Contenders and Pretenders

Air Force enters the teeth of its Mountain West Conference schedule Thursday night when it travels to Fort Collins to face the CSU Rams. Sixteen days later the Falcons host the Utah Utes, another team in hot pursuit of the conference championship. The outcomes of these two games will thrust Fisher DeBerry's team into one of two roles: league leader or also-ran.

CONFOUNDING. The summer of 2003 found MWC preseason pundits assigning Air Force to its customary lot of participant rather than favorite. Now firmly entrenched in that segment of the year falling between the first hard freeze and the arrival of trick or treaters, the Falcons have disregarded prognostications concerning their autumnal rank in the conference. Fisher's forces have established themselves as a contender for the league title and are preternaturally, if somewhat precariously, perched in first place with the conference's only 3-0 record.

The CSU Rams, after stumbling two weeks in a row at home, lately have righted themselves under Sonny Lubick's leadership and posted two impressive wins in their most recent outings. The Rams dispatched Fresno State, 34-10, and followed that display by dismantling BYU, 58-13, in Provo, subjecting the Cougars to the largest onslaught of points ever tallied by a visiting team. The, 82-23, aggregate score of the Rams' last two games clearly signals the team is no longer suffering from the early season malaise which gripped CSU.

SOLID AND SKILLED. Lubick and DeBerry are perhaps the two most accomplished coaches in the MWC. After coaching 129 games on the CSU sidelines, Sonny brings an 88-41(.682) record into this week's game. After coaching 129 games at AFA, DeBerry's record was 79-49-1(.616). In the intervening 111 games he ahs since coached the Falcons, DeBerry has posted a 76-35(.684), thereby justifying the case that as with fine wine, Fisher has gotten better with age. Both men have become institutions at their respective schools to the extent that their successors will be charged with the dual responsibilities having to win immediately and then improve thereafter.

Over the course of the last decade there have been two irrefutable trends which have descended upon the AFA football program. The first is that Air Force now more than holds its own when playing BYU, having beaten the Cougars five of the past seven times the teams have met. The second is that AFA has experienced a decided downturn in the frequency with which it beats CSU. In the ten games Lubick and DeBerry have coached against one another the Rams have prevailed seven times. In DeBerry's first nine years at the academy his teams topped CSU seven times, including the first six times he faced the Rams. While DeBerry's cumulative record against CSU is 10-9(.526) the effect of his stranglehold over the Rams has dissipated since Lubick's arrival.

Since the start of the 1999 season, CSU has compiled a 39-18(.684) overall record and an astounding 23-7(.766) MWC mark. The Falcons have posted a 35-20(.636) record in all games while going 17-14(.548) in the conference during the same period. The Rams have taken three of four MWC meetings from the Falcons.

FACES AND PLACES. When Miami of Ohio and Utah respectively administered 42-21 and 28-21 defeats of CSU in Hughes Stadium earlier this season, the preseason assessments which all but awarded CSU another MWC title were called into question. When LB Eric Pauly was lost for the season to a knee injury and TE Joel Dreesen suffered an abdominal strain which forced him to the sideline for several games, revisionist assessments of the MWC race abounded.

Adversity has presented the Rams a chance to show the depth of their character and talent pool. Pauly--an all-MWC preseason first team selection this summer--has been missed, but you couldn't tell it by the Rams' performance on defense over the past two games. In limiting Fresno State and BYU to a combined 23 points, CSU has given evidence that it may finally be on the verge of recovering from longtime defensive coordinator Larry Kerr's departure for UCLA at the end of last season. On offense, QB Brad Van Pelt (2,093 yards of total offense), RBs Marcus Houston (8TDs) and Rahsaan Sanders (4.56 yards per carry) along with WRs Chris Pittman (35 catches, 4 TDs), David Anderson (36 receptions, 6 TDs) and Eric Hill (20.18 yards per catch, 2 TDs) have supplied more than enough vitality to keep the Rams' offense productive on the ground and through the air.

