AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Air Force Falcons' defense was frazzled and fatigued -- not that safety Aaron Kirchoff minded rumbling 96 yards on a fumble return.
"I just reverted to my running back days," Kirchoff said of his game-changing touchdown that helped Air Force overcome three early turnovers to beat New Mexico 23-10 Thursday night.
"It felt like 300 yards to me," said Kirchoff, who also made a touchdown-saving play in the waning minutes as the Falcons (6-2, 4-1 Mountain West) secured bowl eligibility for the second straight season under coach Troy Calhoun, who is 15-6 at the academy.
Kirchoff saw nothing but green grass in front of him on his score but couldn't keep from wondering if he'd be caught from behind.
"At about the 40-yard line I was done because the defense had been out on the field most of the first half. We hadn't had much of a rest," Kirchoff said.
The Lobos (4-5, 2-3) forced three first-quarter turnovers and were about to jump out to a 17-0 lead when Kirchoff scooped up quarterback Brad Gruner's fumble at the Falcons 4 and sped down the Lobos' sideline for the second-longest fumble return in school history, cutting New Mexico's lead to 10-7.
"It bounced perfectly into my hands and when I looked back up there was no one to be found, just a lot of green and that's exactly what you want to see when you're returning the football," Kirchoff said.
"If they had scored that would have been a hard hill to carry our team up and maybe that final score is a little different -- 17-0 and 10-7 is night and day. And the momentum changed. Our sideline was going nuts and theirs was solemn."
Nobody was more relieved than Falcons freshman quarterback Tim Jefferson, who had fumbled away the ball and thrown an interception on consecutive snaps that led to 10 Lobos points and watched fullback Ryan Southworth cough it up at midfield moments before Kirchoff's game-saver on the final play of the first quarter.
"After I saw him scoop it up and score, I just felt a big load off my shoulders right there," Jefferson said. "He kept us in the game, and that changed the momentum and our offense finally got clicking on the next drive. That's how football works -- momentum."
The Lobos never recovered from the two-touchdown turnaround.
"That didn't win the game for them," New Mexico coach Rocky Long insisted. "That got them back into the game."
It demoralized the Lobos, however.
"That was a killer," Lobos running back Rodney Ferguson said. "It was the killer."
"It gave them the win," Gruner said. "It was big. It hurt bad. I think it really turned the game around right there."
Ryan Harrison's 31-yard field goal just before halftime tied it at 10, and the Falcons took the lead for good early in the third quarter following Glover Quin's fumbled kickoff. Running a play that was installed just this week, Jefferson faked a keeper, pulled up and tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass over the pile to tight end Travis Dekker.
It was Jefferson's one and only completion as he was 1-for-2 for 1 yard.
The Falcons set up the trickery with two straight power plays right into the meat of the Lobos' defense.
"Tim got his head down," Dekker said. "They bit pretty good."
Harrison added field goals of 43 and 32 yards, the former following the Lobos' fourth turnover, a muffed punt by Frankie Solomon.
Kirchoff wasn't through. He made the second-biggest play of the game when he tipped away a long pass to wide receiver Michael Scarlett in the waning minutes that would have brought the Lobos within six.
The Lobos, who twice were stuffed on fourth-and-1 inside the Air Force 10-yard line, converted the Falcons' first two turnovers into a 2-yard touchdown by Ferguson and a 45-yard field goal by James Aho.
They were about to convert the third takeaway into a score when Air Force linebacker Brandon Reeves punched the ball out of Gruner's hands and Kirchoff scooped it up for the long return on the final play of the first quarter.
The crestfallen Lobos, coming off a 70-7 rout of San Diego State on Saturday, managed just 28 yards of offense the rest of the half and turned the ball over on the second-half kickoff.
"It's a simple deal tonight," Long said. "If you turn the ball over and then you can't make fourth-and-short, you're going to lose."