After their customary annual lull in the schedule, the Air Force Falcons are set to return to the field this Saturday when they face the Utah Utes. The victor will remain in thick of the MWC title chase while the loser will be consigned to needing to reset its sights on other goals this season.
ZERO HOUR. Air Force
and Utah stand at 3-1 in MWC play this fall. Neither team's title aspirations
can survive a second loss at this stage of the season. The teams will take the
field in Falcon Stadium seeking answers to questions previously not pondered
Air Force has not played since losing to
Colorado State, 30-20, on October 16th. The Falcons' second and third leading
rushers this year--HBs Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler--missed a portion or
all of the contest versus the Rams. Stephens sustained an injury early in the
game which forced him miss the final quarters of action, while a bout of
tendonitis in his foot prevented Butler from evening making the trip to Fort
Collins for the game. Butler's status for the CSU game was defined as
questionable, but has improved to probable for the Utah game. Stephens is also
listed as probable for the Falcons.
Given the meager production
fullbacks in AFA's option attack this year, QB Chance Harridge's continuing
inability to complete pass patterns of more than modest length, the uncertainty
surrounding the availability of Stephens and Butler and the disappearance of TE
Adam Strecker from the passing game, the Falcons face a considerable challenge
in establishing the consistent means by which they will generate offense against
the Utes. Harridge and speedy HB Matt Ward may be asked to carry the burden of
supplying AFA's production on offense.
Utah's offense faces a dilemma as well in
the absence of its stellar running back, junior, Brandon Warfield. Last year AFA
was unable to contain Warfield as he ran for 193 yards and 3 TDs against the
Falcons in a losing cause. He suffered a sprained collateral ligament in his
knee during the New Mexico game last week and is expected to miss the next 2-3
weeks for the Utes. Freshman Mike Liti should start in Warfield's spot.
POTENT AND POLISHED. Utah QB
Brett Elliott suffered a broken hand in the Texas A & M game, which the Utes
lost, 28-26. To add insult to the injury, it occurred when Utah had closed to
within two points of the Aggies and was running an attempted two point
conversion to send the game into overtime.
two hundred five pound,
sophomore, Alex Smith has been brilliant in leading the Utes' offense as
Elliott's replacement. Smith was a prime component in Utah's five game winning
streak following the loss to Texas A & M. That string ended when New Mexico
topped Utah, 47-35, last weekend. Smith has thrown 171 passes without being
intercepted--a streak which began last season. Among the top 100 rated division
1-A, QBs in passing efficiency during the 2003 season, Smith is the only one not
to have thrown an interception. Additionally, he has completed 12 passes for
Smith, Warfield, WRs Steve Savoy and Paris
Warren along with TE Ben Moa have given Utah the diversity to move the ball
efficiently and effectively on the ground and through the air
this year. Yet,
there is no mistaking the importance Warfield's athleticism and presence have
brought to Utah's attack. The largely untested Liti will need to demonstrate
that he is an able replacement for Warfield or the Utes could see Falcons'
defensive backs blanketing Utah receivers while daring Smith and his offense to
move the ball through the air.
TREND SETTING. Air Force has
won the last three games in this series despite its abject failure to control
Utah's running game. In 2001, Air Force survived, rather than won, a 38-37
decision against Utah after being outgained 543 yards to 274. Utah RBs Dameon Hunter (28-226-2TDs) and Adam Tate (26-140-2TDs) strolled through the AFA
defense seemingly at will. Last year it was Warfield shredding the Falcons'
defense, even though AFA mounted a furious second half rally to steal a, 30-26,
victory. At the time Warfield obliterated AFA last year he was still an unknown
to most of the MWC. AFA fans should hope that Liti--and others--do not
perform in the same manner Hunter, Tate and Warfield have done in the recent
past against Air Force.
While Air Force has lost only two games
this year that pair of defeats has come in the team's last three games. The
team's fans, players and coaches are aware of the second-half-of-the-season,
systemic meltdowns which hurled the 2001 and 2002 campaigns into bitterly
disappointing finales. The losses to Navy and CSU this year share a common
thread. On each occasion the Falcons allowed an opposing back to gain more than
100 yards rushing. Navy's Kyle Eckel authored the best day of his career in
gaining 176 yards on 33 carries and scoring a TD in his team's, 28-25, win. CSU
QB Bradlee Van Pelt ran 17 times for 125 yards and 2 TDs in the Rams', 30-20,
MWC victory two weeks ago.
