Resuming Pleasantries

The Air Force Falcons and BYU Cougars approach Saturday's MWC showdown facing an avalanche of questions and a paucity of answers. A series whose history has been dominated by the Cougars, but one in which the balance has swung toward the home team in recent years, features a contest which will put the winning team in command of the conference title chase.

AFAFaclon Staff Writer; Chris Field
Chris Field
AFAFalcons Staff Writer

MYSTERIES IN SEARCH OF CLUES. BYU and its head coach, Gary Crowton, wonder if the Cougars will develop any continuity in its offense this year while it waits for a leader to emerge at the quarterback position. The team's defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, considers the likelihood of his being able to frustrate the Falcons in the same manner his New Mexico Lobos' defenders did for several years when he was working in Albuquerque. Freshman sensation, tight end Daniel Coats, ponders whether or not he'll be the latest in a lengthy line of players at that position for BYU to run over, under, around and through AFA's secondary.

AFA QB Chance Harridge puzzles Chance looks to score big against BYU again. (AP)over his ability to duplicate a 4 TD explosion he authored last year against Brigham Young. Defensive coordinator Richard Bell weighs the fragile state of his players' psyche in light of the aerial blitzkrieg they were forced to endure at the hands of Wyoming's Casey Bramlet last weekend. Fisher DeBerry is still seeking to unravel the inscrutable riddle of his failure to win a game in Provo.

PUZZLES AND PERPLEXITIES. When the teams met last year in Falcon Stadium, Air Force lambasted the Cougars by a, 52-9, margin after spotting their guests a three point lead on the game's opening drive. For all practical intents and purposes the game was concluded long before Air Force finished scoring forty-five unanswered points after momentarily slipping behind by a field goal.

With AFA having lost in Provo by 30 points in 2001, and BYU being abused by 43 points a year later, it's an exercise in futility and frustration to attempt to forecast what will happen this weekend when the teams renew their pointed and well established enmity for one another. Competitively, this series cannot be assessed as being a "rivalry" since Air Force has not won a representative number of games to create a balance over the course of 23 contests the teams have played.

The home team has won five of the past six games in this series with the sixth game having been won by AFA in Sam Boyd Stadium, in Las Vegas, in the 1998 WAC title game. It has never been a surprise when BYU has beaten AFA either in Provo or in Colorado Springs. The series has assumed a more heated tone and tenor since 1995 when the Falcons first revealed that they would no longer play subservient sparring partner to the heavyweight Cougars.

Did Crowton run up the score when BYU scored 63 points in the first three quarters of the 2001 game? DeBerry wants it as bad as any! (Getty)Was DeBerry exacting what he may have felt was a long overdue pound of flesh from the Cougars when they came calling last fall? Add those two queries to the list of imponderables generated by recent battles between these MWC foes.

DAMAGE CONTROL. Everything went right for the Falcons in last year's meeting. You can take your pick as to how AFA administered a lethal dose of poison to the Cougars. Perhaps you think it was the 23 carries for 178 yards and a 7.74 yards per carry average by the HBs. Maybe it was the 31 rushes for 116 yards and 3 TDs by a trio of FBs. If neither of those, then surely it was Harridge's 104 yards and 4 TDs that delivered the coup de grâce. Regardless of the source of BYU's death blow, it was clear from start to finish that Crowton's crew had no idea how to stop the Falcons' relentless option attack.

Mendenhall's presence in Provo makes the meeting of AFA's ground assault and BYU's 3-3-5 defense all the more intriguing. Under Rocky Long at UNM, Mendenhall and the Lobos became the first MWC team to install and implement the defensive scheme as its base defense. AFA did so last year and enjoyed success with it in the first half of the season when it went 6-0. The second half of the campaign was a disastrously different saga. Along MWC sidelines, no one knows more about the 3-3-5 alignment than Mendenhall and while the Cougars are playing for in this alignment for the first time this fall the players seem to be adapting to its nuances quickly.

The scheme is not without its flaws. With only three linemen, the rest of the defense is peopled with LBs and DBs whose quickness and pursuit enable the squad to swarm to the point of attack. It may be difficult for an option oriented attack, such as AFA's, to beat BYU defenders at the perimeter of the line of scrimmage by sheer speed. On the other hand, with just three DL taking on an AFA offensive line with six blockers--remember the AFA TE is primarily a blocker--the option attack would seem to be tailor made to penetrate the undermanned middle of the field.

BYU may be choosing to limit AFA's outside game while simultaneously running the risk of being skewered by the Falcons' FB game. If AFA cannot run effectively at the perimeter it will need to augment its QB/FB dominated ground game by other means. This may be the week TE Adam Strecker is finally made an integral part of coordinator Chuck Petersen's game plan. Strecker led the team in receptions and TD catches in 2002, but has been noticeable by his absence from the team's repertoire through the first four games of the schedule. He has two catches for a mere thirty-two yards thus far in 2003.

For AFA's part, Wyoming's brilliant Bramlet showed them the soft underbelly of the 3-3-5 alignment where a passing offense is concerned--and make no mistake--BYU will throw often against AFA on Saturday. Bramlet and Wyoming used the shotgun formation, quick releases, short to medium patterns and experienced WRs to frustrate the Falcons all day long. If first year BYU QB, John Beck, can summon the poise to read the Falcons' defense quickly, and unload the ball in a hurry, then Air Force may be in for another long day in Provo.

Air Force will certainly test BYU's ability to defend the perimeter. HBs Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens, Matt Ward and Joe Schieffer have totaled 98 carries, for 618 yards, a 6.31 yards per carry average and 6 TDs in the Falcons' first four games. Air Force once again leads the nation in rushing and if the 3-3-5 can't contain Harridge, the FBs and the Falcons' potent outside speed, then Fisher DeBerry will finally have the win in Provo he has sought since 1984.

CONFERENCE CALL. CSU plays at home for the third week in a row. Miami of Ohio butted heads with the Rams last week and registered a 41-21 victory. The Rams will face a well rested Utah team which hasn't played since defeating Cal on September 11th. The Rams have struggled early this fall while the Utes are playing better than may have been anticipated for coach Urban Meyer.

New Mexico, off to a disappointing 1-3 start and 0-1 in MWC play, steps out of the conference this week to face instate rival New Mexico State.

San Diego State, which leads the nation in total defense--a perch reached in large part owing to the Aztecs' two games against division 1-AA foes--travels to UCLA to face a Bruins' team ranked 116th of 117 teams in total offense.

Wyoming, which came close to upsetting Air Force last week, will take on Boise State on the Broncos' infamous blue turf.

My occluded crystal ball says CSU will get back on track against the Utes. New Mexico will win the state title in the Land of Enchantment. UCLA will come out of hibernation long enough to sneak past San Diego State as the Aztecs find out there are other opponents beside Samford. Finally, some trends are more firmly established than others. While the home team has been winning with some frequency in the AFA-BYU series in recent years, the trend of Fisher DeBerry's team never beating BYU in Provo, stretches from one millennium into the next. BYU continues the trend and begins the MWC season with a 2-0 record.

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