The Rams will enter Thursday's game having scored no fewer than twenty-seven points in each of their past five meetings with Air Force. The Falcons have been able to win two of those games, but it's been in spite of their defense, rather than because of it. Defensive coordinator Richard Bell's squad has a formidable task facing it in trying to hold this year's CSU juggernaut to fewer than 27 points.

PERSISTENT. AFA was given a cursory wink and nod in preseason forecasts concerning the team's chances to win its first MWC title having placed third, behind CSU and New Mexico, in the official conference polling. New Mexico's hopes to contend for the title have been lobotomized while the Rams, Falcons and Utah have assumed the uneasy crown of being the teams to beat.

Last Halloween night, Air Force embarrassed itself on national television in falling to CSU by a, 31-12, score. The Falcons were haunted by poor tackling which allowed CSU's RB Cecil Sapp far too many yards after initial contact was made by AFA defenders, a passing game which saw the team complete just three attempts for 29 yards and a lethargic offense which netted a mere 250 yards. The contest was decided well in advance of time expiring from the Falcon Stadium scoreboard clock.

This season's AFA team is characterized as much by the dogged tenacity with which it continues to pursue an elusive first MWC championship as by the modifications which envelop its ground based option attack.

QB Chance Harridge has carried the ball thirty-three percent fewer times this season than at a comparable stage in 2002, while having attempted thirty percent more passes than at a comparable point last fall. The Falcons' fullback game has again fallen into a period of fallow production which helped cause the team to become mired in a three game midseason losing streak a year ago.

Harridge and TE Adam Strecker have not rekindled the effectiveness they exhibited last year when Strecker led the team in receptions and TD catches. With Harridge running the ball less, throwing the ball more, a FB game struggling to exert itself and a TE game which has all but disappeared, CSU may be wondering how Air Force has moved the ball.

As CSU has overcome the challenge of persevering in the absence of two of its best players, Air Force has compiled a 6-1 record this season due in large part to the emerging productivity of its halfbacks and wide receivers. AFA HBs and WRs have scored eleven touchdowns through the team's first seven games. Opponents waiting for the Falcons to pound the ball directly behind its offensive line using only the QB/FB elements of the option attack will find themselves exploited at the perimeter by Darnell Stephens, Anthony Butler and Matt Ward. The trio has rushed for 922 yards, averaging 5.49 yards a carry while scoring 6 TDs. Lest the Rams forget, Chance Harridge is on the verge of crossing the 2,000 yard mark in career rushing yardage for the Falcons. This may be a game in which chance smiles on AFA and allows Harridge to break loose for his most prolific effort of the season. It may help offset the unceraytin status of Butler for Thursday's game due to a bruised foot suffered in the UNLV game.

WR Anthony Park caught one pass for nine yards in last year's game against CSU. That was the full statistical contribution made by Air Force wideout versus the Rams. Park, Alec Messerall and J. P. Waller will need to be a significant factors on Thursday if the Falcons are going to establish the balanced offensive attack they'll need to overcome the Rams' newly adrenalized defense.

LBs Trevor Hightower, Marchello Graddy and Falcon Back Dennis Poland spearhead a defense which has held three MWC opponents to 46 total points. Contrast that figure with the 167 points CSU has registered in its past five games with AFA and you can see that something will have to give at Hughes Stadium on Thursday evening.

Van Pelt will present defensive backfield coach Vic Shealy's players their sternest test since defending Wyoming's Casey Bramlet nearly one month ago. If the Rams repeat their performance against BYU in which they totaled in excess of 200 yards on the ground and through the air, then the Falcons are going to be in for a disappointing time.

Air Force has the nation's best net punting average due to the spectacular performance of Andrew Martin and a coverage unit which has yielded only thirty-four yards in punt returns this season. If the Falcons are forced to punt, their ability to pin CSU in poor field position may provide AFA defenders with the psychological boost they need to enervate the Rams' attack.

CONFERENCE CALL. Immodestly, I will allow myself a brief moment to receive a self-congratulatory pat on the back for having correctly picked nine of ten MWC games over the past two weeks. The only game over which I tripped was Navy's defeat of Air Force on October 4th.

