AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colorado — Fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson lent a hand to Air Force's passing game with the pounding of their feet.
Their repeated forays up the middle produced 136 yards rushing and three touchdowns and helped open up key passing lanes, including Kale Pearson's 50-yard throw to Jalen Robinette for the go-ahead score as Air Force hung on to beat New Mexico 35-31 on Saturday.
"I think you have to run the ball well and then, when you do, you can get some bigger opportunities for the pass, and today we did," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Davern finished with a team-high 85 yards rushing. Johnson added touchdown runs of 1, 3, and 6 yards among his 51 yards to help Air Force (5-2, 2-2 Mountain West) remain unbeaten in four games at home. The Falcons beat New Mexico (2-5, 0-3) for the sixth time in seven meetings, overcoming a standout performance by running back Jhurell Pressley, who had touchdown runs of 50 and 42 yards and finished with 148 yards rushing.
"I really thought our kids played hard," New Mexico coach Bob Davie said. "We fought hard. They just made some plays on us in the second half."
Teriyon Gipson shook free for a 28-yard touchdown run to give New Mexico a 28-21 lead midway through the third quarter but Air Force responded with two quick scores, both keyed by long pass completions, to take a 35-28 lead into the fourth quarter.
"This week, the coaches said they were going to put it more on the shoulders of our fullbacks and we took it from there," Pearson said. "When you are able to shove it up in there with Shayne and D.J., those big pass plays open up."
Johnson ran for his third touchdown after Pearson found Garrett Brown for a 63-yard completion to the New Mexico 1. Pearson then lofted a pass downfield to Robinette, who hauled the ball in with an over-the-shoulder catch before breaking a tackle at the 10 and surging into the end zone to complete a 50-yard score.
"The DBs were kind of biting a little a bit," Pearson said. "We hadn't thrown it that much but the times we did, they kind of jumped the routes pretty fast, so we thought eventually we were going to hit that throw."
Pressley converted a fourth-and-2 play with a 26-yard run to the Air Force 17 but was shaken up by a big hit at the end of the play. The Lobos' drive stalled and they settled for a 28-yard field goal by Zack Rogers with 12:01 remaining.
New Mexico got the ball at its 4-yard line with 2:51 remaining but Lamar Jordan was stopped short on a fourth-down run. Air Force took over on downs and ran the clock nearly out. The Lobos last-ditch play went nowhere.
Pearson and Robinette earlier teamed up on a 34-yard completion to the New Mexico 6, and Johnson bulled his way into the end zone for his second score of the day on the next play as the Falcons pulled into a 21-all tie at halftime.
Amid a rushing field day that saw Johnson and Pressley both run for a pair of touchdowns in the first half, each team also scored off a turnover.
Safety David Guthrie scooped up Pearson's fumble following a sack and returned it 43 yards for a score, giving New Mexico a 21-14 advantage.
Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer earlier recovered a wayward pitch by New Mexico quarterback Cole Gautsche, setting up Pearson's winding 21-yard run through traffic for a touchdown on the ensuing play to put Air Force up 14-7.
Pressley evened the score moments later, shaking a tackle 10 yards downfield en route to a 50-yard score and bettering his long touchdown run in the first quarter by 8 yards.
Johnson finished off a 75-yard Air Force drive in the first quarter with his first touchdown run, a 3-yarder.