Against Navy, AFA played from a 5-2
alignment as its base defense, before reverting to its customary 3-3-5 formation
in playing the Rams. In both instances the defensive line was proven to be a
source of scant resistance as Navy picked up 309 yards on the ground while CSU
amassed 320. No, Warfield won't be playing for Utah this weekend, but the Utes
have had three different RBs gain over 100 yards against AFA in the teams' past
two meetings. The Falcons had never faced Warfield before last season and he
sped through AFA's ranks for nearly two hundred yards. If Mike Liti comes
anywhere near duplicating that performance in Warfield's absence it will be along day for Fisher DeBerry's team.
Defensive coordinator Richard Bell and his
staff were unable to slow Navy and CSU's rushing attacks and seemed curiously
slow, or unwilling, to substitute more liberally in an attempt to improve the
team's play. In watching the CSU game in Hughes Stadium it became clear that
AFA's starting LBs were fatigued midway through the third quarter, and still,
only nominal substitutions for cursory amounts of time were made by Bell.
Marchello Graddy, Trevor Hightower and John Rudzinski are playing well as a unit. Graddy's efforts may well have him in line
for postseason recognition on the MWC all conference team. Air Force has
sufficient depth in its LB corps--specifically in the presence of Kenny Smith,
Cameron Hodge and Overton Spence--to warrant giving all three of its starters a
breather during the course of action.
The Falcons not only hold a commanding 13-6
edge in the series with Utah, but have a most impressive 7-2 record in Falcon
Stadium against the Utes. Air Force holds the distinction of being the sole
member of the MWC against whom Utah has a losing record in its football history.
Utah last won at the academy in the 1999 Snow Bowl when WR/KR par excellence,
Stevonne Smith, was responsible for all three TDs registered by his
team--including one on a brilliant punt return on a snow covered field. Since
that game Air Force has won three in a row over Utah, including both games
played in Salt Lake City, but have done so without playing consistently well on
offense throughout any of the games.
AIR SUPPORT. The Falcons have
scored 69 points in their past three games and posted a 1-2 record. Want a stat
that will give you cause for concern? Here it is. In the month of October,
Chance Harridge didn't throw a TD pass.
Over the course of the team's last three
contests, Harridge has completed 15 of 37(40.5%) attempts for 235 yards with
three interceptions and no TDs. Bear in mind that he hasn't thrown a TD pass
since the BYU game. The most recent scoring pass for AFA had HB Joe Schieffer
connecting with WR Alec Messerall on a sixty-nine yard play. It's the longest
pass play of the year for Air Force and Harridge didn't complete it.
Offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen needs
to shelve any plans for Harridge to throw deep patterns and reemphasize the
short to medium length routes on which Harridge has shown a measure of
CONFERENCE CALL. San Diego State does not play this week. BYU plays at home this Thursday evening against
Boise State of the WAC. The Broncos will ride into town led by QB Ryan Dinwiddie, who has thrown just one interception in 279 passing attempts. He has
tossed 18 TD passes and is the ninth rated QB in passing efficiency in division
Last week in beating UNLV, 27-20 in OT, BYU
topped the 18 point mark for only the third time on the season. The Cougars have
held their last two opponents to a combined 33 points and while the defense is
holding its own the offense appears to be in a holding pattern. Boise State
decimated San Jose State, 77-14, on Saturday and is averaging a robust 41.88
points a game--the fourth best figure in the country. The Broncos haven't been
held to fewer than 24 points in a game in 2003. BSU has been strong on defense
as well allowing more than 20 points only twice in eight games.
BYU may represent a step up in the level of
competition BSU has faced this year, but the Broncos have too much offense and
enough defense to win this game. My pick is Boise State.
