Refocusing Priorities

Plowed ground. Charted waters. Familiar territory. Call it what you will. This is a scenario with which Fisher DeBerry and his football teams are well acquainted. The season's midpoint has arrived to find the Falcons brandishing another splendid record. Yet there is well-founded cause for concern as the second half of the schedule beckons from the horizon.

AFAFaclon Staff Writer; Chris Field
Chris Field
AFAFalcons Staff Writer
BRIGHT PROSPECTS. The difficulty for Air Force has not been authoring pristine beginnings to a season, but rather, avoiding the acute systemic breakdowns which have led to unforgivingly cruel denouements through October and November. In the parlance of the horse racing world there is a gifting known as "opening speed," which can power a horse to an early position of strength. Devotees of the horse track are also familiar with "closing speed," an equine trait which can atone for a multitude of errant strides in the early portions of a race. Recently it has been a commodity little seen by Falconatics and seldom exhibited by AFA football teams throughout the course of a season's second half.

Now in his twentieth season as head coach of the Air Force Falcons, Fisher DeBerry has led his teams to 5-1 starts on seven occasions, with this year's team being the most recent to produce such a glorious beginning to a fall campaign.

The 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1998 and 2000 seasons all began with momentum-filled breaks from the starting blocks. Only in 1986 did the Falcons not earn a bowl bid after setting such a breakneck pace over the first half of its schedule. While there is reason for optimism surrounding this year's squad, well-weathered fans of the team are aware that recent seasons have crashed and burned in what seemed less than a moment's notice.

IS THE PAST INDEED PRELUDE?Carlyle Holiday of Notre Dame has big run in '02 (AP) An examination of DeBerry's first nineteen years on the job shows, that over the final six games of the regular season, the Falcons have posted a .500 or better mark on thirteen occasions. Only six times have the Falcons folded badly over the course of the second half of the schedule. It is noteworthy that three of those six faltering finishes have occurred in the last four years, including each of the past two seasons. In 2001, Air Force began the season 4-2, only to limp home with a 2-4 record over the second half of the season and that mark included a miraculous last-play-of-the-game finish to secure a victory Cecil Sapp scores in last year's game (AP) against Utah. In 2002, the Falcons exceeded all expectations when they began the year reeling off six straight victories and soaring to fifteenth place in one national poll. That auspicious start devolved into a 2-4 finish, (2-5 when including a bowl defeat to Virginia Tech), pockmarked by a three game swoon to Notre Dame, Wyoming and Colorado State to open the season's second half.

There was reason for optimism when the 2001 and 2002 squads fashioned strong first half records, just as there is well-founded optimism surrounding the prospect for success with the current team.

Rudzinski chases Bramlet in '02 (AP)

Over the first half of the 2001 season, Air Force gained 408.67 yards a game while allowing opponents 434.5 yards. The second half of that season saw AFA's production slip to 375.67 yards a game while opponents gained 471 a contest. The Falcons outscored their opponents 28.5 to 26.5 in the first half of the season before being outscored 37.83 to 27.67 over the final half dozen games.

The 2002 season saw similar downturns in every category for the Falcons. In posting a 6-0 start, AFA outgained its opposition 414.33 to 303 yards a game and outscored them 37.83 to 16.5. Over the final half of the regular season the Falcons' offensive production fell to 395.33 yards while its defense yielded yards at a clip of 411.5 a game. AFA scoring dropped to 30.66 points a game while the opposition scored 29.83 points a game.

Once again this season DeBerry's team has started impressively. The Falcons have outgained their first six opponents 417.5 to 334.16 yards per game while besting them on the scoreboard 32 to 17.67. Whether DeBerry and his team can avoid the pratfalls they have taken during the second half of each of the last two seasons, will determine the team's ability to remain a contender for a conference title, become bowl qualified, earn a bowl bid and regain entry to the top twenty-five rankings, to which they were so briefly introduced earlier this autumn.

SYSTEMIC SHOCK. DeBerry ambled into the current season with a gaudy, 32-6, lifetime record in Commander-in Chief's trophy games, a twelve game winning streak against the Falcons' academy brethren and intent on capturing a seventh consecutive CIC title. Unexpected defeat injects gnawing doubt into a thought process wherein confidence had once reigned unassailable. Yet the unanticipated loss to Navy may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Falcons and many of their fans.

Fisher DeBerry tells anyone who will listen to him long enough that each year his goals--in order--for the team are: to win the CIC trophy, capture a conference championship and earn a bowl bid and bowl game victory in the postseason. All are admirable aims. They are not necessarily shared by all AFA football fans.

