Ohio State coach John Cooper had sent up the warning signals earlier in the week, but the lesson was not taken to heart until the No. 24 Buckeyes walked off the Liberty Bowl field a 23-11 loser to Air Force.

The Falcons (7-5) held the Buckeyes and 1,000-yard rusher Robert Smith in check Thursday night and controlled the game tempo with a ground-hugging wishbone offense that gained 254 yards on 61 rushes.Despite going into the game a 17-point underdog, the Falcons looked the part of a victim only for a few fleeting minutes in the first quarter when they gave up a safety and a field goal to fall behind 5-0.

"We proved we deserved to be here. I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a team," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. "In my opinion, (it is) one of the greatest wins in the history of Air Force Academy football."

Ohio State's Cooper said he was prepared to meet a strong challenge from the Falcons, but his Buckeyes (7-4-1) were not able to overcome a sputtering offense that was limited to 80 yards rushing and 134 yards through the air.

"As the game went on, we let them stay with us and it was kind of like a fight. They kept after us and continued to gain confidence," Cooper said. "We probably played well enough defensively to win the game . . . but not offensively."

Smith, who broke the freshman rushing record set at Ohio State by Archie Griffin with 1,064 yards during the season, said the Buckeyes were just not the better team Thursday night.

"I don't think we underestimated them. You have to give credit where credit is due. They played some tough defense and they confused us with their offense. They controlled the ball. They deserved to win," said Smith.

Smith gained 62 yards on 13 carries, including a 29-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that cut the Falcons' lead to 13-11.

Quarterback Rob Perez, the Liberty Bowl MVP, scored on a pair of 1-yard runs and cornerback Carlton McDonald returned his second pass interception of the evening 40 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to subdue the Buckeyes.