MISSING PERSONS. Air Force began the current campaign with an exercise against division 1-AA Wofford which amounted to nothing more than a scrimmage wherein the Falcons benignly dismissed the Terriers, 49-0, before the score became even more farcical. Last week's game in Evanston versus the Northwestern Wildcats presented the Falcons with a legitimate challenge from which they had to extricate themselves.
In lieu of the ejected Chance Harridge, QB Adam Fitch saw action in his first
college game and ignited a fifteen point rally in the final twenty-one minutes
of play as Air Force escaped with a 22-21 victory. Interceptions by Nate Allen,
Larry Duncan, Trevor Hightower and Larry Poland paved the way for the Falcons'
improbable rally from a 21-7 deficit. Poland's theft and return late in the
game led to the decisive points for AFA by virtue of a Joey Ashcroft FG with
just over two minutes remaining in the game.
While Harridge stood banished on the sidelines, there were other key elements of the Falcons' attack which also went missing in action in Evanston. The fullback game will need to reemerge and a some semblance of a passing attack will need to surface if the Falcons are going to defeat a North Texas program whose star has continued to rise over the past two college football seasons.
CURIOUS. FB Dan Shaffer suffered a season ending injury on the first play of the second half in the 2002 season opener versus Northwestern. Shaffer not only underwent a grueling rehabilitation to regain his starting spot at FB in the AFA backfield in time for the 2003 opener against Wofford, he excelled and gained 64 yards on his way to scoring three TDs. His reward for that effort was to see Adam Cole inserted into the starting FB spot for the Northwestern game. There have been many unwarranted accolades bestowed upon the Wildcats' efforts in limiting the AFA ground game last weekend. In the Wofford game, AFA netted 5.14 yards per rushing attempt. In the Northwestern game the Falcons gained 5.04 yards an attempt. That's not a figure associated with stout defense.
Still, there was a cutting edge, an incisive thrust, missing from the AFA ground attack last week. Cole and Shaffer carried the ball a mere 13 times, hardly a total befitting the number of attempts Falconatics have come to associate with the key element of the AFA ground based option attack, namely the fullback. North Texas has an efficient defense featuring lots of heft along the defensive line. AFA will need to soften the Mean Green defensive front with a penetrating FB game which will make the UNT defense susceptible to an attack on its perimeter from Harridge and the Falcons' fleet corps of HBs featuring Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens and Joe Schieffer.
TE Adam Strecker led the Falcons in receptions and TD catches in 2002. As this season heads to its third week of play, he is still waiting to make his initial grab of the year. After Harridge tried to force an ill-advised pass between double coverage to Strecker against Wofford not another pass attempt has been thrown in his direction. Harridge was ousted from last week's game and Strecker suffered a minor shoulder injury which forced him out of action as well, but still, this duo should have continued their success from last year at least once in the first six quarters of play this fall.
Harridge misfired badly on several first half pass attempts in the Northwestern game last Saturday. One specific shortcoming was that he threw several balls behind open receivers. When asked to comment on AFA's passing game after the contest DeBerry said, " We had so many pass plays open in the first half my wife could have completed some of those." No word yet on whether LuAnn DeBerry has any remaining college eligibility.
DIVERSITY. Sooner or later the Falcons are going to run into an outfit this fall that effectively contains the AFA rushing attack. Perhaps the ground game won't be rendered stagnant, but ineffective to the point where the Falcons will need to move the ball through the air to produce a victory. Harridge has shown no sign this season that he is a more accomplished passer than he was last year. Harridge completed 44.44% of his passes in 2002. Thus far on the season he has connected on only 43.75% of his attempts. He has neither thrown a TD pass nor completed a pass to last year's leading receiver, Strecker. Bear in mind the team's sole touchdown pass this year was thrown by Adam Fitch to Strecker's understudy, John Schwartz.
While Harridge has hit on less than 44% of his attempts, the remainder of the Falcons' passers--to this point Fitch and Butler--have hit on a stellar 6 of 7 attempts and the team's lone scoring pass. It's time for Harridge to show some of his athletic brilliance when it comes to the passing game. There's no question how dangerous he is in mid-sprint when keeping the ball, but there's little reason for opposing secondaries to fear the worst when he drops into the pocket for even a cursory look downfield.
STRANGERS IN TOWN. The University of North Texas Mean Green come to Falcon Stadium for the first meeting between the two teams. AFA will play at Fouts Field in Denton in 2005. The Mean Green has won the Sun Belt Conference title for the past two seasons and were most impressive on defense last season.
UNT led the Sun Belt in total defense yielding just 288.7 yards a game, was first in rushing defense at 121.4 yards, led the league in pass defense allowing 167.2 yards a game and had the stingiest scoring defense in the conference surrendering only 14.4 points a game.
Nationally, UNT was third in scoring defense, a solid ninth in terms of total defense, thirteenth in pass defense and a strong 29th in rushing defense. The architect of this parsimonious group of defenders was Gary DeLoach, now the secondary coach at UCLA.
The CSU Rams--prohibitive favorites to repeat as MWC champs this year--lost their stellar defensive coordinator, Larry Kerr, to UCLA where he oversees DeLoach's duties this fall. The Rams are loaded on defense this fall, but you certainly couldn't discern that from the over 500 yards and 42 points they allowed Colorado in the season opener two weeks ago. The cautionary tale here is that it's nice to have returning talent, but someone needs to orchestrate its play. The Mean Green has impressive talent on defense and will have the chance to demonstrate to what extent DeLoach will be missed this season.
Although UNT gives appearances of being a program on the rise, partisans of the Mean Green need to rein in their enthusiasm a notch or two. When UNT downed the Cincinnati Bearcats, 24-19, in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl it marked the first victory for UNT against a division 1-A team outside the SBC. Last weekend UNT beat division 1-A Baylor. It's a tossup as to which squad will be extinct first: the Baylor football team or the basketball team. North Texas is stepping out of its conference, and up in the level of competition it's accustomed to facing, in playing the Air Force Falcons this week.
NICKS AND CUTS. RB Patrick Cobbs, LB Koryee Wyatt, DB Jonas Buckles and OL Lonnie Chambers sustained minor injuries for UNT last week in the Baylor game, but are expected to play against Air Force.
Adam Strecker suffered a shoulder injury against Northwestern, but should see action against UNT. LB John Rudzinski may be slowed somewhat by a high ankle sprain, yet is expected to be in the starting lineup.
ODDS AND ENDS. While the time of possession battle wound up being relatively close last week, Air Force was badly outplayed in the first half and held the ball for only a shade over ten minutes of play. An exhausted defense gamely held the Falcons in the contest and then ignited a rally with three, late game interceptions to turn momentum in AFA's favor.
Air Force needs to establish an authoritative FB game early in the contest to force UNT to crowd the middle of the field on defense. HBs Butler, Stephens, Schieffer and Matt Ward--along with Harridge--can then attack the perimeter of the Mean Green defense with its speed and challenge the visitors to show they have the requisite speed and quickness to contend with a ground attack that is averaging 325 yards a game. If Chance Harridge can begin to display some measure of capability in his passing game he increases the Falcons' opportunity to forge a 3-0 start to a season for the eighth time in the DeBerry era.