The Second Half Kickoff

When Air Force enters the second half of the season the Falcons will be in position to make a concerted run at their first MWC title. Fisher DeBerry's team will make stops in Fort Collins and Albuquerque for games which will determine the outcome of the MWC title race this fall.

REBELLIOUS. October 11. John Robinson's UNLV Rebels have been a source of frustration for the Falcons in the short history of the MWC. Although UNLV is a miserable 11-17 in conference play over the past four years, two of those victories have been posted against Air Force. The last time the Rebels paid a visit to Falcon Stadium the day started auspiciously for AFA as the home squad established a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. The remainder of the contest was an unqualified disaster for the Falcons as UNLV scored 34 consecutive points in winning the game, 34-10. The afternoon's low point arrived in a fifty-eight second stretch late in the third quarter during which time Kevin Thomas returned an interception 57 yards for a TD. That return was followed by Scott Parkhurst's 21 yard dash with a fumble for a second UNLV touchdown. Shortly after this turn in the Falcons' fortunes, quarterback Keith Boyea was replaced by a then untested youngster named Chance Harridge.

Harridge struggled mightily with the passing game that day completing just two of seven attempts. On the other hand, his five carries for 44 yards were certainly a sign of things to come regarding his ability to run with the ball.

Last year's battle in Sam Boyd Stadium featured 81 points, over 465 yards of offense by each team and next to no defense. AFA will enter this year's game having played on the road at Navy the previous weekend and only five days before heading to Fort Collins to face CSU. UNLV will arrive at the academy having just played a game against instate rival Nevada. The teams may not be at their emotional peak and could face the challenge of being distracted or unfocussed. The Falcons have a well-established history of stubbing their toe at some point during a season (see Wyoming in 2002, UNLV in 2001, New Mexico in 2000, Wyoming in 1999, San Jose State in 1997, et cetera). UNLV unexpectedly dealt CSU a regular season loss in Fort Collins in 2002, so John Robinson's squad is more than capable of administering an untimely upset.

If the Falcons are going to make a run at the MWC title they have to maintain enough focus to beat a bottom-feeder such as UNLV. Chance Harridge and the offense will score enough points to outdistance the Rebels while John Rudzinski, Trevor Hightower and the rest of the defense manage to keep the Rebels in check. Air Force wins the game and raises it record to 6-1 on the season and 2-1 in MWC play.

A MATTER OF HABIT. Thursday, October 16. For the eighth consecutive year Air Force and Colorado State will battle in a televised game. This year's contest will be the fifth time in six years the rivals have met for a Thursday Night special courtesy of ESPN. Yet another national television audience will be watching the best the MWC has to offer.

There won't be many surprises in this game as the players on these I-25 rivals know each other well. From the starting lineups which took the field last Halloween Night in Falcon Stadium for CSU's disappointingly easy 31-12 victory, the Rams may return as many as sixteen players, while the Falcons could counter with a sweet sixteen of their own.

Anemic passing, disastrous punting and special teams' blunders by Air Force, coupled with Cecil Sapp's 129 yards on the ground and a second half opening kickoff fumble recovery returned for a TD by place-kicker Jeff Babcock, were the coalescing elements in the Rams' decisive win.

Sonny LubickSonny Lubick has put CSU's program in the national spotlight over the past decade. Under his guidance the Rams have won six conference titles in the past nine seasons. Only Florida State has won more conference titles than CSU in the same time period.

The Rams are loaded this year. Offense, defense, special teams. The Rams have it all. Running back Marcus Houston has arrived as a transfer from Boulder after a strange tenure at the University of Colorado. With QB Bradlee Van Pelt, RB Rahsaan Sanders and Houston taking turns running the ball out of the backfield the Rams will be able to run the ball as effectively as any team in the conference--including AFA.

AFA's 2003 schedule is devoid of the marquee names which graced its slate of games in 2002. By mid-October, CSU will have played Colorado, Cal, Fresno State and BYU. If Lubick's squad comes into the meeting with Air Force undefeated--and that's a real possibility--it will give the Falcons the opportunity to meet the most highly ranked team they will face all year. CSU could well be ranked in the top 15 by the time this game is played.

Fisher DeBerry and Sonny Lubick have done more than enough to demonstrate they are the MWC's preeminent head coaches. DeBerry has had only two losing seasons in nineteen years as head coach at the academy. Lubick has taken a program that had sporadic success under Earle Bruce and transformed it into a legitimate top twenty-five contender on an annual basis. In his first nine years as the Falcons' head coach DeBerry posted a 7-2 record against CSU. Since Lubick's arrival for the 1993 season DeBerry's teams have managed just a 3-7 record against CSU. The Rams are the best team in the conference this season and they will have the opportunity to show a national television audience--and the rest of the MWC--that they just may be able to rise high enough in the polls to cause some headaches for the folks at the headquarters of the BCS. Air Force loses the game and falls to 6-2 for the year with a 2-2 mark in the conference.

