Anchors? No Way My Boy!

The Air Force and Naval academies begin this year's competition for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy when the teams meet at FedEx Stadium in Washington on Saturday. In a day and age held captive by the conjoined sentinels of political correctness and mollified assessments, partisans of both teams will blanche at the very notion that this year's contest should be a one-sided affair.

Fisher gettin' ready.  (Getty)

THE WORST OFFENDERS.Coaches in all levels of sports are masters at talking for minutes at a time without saying a thing. Don't think so? Listen to the pabulum spewing from the mouths of Fisher DeBerry and Paul Johnson this week in advance of this fall's first CIC battle. Sweet nothings and nothing more. Each coach will portray the opponent as a combination more devastating than the 1927 NY Yankees, the Red Auerbach-coached Boston Celtics, the Rocket Richard-dominated Montreal Canadiens and the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers' teams rolled into a single entity. Paul Johnson has the Middies running the ball well.  (AP)
       Hide the women and children! Grown men may weep after a moment's glance at the carnage on the playing field at FedEx. The play-by-play radio accounts of the game may be too distressing for decent folk to hear. Yeah, if they're Navy fans.

       Countless microphones will be thrust in DeBerry's face this week waiting to record the tales with which he'll attempt to enrapture and sway an unseen audience. Fisher will tell of the near misses AFA had in 1999 and 2001 the last two times the Falcons ventured east to meet the Midshipmen. Air Force came away with victories on both occasions with a, 19-14, margin in the former and a, 24-19, cushion in the latter. DeBerry will even harken back to 1996 when Navy sailed into Falcon Stadium and pulled off a last minute upset owing to poor kickoff coverage by the Falcons which led to a Tom Vanderhorst field goal in the game's final minute.

       FORGOTTEN. By kickoff time this Saturday you'll have heard no mention from Fisher DeBerry that his teams have won 17 of 19 games against Navy in his tenure as AFA's head coach. Somehow he'll have forgotten, or be temporarily unaware, that Air Force has beaten Navy in nineteen of the past twenty-one contests, including the last six in a row. Not a word will be uttered by the AFA coach that in the seventeen times his teams have beaten teams from the USNA the winning margin has been 10 or more points one dozen times. Six of those victories were posted by more than twenty points. One victory came by more than thirty points. Three of the victories were registered by 40 or more points. When this week's game is played less than a full year's time will have lapsed since Air Force decommissioned Navy by 41 points in Falcon Stadium.

       OPPOSING FORCES... Navy leads the nation in rushing yards per game and Air Force is hot on the Midshipmen's heels in second place. Both teams run ground based option attacks supplemented by passing attacks which play necessary, but decidedly complementary, roles. Last year's meeting began favorably for Navy when QB Craig Candeto used a mix of passes and runs to lead the visitors on a crisp, productive march for a TD against the Falcons. AFA fell victim to a middle screen pass, on which it had been badly burned several times earlier in the season, and Navy's game plan attacked that deficiency during its opening possession with success. Thereafter it was absolutely no contest.

       AFA QB Chance Harridge produced the first of three games to date in which he has run and passed for more than 100 yards. Harridge ran wild through attempted naval blockades all afternoon as he totaled 161 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 107 yards to provide the Falcons with just the right measure of balance on offense to sink Navy with forty-eight consecutive points after the Middies' opening sortie.

       The Falcons outpaced Navy on the scoreboard, in total offense, on the ground, in the air, forced the game's only three turnovers--returning one of them 52 yards for a TD thanks to Wes Crawley--and thoroughly dominated their opponent in every phase of the game.

       ...WITH SIMILAR APPROACHES. Both teams utilize option attacks which employ a broad cast of characters rather than a single, central star. Candeto (17-99 versus AFA in 2002) and RB Eric Roberts (3-20) and Kyle Eckel (19-85-1TD) will be front and center for the Navy team.

JP Waller hauls in a 30 yard TD pas (AP)        Air Force will counter with Harridge (19-161-4TDs versus Navy in 2002) HB Matt Ward (9-66-1TD), HB Darnell Stephens (9-52, and entering the Navy game after posting successive career highs in rushing the ball against Wyoming and BYU) and FB Steve Massie (7-45). HB Anthony Butler missed last season's game against Navy and sustained a broken right wrist in the BYU game, but is being fitted with a cast and may see action this weekend. Butler enters the game with 992 rushing yards in his career and stands to become the thirtieth player in AFA history to reach the 1,000 yard level. He has begun the season by gaining 268 yards on 43 carries with 2 TDs.

       While Fisher DeBerry has been utilizing option based attacks since he came to the academy under Ken Hatfield to install the wishbone, he has tinkered with the scheme and modified its format and function. The days of opponents being able to count on Air Force trudging away in a grudging manner with the QB/FB game are long gone. Don't believe it? Then have a look at the figures.

       Air Force employs four HBs who are integral to its ground game: Ward, Stephens, Butler and Joe Schieffer. This quartet has gained 786 of the team's 1546 yards on the ground this season. That total represents 50.84% of AFA's yardage gained via the rush. The foursome has accounted for 127 of the team's 309 rushing attempts, a figure totaling 41.1% of the times Air Force has run the ball through the first five games on its 2003 regular season schedule.


       AFA's HBs have speed in such abundance, that offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen's game plans repeatedly dictate that the Falcons attack opposing defenses at the perimeter of the line of scrimmage, rather than crash and thrash their way through the no-man's land bounded by a tackle on one end and a tight end on the other. AFA's first national rushing title was secured last year in large part by the substantial contributions of the team's halfbacks. This year is proving to be no different in that regard.

