Satchel Paige was fond of saying that it is best not to look back because something might be gaining on you. What nearly overtook the Air Force Falcons in its game against Northwestern was an inability to keep its defense off the field. That changed in the second half of the game and, because of it, the Falcons left Ryan Field with a one point victory.
A ROCKY START
. The first thirty minutes of AFA's, 22-21, win over Northwestern
gave little indication that the afternoon would conclude as well as it did for Fisher DeBerry's forces. By the time the Wildcats established a 14-7 lead with just under five minutes remaining in the second quarter, they had amassed an unconscionable 18:10 in time of possession.
Northwestern dominated Air Force
in the opening half, but couldn't establish a greater advantage than the 14-7 lead it took to the locker room. A heroic effort by the Falcons' defense kept the team within striking distance at half time, but when the Wildcats took the opening kickoff in the second half and drove 80 yards, in eight plays, while using four minutes and three seconds of game time, it appeared that the Falcons' sluggish attack wouldn't be able to surmount the two touchdown deficit.
Air Force opened the scoring with a ninety-three yard drive in which the Falcons initiated just three plays. Matt Ward
made a fair catch of a punt at the AFA seven yard line with 4:06 remaining in the opening quarter of the scoreless game. On first down HB Darnell Stephens
caught a 37 yard completion from Chance Harridge
to put the Falcons in business at their 44 yard line. On the ensuing first down play Air Force gained no yardage. With AFA facing a second and ten situation, Harridge took the snap from center, pitched the ball to HB Anthony Butler
and the junior from Bay Area, California
took off on the longest run of his career, bursting 56 yards for the Falcons' first TD of the game. Joey Ashcroft added the extra point staking Air Force to a 7-0 lead. The execution on the drive was flawless and provided Air Force with its sixth touchdown drive of the season of more than 53 yards in length. The only drawback was that it used a mere thirty-six seconds of game time and sent a tiring AFA defense back on to the field in short order.
BLEAK AND GETTING BLEAKER
. Northwestern return the ensuing kickoff to its own thirty-nine yard line and began what would evolve into a 17 play, 78 yard, touchdown drive. There were two points at which Air Force should have short circuited the Wildcats' drive. The first came on a fourth and three situation which was converted by NW QB Brett Basanez
The second instance found Northwestern facing a third down and twenty-one from the Air Force twenty-four yard line. Basanez threw a completion to TE Gilles Lezi
at the Falcons' two yard line. Tailback Jason Wright
scored on a two yard blast and the home team added the extra point to tie the game at 7-7.
Air Force used a fourteen yard catch from WR Alec Messerall
and a thirty-seven yard halfback option pass from Butler to J.P. Waller as it moved the ball to the Northwestern twenty-two yard line, from which point Ashcroft made his first field goal attempt of the season. The kick sailed wide to the right and the Wildcats took possession of the ball with just over seven minutes to play in the first half.
Northwestern needed just two minutes twenty-one seconds to drive 78 yards for its second TD of the game and a 14-7 lead it would take to the locker room at half time. Basanez completed a 32 yard pass which drove the Wildcats to the AFA thirty-four yard line. After a 12 yard quarterback scramble and a two yard gain by Wright, Nick Herron--who had beaten coverage from Jeff Overstreet--pulled in a twenty yard TD pass from Basanez.
Having won the toss of the coin to open the game, Northwestern opted to receive the second half kickoff. The Wildcats seemed to put a strangle hold on the game when they finished a crisp, eight play, eighty yard drive in four minutes three seconds to open the third quarter. Herron scored his second touchdown of the game on a one yard carry. Northwestern assumed a 21-7 lead and, at that point, few fans suspected that the Falcons would mount a fifteen point rally over the game's final twenty-six minutes to secure victory.
It appeared that quarterback Chance Harridge and the AFA offense had an improbable task to accomplish after the Wildcats scored twenty-one straight points in less than fifteen minutes of elapsed game time. The assignment seemed to become markedly more difficult when Harridge was ejected from the game. After gaining a first down at the Northwestern thirty-seven yard line, Harridge, Marvin Ward
and a Wildcats' assistant coach precipitated a brief skirmish on the field which resulted in Harridge's ouster from the game.
TO THE RESCUE
Fitch, a sophomore quarterback from Gillette, Wyoming
came into the lineup to run the Falcons' offense for the final twenty-one and a half minutes of the game. Fitch's numbers for the day--six rushes for fourteen yards and three completions in four attempts for 51 yards--may not have been remarkable, but his poise under highly unexpected circumstances was.
