Round Two

Here's a cautionary tale for Air Force fans. Last year the Falcons beat Northwestern 52-3 and ran out to a 52-0 lead before Fisher DeBerry pulled in the reins on his team. This Saturday the Falcons face their first meaningful test of the season when they travel to Ryan Stadium in Evanston, Illinois to play a rematch against the Northwestern Wildcats.

AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT. In 2001, BYU torched AFA, 63-33, and called off the bombing in the fourth quarter after the Cougars had scored 21 points in each of the first three quarters. Last year AFA abused BYU to the tune of 52-9, after spotting the visitors a 3-0 lead. Neither team could have foreseen the turnaround from one year to the next. The BYU Cougars went from being thirty point winners to forty-three point losers against AFA in one year. That's a stunning seventy-three point reversal. I'm not saying a similar outcome awaits the Falcons as they prepare for the Wildcats. I am, however, suggesting that Fisher DeBerry and friends would do well to realize how quickly things can change in the world of college football. Just as the Falcons were embarrassed and bent on exacting a measure of revenge after being on the receiving end of the 2001 debacle in Provo, so too, will the Wildcats be primed to take a pound of flesh from AFA's hide when the teams meet this weekend.

FAMILIAR FACES. Yes, Air Force returns--in largely intact fashion--an offense which led the nation in rushing during the 2002 season. QB Chance Harridge, the offensive line, a sound FB game and a stable of quick HBs showed no signs of relenting as they blasted and bolted their way to 380 yards on the ground in a season opening victory against an outmanned, overmatched Wofford Terriers' squad. The rushing total produced by the Falcons leads the nation after the initial weekend of college football play in 2003.

Particularly impressive was Dan Shaffer--now Dan Shaffer bulls ahead in 2002 (AP)fully recovered from a devastating injury suffered on the first play of the second half in a game versus Northwestern on opening day last season. From his starting FB spot, Shaffer carried the ball for 64 yards and three TDs in making a triumphant return to the Falcons' backfield.

When he left the game on Saturday, replacements Adam Cole (10-44-1TD) and freshman Jacobe Kendrick (14-62-1TD) kept the Falcons' ground based option attack motoring smoothly with 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Coordinator Richard Bell's defense turned in a stellar performance from start to finish in limiting the Terriers to nine first downs--four of which came during a drive ultimately stopped by the Falcons when they held Wofford on a fourth and two situation at the Air Force 13 yard line. The defense mixed a base 5-2 alignment with some 3-3-5 looks and a variety of blitz packages to prevent Wofford from mounting a serious scoring drive throughout the game.

DB David Conley and LB John Rudzinski provided the Falcons with the game's only two turnovers via a pair of interceptions to assist an Air Force offense which scored TDs on seven consecutive drives after punting on its first two possessions of the game.

CORNERED WILDCATS. The Wildcats posted a 3-9 record in 2002, but the Falcons and Fisher DeBerry will face an improving squad in Evanston this weekend. The Northwestern team which surrendered 52 consecutive points and 482 yards on the ground to Air Force last fall bears little resemblance to the current version of the Wildcats.

The Wildcats were ill-equipped to defend the Falcons' option attack last year as AFA's speed, quickness and blocking schemes baffled the visitors from the Big Ten. This year's outfit is anything but a pushover. Basanez hands off to Wright Vs KUQB Brett Basanez passed for 223 yards and RB Jason Wright slashed his way through a Kansas defense for 196 yards and 4 TDs as Northwestern opened its season with a 28-20 victory in Lawrence last weekend.

Northwestern held the ball for less than twenty-two minutes last year against the Falcons forcing its defense to play nearly two-thirds of the game in ninety degree heat at over 6600 feet altitude. While the temperature in Illinois may be just as steamy this weekend, the Wildcats won't have to deal with playing at altitude. Furthermore, with an offense capable of exercising ball control through the air or on the ground, pressure will be relieved from what was an overburdened defense throughout the 2002 season for Northwestern.