        HBs in the AFA option offense are no longer an afterthought, rather, they are a primary force and focus in the team's productive rushing attack. Navy can pick its poison. By choosing to limit AFA's QB/FB tandem the Falcons can rely on the able efforts of their halfbacks. If Navy focuses on containing AFA's outside speed the Falcons can hammer at the Middies' interior defense with Harridge and fullbacks Adam Cole, Dan Shaffer and Massie.

Marchello Graddy and the "D" get pumped for service academy games. (AP)        AN INTERESTING STUDY. After the spectacular debut he made as the team's QB last season, Chance Harridge's presence in the Falcons' backfield is an understandable concern for defensive coordinators charged with the responsibility of limiting his effectiveness and production. Entering the Navy game last season, Harridge had accounted for 71 of AFA's 282 rushing attempts--just a shade over 25% of the team's carries. Harridge will enter this weekend's game versus Navy having been responsible for just 58 of the team's 309 rushes--a figure representing a 18.7% of the team's carries.

       Harridge is running the ball less frequently and therefore is absorbing less punishment during the course of a game than was the case in 2002. To be sure, he's still subjected to plenty of bone-jarring collisions, but there were fewer of them through August and September because his number was being called less often. His diminished presence in the rushing attack has had at least two positive repercussions for AFA's offense. One is the aforementioned productivity and activity of the HBs. The other is a marked upturn in the Falcons' passing attack.

       Harridge struggled to complete passes in 2002. In fact, he completed the season hitting an unacceptable 44.44% of his attempts. Through the first five games of the current season, Harridge has been successful on 56.25% of his pass attempts. In a departure from last year's passing game, Harridge has been throwing and completing passes to his WRs with heightened frequency.

       In 2002, J. P. Waller caught 12 passes for 164 yards and 1 TD.Already this season he has pulled down 10 passes for 166 yards and 3 TDs. All this with more than half a season to play. Alec Messerall caught 3 passes for 84 yards and a single TD last fall. Contrast those figures with production of 10 catches for 148 yards and 1 TD grab in 2003.

       In 2002, Air Force had three primary WRs: Waller, Ricky Amezaga and Anthony Park. This trio combined for 38 receptions totaling 562 yards and 3 TDs. Thus far in 2003 the team's primary WRs--Waller, Messerall and Park--have produced 25 receptions good for 366 yards and 4 TDs. The evidence is clear: hard work in the off-season by Harridge combined with his absorbing fewer hits from the running game this year have enabled him to become a more proficient passer. No one will confuse the Falcons' passing attack with Texas Tech's aerial circus under the direction of B. J. Symons. And yet the message is clear: when it comes to football DeBerry, Petersen and Harridge have put the air back in Air Force.

       There will be enough brass in the stands at FedEx Field this Saturday to warrant opening a spittoon factory. The admirals and generals can politely, and irreverently, needle one another about the nature of the game which will unfold before their eyes later in the afternoon. Head coach Paul Johnson may yet become the pioneering force whose coaching acumen will lead the Midshipmen to the threshold of respectability in division 1-A football. But neither Air Force nor Navy is far enough removed from the competitive debacle which played out in Falcon Stadium last October to expect the tables to be turned this weekend. Both teams will strive valiantly and honorably. There will be respect earned, by each, for the other. There will be a shared understanding that there are greater conquests to achieve than those won on a college football field. And in the end, there should be a comfortable margin of victory posted by Fisher DeBerry's squad. DeBerry will stalk the sidelines this Saturday fully armed with his gaudy 32-6(.841) record in CIC battles. By the end of the day he should have his thirty-third victory in service academy frays and be halfway home to capturing a seventh consecutive Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

       CONFERENCE CALL. It's a quiet week in the MWC with only one league game on tap. San Diego State hosts BYU. The Aztecs have played two games against division 1-AA opponents, but they've also given Ohio State all it could handle in Columbus, so SDS' standing as one of the nation's top defenses may be more an accomplishment of merit rather than a product of smoke and mirrors. BYU is struggling on offense, but is solid on defense. It sounds like the makings of a low-scoring struggle in southern California. Unless of course this is the week one or both teams wakes up on offense. BYU is a one point underdog and my pick in a mild upset.

       UNLV plays instate rival Nevada and the Rebels have enough offense to post a victory and raise their record to 4-1 in advance of a showdown with Air Force next week.

       CSU, which lost a second consecutive home game last week, hosts Fresno State on Saturday. It's hard to imagine a Sonny Lubick team opening a season with a 2-4 record, but that's what the Rams face if they drop this game. Here's one more vote in CSU's behalf. They have the talent to get by the Bulldogs.

       New Mexico steps out of the MWC conference for a game with a truly horrid Utah State bunch. If the Lobos don't coast to a win in this game they've got big problems in store when they return to conference play. New Mexico wins this one.

       In the most interesting game involving an MWC team this week Utah hosts Oregon. The Ducks shut down Michigan's rushing attack--which at that point led the nation--earlier this season and held the Wolverines to negative yards on the ground. The Utes are led by Brandon Warfield, who at this point in the season has shown himself to be the most exceptional RB in the Mountain West Conference. It's no surprise that Oregon is favored--even on the road--in this one. The real surprise awaits Oregon when they find a capable opponent on the floor of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah downed California of the Pac 10 last month in Salt Lake and now tries for another impressive win against a team from that conference. In an upset make it the Utes to beat the Ducks.
     


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