Darnell Stephens (14-91-1 TD), Anthony Butler (10-70), Matt Ward (5-42-2TDs) and Joe Schieffer (8-34) combined for thirty-seven carries, two hundred thirty-seven yards and 3 TDs to lead AFA to a win over Front Range rival, Wyoming, in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.
If your idea of a great exhibition of college football is a tooth and nail, 14-10, defensive struggle, punctuated by bone jarring hits and close to the vest offensive game plans, then the contest featuring the Falcons and Cowboys is not one you'd want to see preserved in a time capsule.
Over the past seven years these teams have played a series of games characterized by offenses pummeling and bludgeoning defenses into submission. Air Force had averaged 308 yards rushing in its last seven efforts against the Cowboys. They topped that mark by 123 yards. The Cowboys' QB, Casey Bramlet did his part to make it a long day for AFA's defenders. Wyo had passed for a healthy 304 yards a game versus Air Force since 1996 and surpassed that mark by 94 yards on Saturday.
FIRST AND LAST. Sophomore Matt Ward continued to demonstrate why he'll be an integral part of the Falcons' ground game for the next two and half seasons, with his performance against the Cowboys. Ward opened and closed the scoring for the Falcons and provided Air Force with its six point margin of victory.
Air Force won the toss, elected to receive and needed just 1:44 to move 70 yards on a drive which culminated with Ward scooting three yards into the end zone to give the Falcons a 6-0 lead. Joey Ashcroft added the extra point and AFA was off and running. Harridge, Stephens, FB Dan Shaffer and WR Anthony Park provided Air Force with solid production in the opening two minutes of play.
The Falcons held Wyoming on its initial possession of the day forcing the Cowboys to punt the ball. A touchback on Luke Donovan's kick gave Air Force the ball at its own 20 yard line. On first down Harridge broke loose for a 40 yard jaunt. Stephens and Butler did some more damage on the ground before Stephens, the 6-2/195 pound junior from Midwest City, Oklahoma blasted six yards for his second TD of the season. His 91 yards on the day were a career high.
DOWN, NOT OUT. Anyone assuming Wyoming would be hard pressed to mount a charge against AFA wasn't familiar with the prolifically talented Casey Bramlet. He entered the game having thrown for 714 yards against the Falcons in two previous games and finished his career by shredding AFA's overmatched secondary for an additional 379 yards. For his career Bramlet decimated Air Force for 1,093 passing yards, having completed 79 of 140(56.4%) attempts for 5 TDs while suffering just one interception.
The Cowboys scored. their first TD of the game on an inspired piece of passing legerdemain when Bramlet threw a lateral to Jovon Bouknight in the backfield. Bouknight, a former high school QB turned WR in Laramie, set his feet and lofted a perfect strike to Ryan McGuffey for a 19 yard touchdown pass. AFA blocked its first extra point of the season--and the first of two kicks it would smother in the game--to keep the score, 14-6, as play began in the second quarter.
The teams traded TDs in the second quarter with FB Adam Cole bulling his way seven yards into the end zone to give AFA a, 21-6, lead before Bramlet connected with Bouknight on a twenty yard TD aerial. In a statistical oddity, AFA LB Marchello Graddy intercepted a Bramlet pass on a two point attempt, and yet, in the game's official statistical compilation, no interception was credited to the AFA defense. PK Deric Yaussi made a 38 yard field goal to narrow AFA's lead to, 21-15, as the teams left the field at halftime.
SETTING THE TONE. Although Air Force held the ball for a remarkable 11:45 of the third quarter, the Falcons failed to score and fell behind when McGuffey scored on a 5 yard run and Wyo added the extra point to assume a, 22-21, lead.
While AFA didn't register a point in the third period it firmly established the means by which it would win the game. AFA initiated 47 plays in the second half--forty-six of which were rushing attempts. Ironically, the sole pass attempt Harridge hoisted in the half resulted in a 7 yard TD grab by Alec Messerall--his first on the year. Harridge, Ward, Stephens, Butler and Schieffer enabled Air Force to cut and slash through Wyo's defense, consume huge segments of time from the clock all while marshaling the Falcons' forces toward the fourteen, fourth period points by which they would ice the game.
GAME BALL AWARDS. Casey Bramlet's three spectacular performances against the Falcons are proof that every now and then there is an offensive football conundrum to which there is apparently no solution. There's truth in the bromide that the best defense is a good offense, and in fat AFA's offense produced the day's victory, rather than the team's defenders. The Falcons tried valiantly to ensnare Bramlet, but were unable to sack him even a single time.
Air Force has been utilizing the ground based option attack in various forms since 1980. Wishbone, broken bone, Fishbone...call it what you will, but Air Force has soared and crashed on its ability to baffle and confuse opponents with the intricacies of the option attack. The two fundamental weapons of the option are the QB keeper and FB dive. Chance Harridge charged by the 100 yard barrier for the first time in 2003 and was instrumental in leading his team to victory over Wyoming.
Let the record clearly show that when Air Force needed a timely run with which to begin a series or sustain a drive, it was the stellar work of two HBs which gave the Air Force attack its critical thrust.
C2C Darnell Stephens is long, angular and speedy. His 14 carries, 91 yards gained and splendid 7.0 yards a carry average versus the Wyoming Cowboys, showcased a running back who is making marked strides in becoming a dominant force in the Falcons' nation-leading rushing attack. For his dominant effort in assisting the Falcons to a 4-0 start and a 1-0 mark in the MWC, Darnell Stephens is awarded a game ball.
Power may be the foundation upon which the productivity of the option based ground attack is built, but speed and finesse are components of the scheme which cannot be overestimated. Air Force won its first national rushing title in 2002 in large part because of the contributions of Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens, the now graduated Leotis Palmer and Matt Ward.
Ward, a 5-11/175 pound blur of light from Fort Lauderdale, Florida began and ended AFA's scoring against the Cowboys and has now pitched in with three TDs in the Falcons' past two games. There are still some unenlightened football fans who think the option entails a "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" monotony. These alleged fans haven't been watching Matt Ward. While he may have only 13 carries on the year thus far, Ward has more than made the most of his limited opportunities. He has sped past the perimeter of opposing defenses for 9.54 yards a carry. Ward's speed and elusiveness not only baffle and confound opposing would-be tacklers, they provide a respite for Chance Harridge from the play by play brutality that is part and parcel of guiding an option attack.
For his continuing ability to inject outside speed into the Falcons' attack through his increasingly effective sorties toward and around the perimeter of the line of scrimmage, through teams' defenses, Matt Ward is awarded a game ball.
NOW IT GETS INTERESTING. The last time AFA visited Provo it was thoroughly embarrassed to the tune of 63-33. Last year the BYU Cougars came to Falcon Stadium and Air Force posted a, 52-9, come from behind, shellacking over their MWC rivals. As the Falcons were left smarting for a year before they could exact a measure of satisfaction from BYU last year, so too, have the Cougars been nursing their wounds from last year's debacle.
AFA and BYU are the only members of the MWC to have posted league wins this season. The winner of next week's game will take a decided edge in the early portion of the race for this year's title. Fisher DeBerry, his staff and players know the team has posted a strong start to the 2003 season, but that much of the sheen will be lost from the team's glowing start without a victory in Provo next Saturday. DeBerry will try to post his first win in Provo over the Cougars since becoming AFA's head coach twenty years ago.