Crossroads

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.

AFAFalcon Staff Writer; Chris Field
Chris Field

AFAFalcons 
Staff Writer



       ZERO HOURAir 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 this season.

       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 AFA RB Anthony Buler is back. (AP) of the 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.

       Six footfour,Alex Smith, Utah QB (AP-Horner) 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 TDs.

       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 WR Steve Savoy (AP Horner) 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 quantity Utah's Paris Warren, top  (AP Horner) 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 proficiency.

       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 1-A football.

       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 New Mexico.

       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 Don Clark's winning TD catch against Utah in '02 (AP) 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.

       Warfield's absence,Darnell Stephens is having an outstanding year  (AP) 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.


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