There are two separate and distinct groups of fans where AFA football is concerned and never the twain shall meet. The first group is comprised of cadets currently enrolled at the academy and the alumni who have graduated from the school. It's understandable that for these fans wins over Army and Navy might be of paramount importance. Plain old civilians, who didn't spend four years at the academy, cannot know the passion with which such victories are held by the geographically far flung, current and former officers who graduated from the Air Force Academy.

The second group is peopled by the financial lifeblood of any intercollegiate football or athletic program--the season ticket buying public--and casual fans of Falcons' football who may attend games with only sporadic frequency. The members of this group are more heartened by a win for the first time in Fisher DeBerry's career in Provo than by yet another stupefyingly, stultifying, twenty-point drubbing of this or that military rival.

It's a pointless exercise to attempt to have either group embrace, partially or fully, the other's intractable, intransigent view. One holds to the timeless treasure, unearthed during the halcyon days of collegiate youth, of supremacy in service academy rivalries, while the other clasps tightly to the successes achieved in other competitive, gridiron realms.

Given AFA's steady record of success over the past two decades it's disingenuous of DeBerry to continue proclaiming that the foremost goal of the football program is to maintain its mastery of two teams--Army and Navy--which clearly have not kept pace on a competitive level with the Falcons. Titularly, Army and Navy have remained, and will remain, AFA's chief rivals. Competitively speaking, they have not held that role for quite some time. Within the context of the Mountain West Conference, Brigham Young and Colorado State immediately spring to mind as competitive rivals for Air Force. Victories over Army and Navy--thirty-two in DeBerry's thirty-nine CIC frays--may play well among far flung grads and brass scattered throughout the world, but bullying programs widely perceived to be have-nots on the division 1-A football landscape does nothing to raise the Falcons' profile, nor that of the MWC to which it belongs. Pollsters are not impressed by landslide victories over what they perceive to be hapless competition, nor will bowl committees be so impressed by such feats that they will summarily extend a postseason invitation to the Falcons.

A SILVER LINING. AFA fans may scratch their heads trying to discern the possible good which can spring from a loss to Navy in the 2003 season. There are several possible benefits which may arise from this seemingly untimely upset. DeBerry and his squad no longer have singular control over retention of the CIC trophy for a seventh consecutive year. Navy can win its first outright CIC title since 1981 by defeating Army in two months' time.

Air Force was curtly dismissed from its short-lived stay in the top twenty-five polls and will not likely darken the doorway of such elite environs, until and unless, it authors a winning streak of several games beginning with its meeting against the UNLV Rebels this weekend. Air Force can now concentrate its time and energies on capturing its first conference championship since 1998 and its initial title since the inception of the MWC.

The Falcons are the first team to have posted a 2-0 record in MWC play this fall and return to Falcon Stadium for the first time in three weeks when they face John Robinson's UNLV team. A win versus the Rebels would move Air Force to 3-0 and establish it as the team to beat as the race for the MWC title begins in earnest.

Fisher DeBerry and his staff Graddy tackles CSU QB in '02 game (AP) may already be mulling over preparations for the team's Thursday, October 16th game with the CSU Rams in Fort Collins. The Rams and Falcons meet next week in their annual battle on national television. After that encounter the Falcons will have a two week respite before hosting the Utah Utes, easily the most pleasant surprise in the Mountain West Conference this season. Under Urban Meyer the Utes have used victories on national television against California and a then nationally ranked Oregon Ducks' team, to ensconce themselves on the periphery of a top twenty-five ranking.

A victory over a capable UNLV team, coupled with another win and an impressive performance on national television against Sonny Lubick's CSU team, followed by a defeat of what could be a nationally ranked Utah team in early November, would position Air Force at 8-1 on the season. Moreover, such a three game stint would boost AFA's record in the conference to 5-0, keep the team in first place in the MWC in advance of a two game road trip to New Mexico and San Diego which will close the Falcons' regular season schedule, likely propel the Falcons back to the lower rungs of the national polls and mark the team as being bowl qualified for the coming postseason.

Just as AFA supporters have had to bemoan a surfeit of defeats inflicted by BYU over the past twenty years, so too, has there been a paucity of conference championships over which those same fans have exulted. Air Force has an opportunity to realize its first MWC title in 2003. The Falcons' ongoing effort in the next two months to capture that elusive title could serve as a means of rallying the unified support of its diverse and divergent fans.

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