didn't deny their 28-14 domination of Boise State was the kind of statement that will reverberate across the country.
Air Force is back!
After slogging through a 2-10 season last year, the Falcons (3-1, 1-1) ended a nine-game losing skid in the Mountain West Conference with a dismantling of the two-touchdown favorite Broncos, who suffered their worst loss since joining the conference in 2011.
Weston Steelhammer had three interceptions among the Falcons' seven takeaways, including the game-sealer after the Broncos (3-2, 1-1) had rallied for two late scores to slice their 28-point deficit in half.
"I think we were the only ones that believed we weren't the underdogs coming into this week," Steelhammer said. "We knew what it was going to take to beat those guys. And we did."
Although Calhoun was his usual robotic self afterward, quarterback Kale Pearson said his coach showed more emotion in the winning locker room.
"Not many people thought we could beat Boise, and we did," Pearson said. "So, obviously, you're going to have to show a little emotion there."
Not many people? How about nobody but the Falcons.
"This week we were saying, 'Hey, let's shock the nation.' But we didn't shock ourselves," Pearson said.
Pearson rushed for a career-best 127 yards and a TD and threw a touchdown pass as the Falcons beat Boise State for the first time in three tries.
Air Force's five interceptions were one more than the Falcons managed all of last season.
"It's a new defense. It's a new year," said linebacker Jordan Pierce, who had a 56-yard interception return and a blocked field goal. "People try to compare us to last year, when we went 2-10 and our defense didn't play too well."
Steelhammer had two of the four interceptions thrown by Grant Hedrick before he was yanked late in the third quarter in favor of redshirt freshman Ryan Finley, who threw two late TD passes.
Conference scoring leader Jay Ajayi didn't pick up the slack for Hedrick, fumbling the ball away twice.
"It was a rough day for the Broncos," Boise State offensive lineman Marcus Henry said. "With two or three, it's tough to a win a game. You're not going to win, really, if you have more than three.
The last time Air Force forced seven turnovers was in 1992 against Wyoming.
"I have all the confidence in the world in Grant. I think he's going to bounce back next week," Henry said. "It was a little bit of a rough night for him, a rough night for all of us all together."
Boise State had lost just four league games — by a combined seven points — since joining the MWC. Its biggest loss before this was by three points — 34-31 on an overtime field goal against San Diego State last season.
Finley replaced Hedrick late in the third quarter after his fourth turnover, which set up Will Conant's short field goal that made it 20-0.
"I wanted to see Grant battle his way through it. Then it got to a point where it just felt like we needed a change," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Jacobi Owens' 10-yard TD run and Garrett Brown's conversion catch made it 28-0 with 11:35 remaining.
Finley's 2-yard pass to Alec Dhaenens with just less than 10 minutes left allowed the Broncos to avoid their first shutout since a 58-0 washout against Washington State in 1997.
Then, the Broncos made it interesting.
Tanner Vallejo recovered an Owens fumble at the Air Force 39 and, on fourth-and-goal from the 10, Finley found Shane Williams-Rhodes for a score. He dodged a tackle at the 5 and dived into the end zone, pulling Boise State to 28-14 with 6:21 remaining.
"I was getting a little nervous," Pearson said.
Steelhammer stepped up to save the night again, picking off Finley's pass at midfield with 1:38 left.
"Bottom line is, that many turnovers in the game it's going to be very difficult to beat anybody," Harsin said.
He said he couldn't say anything definitive about his QB situation for next week at Nevada until he watches the tape to decipher what went so wrong.
Calhoun demurred when asked about this being a win his once-proud program really needed.
Pierce, however, said the message the Falcons delivered was crystal clear: "We can hang with the best of them. A lot of people think that we're too small, too slow to compete with other teams."
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
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