New Mexico hosts UNLV. The Lobos stumbled
early in the conference season losing a, 10-7, game at home to BYU. From that
point UNM has won four in a row and four of five, with the lone loss coming to
Washington State--currently the sixth ranked team in the nation. Rocky Long has
his team playing in accordance with the lofty preseason expectations thrust upon
John Robinson's Rebels have lost three in a
row, all MWC games, and looked inept in each effort. The crew which went to
Madison on September 13th and beat Wisconsin, 23-5, hasn't been seen in nearly
two months. Playing the role of spoiler won't sell to a bunch of disappointed
and disappointing underachievers. Robinson has a tough assignment on his hands
trying to motivate his team this week.
New Mexico has games with CSU and AFA--both
at home--after the contest with UNLV. If Long and the Lobos can keep their focus
on the job at hand this weekend, there is every reason to believe the fans in
Albuquerque may be in for the most exciting November in the school's history.
The Lobos may suffer a pang or two of overconfidence from the whipping they
meted out to Utah last week, but they'll maintain enough purpose and composure
to beat UNLV. New Mexico is my pick.
Wyoming hosts CSU in the Border War. The
Cowboys came within a TD of posting a three game winning streak last week when
they fell, 25-20, to San Diego State. Joe Glenn has restored a discernible pulse
to the moribund corpse that was Wyoming football under Vic Koenning.
Sonny Lubick brings a gaudy, 22-4, record
in the month of November as CSU's coach, into this weekend's game. Having lost
three of its first five games this season CSU realizes there is little chance of
gaining a toehold in the top twenty-five even if the Rams should win the rest of
their games and top it off with a postseason victory.
Wyo QB Casey Bramlet begins the stretch
drive of his superb career by playing the first of three November games his team
has in War Memorial Stadium in November. Bramlet's ability to throw for three,
four or five hundred yards in a game gives the Cowboys a chance to win any game.
Bradlee Van Pelt and the CSU offense have hit their stride. The Rams were
inspired in their last game a 30-20 victory against AFA on national TV.
The Rams are rested, ready, poised and
prepared to begin their push toward a fourth conference title in five years.
While noting that Bramlet's presence and ability make an upset possible, the
overwhelming evidence points toward CSU being the clear cut favorite in this
latest edition of a heated rivalry. CSU is my pick to win the game.
Air Force hosts Utah. Fisher DeBerry isn't
one to complain about this game's early starting time dictated by television. He
prefers to emphasize the fact that cadets are accustomed to rising early on a
daily basis. What Fisher may be hesitant to recall is the profuse apology he
offered on his postgame radio show immediately following the Falcons' last home,
conference game played at such an early hour. That contest took place in 1999
and saw the New Mexico Lobos so embarrass the Falcons, that DeBerry felt
compelled to spend several minutes apologizing for what he termed the worst
performance a team of his had produced during his long tenure at the academy.
Hopefully there will be no such need for him to do so this Saturday afternoon.
Both teams have significant injuries which
must be addressed. RB Brandon Warfield--the axis upon which the Utes' offense
revolves--will not play against Air Force. The Falcons may miss the services of
HBs Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler, second and third respectively, in yards
gained rushing for AFA in 2003. Moving the ball on offense may be a challenge
complicated not only by injury, but by adverse weather conditions--the forecast is calling for snow and temperatures in the high 20s.
The winner of this game will stay in
contention for, what is turning out to be, a hotly contested MWC title. The
Falcons won a game against Utah two years ago when coach Ron McBride
inexplicably eschewed what would have been a chip shot field goal attempt. Air
Force won the game, 38-37, on a last second tackle by Anthony Schlegel.
Last season Air Force held Utahscoreless
in the second half, registered twenty-four points of its own--including a game
winning TD pass from Chance Harridge to HB Don Clark in the game's final thirty
seconds--and exited Rice-Eccles Stadium a 30-26 victor.
I am not at all convinced that AFA is the
better team as it enters this game. However, I think the manner in which New
Mexico pummeled Utah last week in SLC has undermined the Utes' confidence, even
in the midst of the terrific job Urban Meyer is doing since coming to the
program from Bowling Green.
an open week which
should have helped Air Force more than hurt it, the pending return of
Stephens--the team's most prolific and dangerous inside threat--and the chance
to exorcise the demons of consecutive seasons which have come unraveled in the
second half, will provide Air Force with the scant margin it needs to win the
contest and remain a viable contender for the Mountain West Conference title. My
pick is Air Force.