Both Air Force and Northwestern should be able to sustain drives given the strength and proficiency of their respective offenses. While the Falcons were impressive in a piling up seven touchdowns against Wofford, Northwestern showed a balanced offense in winning its season opener on the road against a Big Twelve team, albeit one which is usually an also-ran in that highly competitive conference.

Air Force and Northwestern will provide one another with a realistic forecast of how the rest of their seasons will unfold. The Falcons' offense will provide NU's defense a much sterner test than did the Kansas Jayhawks. The Wildcats' offense will pose a more serious challenge than did the Wofford Terriers.

The Falcons' defense will be confronted by the largest offensive lineWright slices through with help from huge line it may face this season, including when Air Force travels to Provo to face the perennially, gargantuan BYU Cougars. The battle between Northwestern's oversized offensive line and AFA's smaller, quicker defense will have a direct impact on the game's outcome. Air Force's ability to confound and confuse the Wildcats' defense with its ball control, option based, ground game will test Northwestern's ability to defend all facets of the Falcons' relentless rushing attack.

Fans of both teams can expect a far more competitive, closer scoring, contest than the blowout which took place in August last season at Falcon Stadium. Not only will the teams be meeting each other for the second consecutive year, but they can get used to seeing one another on a frequent basis. Air Force will return to Evanston in 2006 and the Wildcats will appear in Falcon Stadium in 2007. The teams will have played four games in six years by the conclusion of the game in 2007.

SNAPSHOTS FROM THE PRESENT AND FUTURE. If you're looking for one area through which the Falcons may begin to win the battle of field position against Northwestern have a look at the punting game. In their season opener against Kansas, the Wildcats punted five times for an anemic 32.6 yard average. The Falcons' Andrew Martin, punting in his first college game, averaged a robust 53.5 yards on two attempts. It will be a point of interest to see how he kicks much closer to sea level in Evanston.

HB/PR Matt WardMatt Ward has been clocked at 4.36 continues to show electrifying ability for the Falcons. He had only two carries from the backfield all day. On the first he was stopped for no gain, but on the second he broke loose for 21 yards. Ward returned two punts against Wofford. One effort netted only seven yards, but the other was a splendid twenty-eight yard demonstration of his speed and elusiveness. Once Ward becomes a more accomplished blocker he'll become a fixture in the Falcons' backfield.

Jacobe Kendrick made an impressive debut at the FB spot against Wofford. The freshman from Midland, Texas ran for 62 yards and 1 TD. Starter Steve Massie is expected to miss several games as the season begins, but with Dan Shaffer, Adam Cole and Kendrick in the backfield the Falcons' ground game from the FB spot is in excellent hands. Since Kendrick is a first year player, the long term prospects for the Falcons at the FB position look bright.

I first spotted WR Jason Brown in this spring's Blue-Silver game when he pulled in a pass from Chance Harridge. What immediately drew my attention to Brown was the fact that he is six feet four inches tall--by no means the size wide receiver I'd been accustomed to seeing in nearly thirty years of following the AFA program. Brown has been so impressive in fall drills that he made his way into the rotation of WRs that shuttles plays into the huddle for the Falcons. In fact, Brown saw considerable action for AFA during the first quarter versus Wofford. Anthony Park, Alec Messerall and J. P. Waller may see more playing time at the WR spot for AFA this season than Brown, but fans should keep number 9 in mind over the course of the next three seasons.

C4C NG Gilberto Perez turned some heads with a superb play he made in the fourth quarter of the season opener. Playing off a double team block from Wofford's offensive line, Perez sprinted to his right and made a tackle on a Wofford back who had caught a pass for a short gain. It was exactly the kind of effort which will endear him to his coaches and earn him increased playing time behind Charlie Bueker and Ryan Carter.