BACK ON TRACK. November 1. Some teams have fans that "travel" better than others. Over the thirty years I've watched AFA football when the Falcons have hosted the Utah Utes there has never been a sizable number of fans making the trip from Salt Lake City--and other parts of the state--to Falcon Stadium. It's a shame because they've missed some exciting games between these teams.

Each school maintains more heated rivalries within the conference. BYU is obviously number one on the Utes' hit list. For the Falcons it's the Rams in Fort Collins. There isn't as much anticipation preceding this game as there are for other meetings in the MWC, but in recent seasons the Falcons and Utes have played some superb games.

Last year in Salt Lake City the Falcons kept shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers (two fumbles and an interception). Faced with a 26-6 halftime deficit the Falcons' defense, led by linebacker Anthony Schlegel, unleashed a furious attack in the second half. Thanks in large part to four Utes' fumbles and two interceptions, Air Force scored 24 second half points and stole a 30-26 decision from the Utes. Victory wasn't assured for the Falcons until HB Don Clark caught the second of his two TD receptions with seventeen seconds remaining in the game. Chance Harridge found Clark for a twenty yard, game winning completion as the Falcons won a second consecutive road game, having beaten nationally ranked California the previous weekend.

In 2001, Utes' coach Ron McBride inexplicably eschewed a last minute field goal attempt in Falcon Stadium and freshman Anthony Schlegel made a game saving tackle as time expired in the Falcons' 38-37 win over Utah.

In 2000, AFA QB Keith Boyea and WR Ryan Fleming hooked up on a pair of long distance aerial strikes in leading the Falcons to a 23-14 win in Salt Lake. The 1999 meeting between the teams was the infamous Saturday night "Snow Bowl" won almost single-handedly by the superior efforts of Utah's marvelous WR/KR Stevonne Smith as the Utes prevailed 21-15. In fact, the past four games have each been decided by nine points or less.

Air Force managed only 291 yards of total offense last year against the Utes and still posted a victory. It was a game the defense pilfered for the Falcons. It was the most impressive thirty minutes of football the defense produced all season. The offense will need to be far more authoritative this year against Utah. The Falcons will enter the game fresh from a fifteen day layoff since having played Colorado State. Utah will come into the game after having hosted New Mexico. With two losses in league play already on their record the Falcons will be out of the chase for a league title. The team will still have the opportunity to finish in the upper division of the conference and a win against the Utes will keep them on pace to become bowl qualified. Air Force gets another win, climbs to 7-2 on the season while going 3-2 in the MWC. A Commander-in-Chief's trophy battle versus Army awaits.

OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN. November 8. Fisher DeBerry will enter the coming season never having coached a team to victory in Provo, Utah against BYU. It may be the single biggest frustration he's had to endure as the Falcons' head coach. While road games against BYU have proved to be a continuing source of dissatisfaction for DeBerry, the appearance of Army in Falcon Stadium has been an ongoing delight. Air Force is a perfect 9-0 versus Army at home during DeBerry's tenure at the academy.

The last time Army won a game in Falcon Stadium was 1977--the final year of Ben Martin's coaching career at the academy. Bill Parcells never faced Army in Falcon Stadium. Ken Hatfield's teams beat Army all three times the Black Knights visited the academy. Fisher DeBerry has never lost at home to the Black Knights either.

If there was a more inept, outmanned bunch in division 1-A football at the end of last season than Army I can't imagine who it would have been. Coach Todd Berry's supporters are vocal, but dwindling in number.

Air Force was merciful in its dismantling of Army in Michie Stadium last season. The Falcons led by as many as twenty-five points in the fourth quarter, were never seriously challenged after Army briefly tied the score at 7-7 midway through the first quarter and spared Army further agony and embarrassment by having Chance Harridge take a knee in the last minute of the game with Air Force inside the Army ten yard line and on the verge of another touchdown. CINC Trophy

AFA should enter this game on the brink of winning the CIC trophy again. If this year's senior class posts wins over Navy and Army it will become the fourth consecutive class to graduate from the academy without ever having lost to its military rivals. Air Force amassed over 500 yards in offense last year on its way to a cakewalk against the Black Knights. There's every reason to expect a similar offensive explosion this time and, perhaps, an even wider margin of victory than resulted in last year's 49-30 blowout.

AFA wins the CIC trophy again, goes to 8-2 on the year, while remaining 3-2 in conference play. A two game, regular season finale, road trip follows the Army contest.