Fisher DeBerry and offensive coordinator, Chuck Petersen, did a poor job in 2002 of distributing meaningful playing time to quarterbacks below Harridge on the depth chart. Harridge took nearly every snap from center while a game's outcome hung in the balance last fall. While Fitch's performance will not wrest the starter's role from Harridge, it does provide the team with the assurance that when the Falcons go to "plan B," Fitch has shown himself to be capable of engineering the team to victory. For AFA fans taking an even longer view of the QB position, Fitch's cool, steady performance on Saturday clearly marks him as the front runner for the starter's spot in the 2004 campaign.
The performances of the teams' QBs prompted a seismic shift in the outcome of the game. Where Basanez at one point on the day had completed 15 of 24 passes for 234 yards and 1 TD, he finished the game by failing to complete any of his final 14 attempts, on top of which, he suffered four interceptions, three of which came in the game's crucial fourth quarter.
Fitch established himself
as an integral part of AFA's offensive force for the remainder of the 2003 season and beyond with his timely efforts in Evanston. He led the team on a drive ending with Butler scoring on a four yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Ashcroft's extra point attempt was blocked, leaving the Wildcats with a 21-13 lead, and nearly a full quarter of action remaining.
Nine minutes later DB Nate Allen
picked of a Basanez pass and raced 79 yards for an Air Force touchdown. The Falcons' bid for a two point conversion failed, with the score standing 21-19, and set the stage for a frantic finish.
. Questions abounded with the start of the season as to which Air Force player would emerge as the starting Falcon Back along side Adrian Wright
in the team's secondary. Based on his play in the first two games of the season, C3C Dennis Poland
has the ability to make big plays when the team is most in need of them.
In the Wofford game Poland combined with LB Trevor Hightower
to stop the Terriers on a fourth and two at the AFA thirteen yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, Poland came up with an interception and fourteen yard return to the Northwestern 15 yard line. The Falcons began a drive which culminated in Ashcroft's first field goal of the season and the game's winning points. AFA held its, 22-21, lead over the final two minutes and one second of play as the Wildcats were unable to sustain a rally to overtake Air Force.
The Falcons defeated the Wildcats for the second time in two seasons, but faced a greatly improved Northwestern team. Basanez, just a sophomore, has had passes intercepted and returned for TDs by Kansas
and Air Force this season. Once he's able to exercise more judicious decisions as to when and where to throw the ball, Northwestern should reestablish itself as a contender in the Big Ten.
For the thirteenth time in his coaching tenure at the academy, Fisher DeBerry has a team which has begun the season with a 2-0 mark. The Falcons host the North Texas
Mean Green this weekend in Falcon Stadium.
GAME BALL AWARDS
. There was a time when Air Force HBs were known principally for being undersized by division 1-A standards. While AFA HBs may still be smaller in stature than those on other division 1-A teams, they are now quicker, faster and more versatile than has ever been the case. Players such as Scotty McKay and Leotis Palmer
displayed running, receiving, passing and kick returning acumen during their recently concluded football careers. Anthony Butler appears to have assumed that same mantle of jack-of-all-trades among this year's Falcon halfbacks.
In sprinting nearly untouched for a 56 yard TD to open the game's scoring,
adding another four yard burst, as well as completing a thirty-seven yard pass to a wide receiver, Butler demonstrated the adroitness and athletic dexterity present in AFA halfbacks. His performance on Saturday presented a clear example of the variety of methods by which the Falcons' option attack can produce victory against an opponent. For mounting the first one hundred yard rushing performance of his career and powering the Falcons into the endzone during key stretches of the contest Anthony Butler is awarded a game ball.
Every college football team suffers a degree of unanticipated personnel turnover from the close of one season to the opening of the next. Air Force fell victim to more than its fair share of such turmoil after the 2002 season ended. There were questions concerning the identity of starters in this year's secondary as well as to the establishing of viable backups in the defensive backfield.
Not since the Brigham Young game in 2002 had the Falcons defense picked off four passes in a game. Nate Allen's 79 yard sprint with an interception for a TD may have been the climax of a brilliant second half effort from what had been an exhausted unit in the first half of the game. Dennis Poland, Larry Duncan
and Trevor Hightower contributed acts of aerial thievery as well. While it would be appropriate to recognize any or all of them for their contributions to a defensive surge which turned the game in AFA's favor, a game ball is awarded to defensive secondary coach Vic Shealy. His efforts in practices leading up to the Northwestern game and calls initiating the coverages used by the Falcons in the fourth quarter produced overwhelming momentum for Air Force and were vitally instrumental in helping Air Force mount its 15 point, game-winning skein.