Courage is not the willingness to step out on a limb, but rather demonstrating an unconditional disposition to saw off said limb once having taken residence thereupon. Joe Glenn's Wyoming Cowboys return to Laramie this week fresh from their first win of the season against a division 1-A opponent--Utah State--in Logan last weekend. While the Pokes are a wretched 7-33 since the start of the 1999 season, they may have found some semblance of a rushing game in piling up nearly 250 yards against the Aggies. Casey Bramlet pitched in with yet another game in which he surpassed the 200 yard mark. BYU will hit the road after having surrendered the most points ever allowed by a Cougars' team in Provo. The Cougs have lost three of four and are in a state of disarray and disrepair unparalleled in their football history.

Fire up Black and Decker's sharpest toothed rotary saw and toss it to me up here on this branch. I'm taking the Cowboys to pull the biggest upset of the MWC schedule thus far in 2003 as Wyo gets its first league win since downing AFA last fall and records its first two game winning streak since seemingly the Paul Roach era.

In a game featuring two teams who still harbor thoughts of a capturing a league title this fall, UNLV hosts Utah. Urban Meyer continues to do a superb job of resurrecting a program from the ashes of Ron McBride's failures in Salt Lake City. No one expected the Utes to post wins over California and a then nationally ranked Oregon team. The victories, each of which came in full view of a national television audience, showed Meyer to be a brilliant young coach capable of resuscitating a moribund Utah program in the blink of an eye.

John Robinson's Rebels' outfit has upset a Wisconsin team in Madison after being annihilated by Kansas in Lawrence. Needless to say UNLV is a tough bunch to assess. Its performance against Air Force last weekend was unimpressive on offense and uninspired on defense. UNLV DB Jamaal Brimmer was beaten badly by Joe Schieffer on the game's most pivotal pass play as the Falcons converted a fourth and three situation with a 27 yard completion. The Rebels give every indication of being more sound than fury this year. Meyer's Utes are poised and primed to continue their unanticipated expedition for a conference title and won't be caught unaware by this rebellious crew. The Utes win and go to 3-0 in the MWC race.

The New Mexico Lobos--the darkhorse darlings of MWC preseason polls--suffered a 10-7 loss against BYU in the first MWC game played this year. A loss to Washington State followed by victories against non-conference lightweights New Mexico State and Utah State have had the Lobos biding their time waiting to return to conference action. This weekend they'll head to the West coast to face the San Diego State Aztecs.

The Aztecs, whose three wins include a pair of victories over nonentities Eastern Washington and Samford, have lost three straight contests, including games to BYU and Utah. Annually one of the most talented, but least successful teams in the MWC, SDS is once again clinging dearly to its propensity for underachievement.

UNM RB DonTrell Moore--last season's newcomer of the year--has run for over 100 yards in eight of his fifteen career starts. The Aztecs' Lynell Hamilton--a freshman RB--may be this year's newcomer of the year in the MWC. They may each top 100 yards in this game. The Lobos still have enough talent to beat the Aztecs and hang onto their championships hopes by the narrowest of threads.

In the marquee matchup of the week in the MWC, Colorado State hosts Air Force on national television Thursday night in Hughes Stadium. Sonny Lubick has faced Fisher DeBerry ten times and won seven of the meetings. Everyone expected the Rams to challenge for another conference title this fall while only a handful of observers gave the Falcons a realistic shot to contend for a crown.

Air Force has made judicious use of turnovers generated by its defense, an effective outside attack from its HBs to power its ground game and improved passing from Chance Harridge to mold a 6-1 start to the season and a perfect 3-0 mark in conference play.

I'm reminded of the lyric to "Anything You Can Do" from the Broadway chestnut Annie Get Your Gun. "Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you." It might be a fitting chorus with which one team can serenade the other at game's end on Thursday. The CSU Rams are the team more likely to be breaking into song. My pick is CSU.

A CSU win would throw the MWC race into a three way sprint between CSU, AFA and the Utes with a pivotal game to be played between Utah and Air Force the first day of November. A win by AFA against CSU could set up a showdown for the MWC title in Falcon Stadium when Utah comes to town.

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