WEST POINT, N.Y. -- With the prized hardware there for the taking, Air Force seized the moment and reigns supreme again among the three service academies.
Kale Pearson hit tight end Garrett Griffin for a 54-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to break open a tense game, Will Conant kicked three field goals, and Air Force beat Army 23-6 on Saturday to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for a record 19th time.
"I don't know if you can aptly describe it right now," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said afterward of the feeling in the locker room. "It would be pretty special if this group could earn a winning season."
The victory also made Air Force (6-2) eligible for the postseason. The Falcons have won five of six, including a triumph over Navy, which put them in position to capture the trophy on Saturday. The Falcons beat Navy 30-21 a month ago.
Army (2-6) hasn't captured the coveted hardware since it won its sixth in 1996.
"They want to win. They're battling. They're trying. They care," first-year Army coach Jeff Monken said of his struggling Black Knights. "There's a lot of kids in that locker room that are crushed."
It was the 49th meeting between the service-academy rivals, who rely on the run game. The Falcons lead the series against Army 34-14-1 and have won 16 of the last 18 in the series.
The teams had split the previous two meetings, high-scoring affairs with the home team winning. Two years ago, Army won 41-21 at Michie Stadium, and last season Air Force topped the Black Knights 42-28 at Falcon Stadium.
This one was a defensive struggle that the Falcons won by keeping Army's triple option at bay. Army entered the game averaging 5.6 yards per rush and nearly 320 yards per game, fourth in the nation. The Black Knights finished with 122 yards on 38 carries and converted only 1 of 12 third downs as Air Force turned Army's leading rusher, fullback Larry Dixon, into a nonfactor.
"The offense struggled a little bit and that starts with me," said Dixon, who was held to 13 yards on 10 carries, a fraction of his average of 5.7 yards per carry. "I played an awful game. I put a lot of it on me, not executing."
Leading just 6-3 at halftime, Pearson hit Griffin over the middle on Air Force's first possession of the second half, and he raced untouched into the end zone for a 13-3 lead. Stymied the entire first half, the Falcons had struck in just three plays that took 48 seconds after forcing Army into a three-and-out.
Pearson secured the victory with the only sustained scoring drive of the game -- 79 yards in 11 plays that took 6:39 off the clock in the fourth quarter. He completed it with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Griffin on fourth-and-goal midway through the period.
"This is a game we've been waiting on for what seems like forever," said Air Force linebacker Jordan Pierce. "That's our nature to run the ball, all of the service academies. We knew that's what they were going to try to do. Luckily, their pass game wasn't running on all cylinders and we had a good pass rush."
Pearson, who finished 8 of 12 for 141 yards and gained 41 yards rushing, also hit Colton Huntsman for 17 yards and Jalen Robinette for 29 on consecutive plays to set up Conant's 26-yard field goal with 5:13 left on the clock before halftime.
Conant boosted the Air Force lead to 16-3 when he nailed a 50-yard field goal midway through the third.
Army managed just two field goals by Daniel Grochowski, 42 yards in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead and 46 yards in the third, and penetrated the Air Force 20-yard line just once.
Air Force banks more on the pass than Army, and that edge was critical.
The Army defense stood toe-to-toe with the Falcons through three quarters, limiting them to 145 yards rushing on 46 tries, most of it by Jacobi Owens, who finished with 118. The Falcons finished with 242 yards rushing on 62 carries.
"Our goal is to stop them every time," said Army linebacker Jeremy Timpf, who had a game-high 17 tackles. "We stopped them pretty well in the first half, but gave up a few big plays in the second. In the third and fourth quarters we had to make some stops and didn't."
Quarterback Angel Santiago led the Black Knights with 33 yards on 14 carries and was just 2 of 11 for 20 yards passing.
Both teams were coming off a bye week, but the extra time to prepare didn't help the offenses on a cold, raw day at Michie Stadium.
Army scored first, taking advantage of an Air Force turnover on the first possession of the game. Josh Jenkins intercepted Pearson near midfield on a third-and-8 play and returned it 31 yards to the Air Force 28 to set up Grochowski's 42-yard field goal.
Air Force turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, failing on fourth down for just the sixth time in 14 tries this season.
After Santiago reversed field on a keeper and gained 32 yards deep into Air Force territory, the Falcons escaped further damage when Grochowski's 41-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Two possessions in Air Force territory and not much to show for it.
"When we leave points out there, it really killed the momentum," Santiago said. "You've got to give credit to the defense. They kind of made things confusing."
The game was played a week after the Gazette of Colorado Springs, a stone's throw from the Air Force Academy, published a story about an Army recruiting excursion in January that featured underage drinking and led to minor NCAA infractions and the disciplining of 20 cadets, two officers and two coaches. Monken said it wasn't a distraction.
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