MAKING AMENDS. November 15. The Falcons have started to develop a bad habit over the past two seasons. After strong openings in 2001 and 2002, Air Force stumbled badly and finished with identical 2-5 records over the course of the final seven games on its schedule.

The schedule makers did the Air Force Academy no favors this fall. Since assuming the head coaching job in 1984, Fisher DeBerry has helped his teams compile some impressive road records, but not late in the season. Have a look. Entering this campaign Fisher's team had a 21-13(.618) record on the road in September. In October, DeBerry's team had gone 22-14 (.611) away from home. That mark drops precipitously in November as the Falcons have been only 17-20-1 (.461) in the DeBerry era.

Ten times prior to the 2003 season, Fisher's teams have ended the regular season by playing back to back road games. The Falcons' composite record in those twenty games is 10-9-1 (.525). The last time the Falcons played back to back road games to end the regular season was in 1999. Air Force lost to CSU, 41-21, and New Mexico, 33-28. The last time AFA swept a pair of season ending road games was in 1990 when it defeated Army, 15-3 and Texas-El Paso (UTEP), 14-13. This regular season's final opponents--New Mexico and San Diego State--present a far greater test than did Army and UTEP.

The AFA-UNM meeting presents a game matching two teams with realistic MWC title aspirations in 2003. On November 23, 2002, the Lobos traveled to Fort Collins to play CSU in a game which essentially decided the MWC race last season. New Mexico fielded a starting offense in that game which had no seniors in it. All eleven starters are eligible to return to coach Rocky Long's squad this fall. Seven of eleven defensive starters for the Lobos in that game last November will also return to Albuquerque this season.

Long time fans of the MWC who have followed New Mexico from its WAC days to the present, know that the Lobos find themselves in the uncharacteristic position of being legitimate title contenders this season. Make no mistake about this: the Lobos are loaded on both sides of the ball.

DonTrell Moore was sensational at the halfback spot for the Lobos as a freshman and offensive tackle Jason Lenzmeier is as good a lineman as there is in the conference.

The Falcons established a 24-10 lead with less than two minutes to play in the first half when the teams met last year. Air Force then acted the part of the gracious host and allowed the Lobos to head to their locker room at halftime with the score tied at 24-24. QB Casey Kelly and RB Quincy Wright--whose injury later paved the way for Moore to burst upon the scene--passed and ran the Falcons ragged in the final two minutes of the first half last September. The Falcons were forced to win the game in overtime, 38-31.

The Lobos have beaten Air Force three times in four meetings since the inception of the MWC. Bronco Mendenhall--now the defensive coordinator at BYU--served in the same capacity for Long at New Mexico. Mendenhall and Long had more success than anyone in the MWC in constructing a defense which was able to contain the Falcons' high powered ground based option attack. AFA's last two appearances in Albuquerque remain unpleasant memories for the team and its fans. One was a 52-33 blowout in 2001, while the other was a 33-28 season ending defeat in 1999.

The number of starters AFA and UNM return assures that this game will be a competitive contest that will be entertaining for those fans in attendance. In plain English sometimes it's just your year. The Falcons escaped with a win last year, but not this time. New Mexico wins and keeps its title hopes alive as CSU comes calling the week following this game. AFA drops to 8-3 on the season and 3-3 in MWC play.

COMING TO A CLOSE. While a conference title will long since have eluded AFA's grasp, this game against the San Diego State Aztecs will be an important one for the Falcons. With eight wins under their belt the Falcons can continue to make a strong case for their being issued a bowl invitation by posting a ninth win on the season.

Wyoming and SDS inflicted losses on Air Force in 2002 which deprived the Falcons of a higher conference finish and any hope of finishing with a significant presence in the polls. Fisher DeBerry shouldn't have any trouble getting and keeping the squad's attention in the week prior to this game.

SDS QB Adam Hall suffered a debilitating concussion in the weeks before the teams met last season and was unable to play against the Falcons. It didn't matter one bit. His replacement, Lon Sheriff, dissected the Falcons' secondary for 289 yards passing and a pair of scoring strikes. WRs Kassim Osgood and J.R. Tolver made a mockery of AFA's attempts at pass coverage by grabbing 25 passes for 249 yards and 1 TD. The sensational news for Air Force fans is that Osgood and Tolver were seniors.

This game could be the final one for seniors on the squad if a bowl bid is not already in hand or appears to be a foregone conclusion. AFA ended the 2002 season with losses to UNM and Virginia Tech in a bowl game. The opportunity to exact a measure of revenge for last season's, 38-34, upset will be a powerful force in helping the Falcons to focus on the task at hand.

Air Force finishes the regular season with a win, posts a strong 9-3 overall mark and a 4-3 MWC record. The Falcons will return to Colorado to await word if a post-season bowl game is in their future.

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