IN BOXING THEY'D STOP THE FIGHT. In the Fisher DeBerry era Air Force has played eleven non-division 1-A opponents. The most recent of these games was this season's opener against DeBerry's alma mater, Wofford. Having won the game against the Terriers, Air Force improved its record in these eleven games to 11-0. The cumulative score in these blowout mismatches, for which the ticket buying public has paid full price, is 445 to 98. In plain English, it's time for the academy to stop scheduling these farcical exhibitions, show a measure of gratitude to its customers and a dose of respect to its players by ending the practice of entering into contracts to play division 1-AA schools. If Air Force can compete with Notre Dame--and it can--then it shouldn't try to justify playing The Citadel, Indiana State and Villanova. It brings no recognition or acclaim to the academy's football program and does nothing to boost the profile of the Mountain West Conference on a national scale.

CONFERENCE CALL. BYU won its game--24-13 over Georgia Tech--while playing in a highly undisciplined fashion. The Cougars were penalized 16 times for 132 yards. Utah downed Utah State, 40-20, thanks in large measure to RB Brandon Warfield's 33 carries for 173 yards. QB Kurt Nantkes finished 27-of-41 for 308 yards as UNLV beat the Toledo Rockets 28-18. New Mexico rolled up 556 yards in total offense and PK Katie Hnida became the first female to score in a division 1-A NCAA football game as the Lobos routed Texas State-San Marcos, 72-8. Lynell Hamilton ran for 113 yards and a pair of TDs as San Diego State trudged its way past the Eastern Washington Eagles, 19-9. In the day's highlighted game the Colorado Buffaloes won a shootout over the Colorado State Rams, 42-35, in a meeting which saw the teams amass 1,089 yards of total offense.

DAYS MAY BE CLOUDY FOR SONNY. With CSU's loss to Colorado the Rams will take an uncharacteristic three game losing streak into its game with California this weekend. CSU lost its final regular season game to UNLV, followed that with a Liberty Bowl loss to Texas Christian and began this season by losing to CU.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN. All eight MWC teams hit the road this weekend and only two are favored to win. AFA is a 7 1/2 point pick over Northwestern. UNLV is an 11 1/2 point pick over Kansas. California is favored by 2 1/2 over CSU. Oklahoma State is a 20 point pick over Wyoming. San Diego State will have its hands full in Columbus where Ohio State is favored by 32. BYU may have a rough time with Southern Cal as the Trojans are a comfortable 21 1/2 point pick. Texas Tech is favored by 12 1/2 over New Mexico. Utah is a 9 point underdog against Texas A & M.

FOR CLARIFICATION. AFA fans may wonder whether or not the Falcons' win over Wofford gets them started on the right foot in the process of trying to become bowl qualified in the 2003 season. Here is an explanation from the NCAA as to how AFA may have helped itself with a victory over the Terriers. The information comes from the NCAA description illuminating the area concerning postseason qualification and eligibility. The passage is entitled, "Deserving Winning Team."

==>A deserving winning team is defined as one that wins a minimum of six games against Division 1-A competition and has a record that includes more wins than losses. [ Exception: Once every four years, a Division 1-A institution may count a victory against a Division 1-AA opponent that has averaged 60 financial aid award equivalencies in football during the previous three academic years.] Only a conference champion may seek a waiver of these requirements.

During each year in which an institution is permitted to play 12 regular season football games, an institution with a record of six wins and six losses may be selected for participation in a bowl game if that institution is a member of a conference with which the bowl organization has a contractual affiliation, and there is no other team in that conference qualified for selection per Bylaw 30.9.2. If the conference with which the bowl is affiliated has no other institution that is qualified for selection or a team with a 6-6 record, the bowl may invite a team with a 6-6 regular season record from another conference with which it does not have an affiliation, only if there is no other team with a 7-5 record or better available in Division1-A.<==

(Note to AFA partisans, you better study that information as it will be part of final exams later this semester.)

AFA fans may remember the bedlam which broke loose after the Falcons beat the Cal State Doormats, er, Matadors in 2000 while thinking that the win could be counted toward the process of becoming bowl qualified. It was not until after the game that AFA AD, Randy Spetman, was able to verify that the Matadors had not granted the minimum number of financial aid packages over the proscribed period of time to allow Air Force to use its victory against Cal State toward the process of becoming bowl qualified. This instance of procedural disarray is yet another reason why the academy needs to halt the practice of scheduling games outside the realm of division 1-A teams.

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