Its literal translation is, "I know not what." So what's the difference between the between this year's AFA team and its immediate predecessor? Je ne sais quoi, but here are a few avenues worth exploring.
THE OFFENSE. The entire starting offensive line--all six players--returned from last year's team. Entering the tenth game of the season last year--played against Army--the Falcons were averaging 290.6 yards rushing on their way to winning a national rushing title. This year the team is averaging 294 yards a game entering the tenth game of the season--also against Army. The figures show it can't be the running game. Well, let's look elsewhere.
At this point last year AFA was scoring at a 32.8 points per clip a game. This year that figures stands at 30.7. A bit of a dip there, but not cataclysmic by any means.
The first downs stand at 190 last year to 196 this year so the offense has been able to move the ball and seemingly sustain some drives. The passing yardage last year stood at 706 yards as compared to 975 this fall, but the additional thirty yards per game passing has been counterbalanced with the complete disappearance of the tight end in the AFA aerial game. Adam Strecker had caught a pair of TD passes by this point in 2002 and was on his way to hauling in a team-leading four on the year to accompany his team-high 14 catches for the season. In 2003, he stands in a tie for sixth place on the team in receptions and a more remote seventh in receiving yardage. The vanishing TE is surely a possible factor in ascertaining the difference between this year's team and last.
The team's total offense has risen, too. Air Force is averaging 5.32 yards per play as opposed to 5.25 at this same point last year. The Falcons have even run more plays with the scales weighing 680 to 632 in favor of this year's squad.
Here's a possibility. Last year place-kicker Joey Ashcroft was a superb 10 of 11 at this juncture of the campaign. This time around he's a disappointing 7 of 13. What possible difference could that make? Plenty. When faced with a third and long situation--but knowing your PK is having a terrific year--an offensive coordinator might be inclined to be conservative in his selections on third down. Rather than risk losing the ball on a turnover the coordinator might have the offense move the ball into a favorable spot from which to attempt a field goal on fourth down. In the absence of reliability in the kicking game a coordinator might take greater risks on third down knowing that the likelihood of a successful kick is diminished.
Total offense per game is up a healthy measure having increased from 369 yards to 402.3 yards. Still, that certain je ne sais quoi surrounds the hunt for trying to identify what separates this year's team from last year's squad where the offense is concerned.
One intangible which must be noted in any assessment of this year's team is the absence of the lone senior to have started every game on offense for the Falcons in 2002: Leotis Palmer. His departure cannot be measured solely by the need to produce the 559 yards he gained rushing. Darnell Stephens may equal or surpass that total. There is no suitable method to quantify the calming influence and assurance with which Palmer's presence imbued his teammates.
ON DEFENSE. As with the offense, a statistical review of significant figures from this season and last doesn't readily reveal where things may have changed for the Falcons.
In terms of points allowed this year's 21.2 points per game is much in line with 2002's total of 20.3. First downs are up ever so slightly from 163 to 172. Yards per rush is almost unchanged having gone from 3.83 last fall to 3.90 this season. No well-founded conclusions to draw from those data.
The interceptions produced by the defense have risen from 9 last year to 11 in 2003. On the other hand fumble recoveries have dropped from 11 to 6. Still the numbers show twenty turnovers last year and seventeen this year so there's no insight to be drawn from that. And still the search continues for clues.
There has been a marked increase in the proficiency with which AFA's opponents have converted third down situations this year. Last year's defense allowed only a 39% conversion rate while this year that figure has skyrocketed to 47.4%. If you've been waiting for an AFA defense to plunge a team into "three and out" mode this year, your wait has been in vain.
There are two key defenders missing form this year's cast of Air Force characters: LB Anthony Schlegel and Falcon Back Mark Marsh. Each was dually capable of providing run support as well as dropping into pass coverage schemes. While Schlegel may have drawn more attention from media and fans it was Marsh who consistently provided the Falcons' defense with its most punishing and ferocious hits.
The record shows that Air Force suffered two disheartening losses in MWC play last season. The first was in Laramie when the Wyoming Cowboys posted their first conference win since 1999. The second was the home finale against San Diego State. The Aztecs were forced to play that game without their starting QB--Adam Hall--who had suffered a concussion two weeks earlier. Lon Sheriff had little trouble dissecting the Falcons' defense for 29 completions, good for 289 yards, 2TDs and an SDS, 38-34, upset of Air Force. The record will also show that Schlegel started both games for the Falcons and that Mark Marsh missed them due to injury.
Wyoming's Casey Bramlet and a second string SDS quarterback incessantly probed AFA's defense--especially the secondary--and sent the Falcons to a pair of losses in games in which they had been heavily favored.
As well as starting LBs Marchello Graddy, John Rudzinski and Trevor Hightower
have played this year, there has been a stunning lack of timely big hits and
plays in which the defense has swung a game's momentum in favor of Air Force.
Schlegel and Marsh were players
initiating such game turning episodes.
AN ODD MIX. The French have another word: mélange. Its meaning suggests a hodgepodge of incongruous elements. QB Chance Harridge is running less frequently, but averaging more yards per carry. He's thrown more often, completed more passes and amassed more passing yards. The downside is that he's thrown the same number of TD passes even with the increase in pass attempts and of course there has been the complete failure of Strecker and Harridge to recreate the chemistry they displayed in 2002.
The less said about the fullback game the better. In eight games against division 1-A competition this year, the FBs have accounted for but a single TD--a seven yard run by Adam Cole against Wyoming. The combined production from the FB spot--heretofore a staple of the AFA ground based option attack--has surpassed 75 yards only twice in games versus division 1-A foes. Bear in mind Navy's Kyle Eckel, by himself, torched AFA for 176 yards in a single game. Where the FB game used to occupy a prominent spot in the team's game plan it has now become little more than an afterthought.
For years the HBs in the AFA ground attack would be given an opportunity to carry the ball as a means of giving the FBs a breather. Now precisely the opposite is the case. As HBs Stephens, Anthony Butler and Matt Ward go, so go the Falcons.
The Falcons enter the remaining three games of the regular season with a solid 6-3 record and yet there remains that gnawing doubt that but for a big play here, or a defensive stand there, this is a team which could be 8-1. The three point loss to Navy was clearly the season's low point, while the recent three overtime loss to Utah is a classic example of what might have been.
A lack of specificity continues to occlude the vista from which a crystallized
panorama would show
what differentiates this year's Air Force squad from its forebear. The French can be justifiably smug in the knowledge that Air Force fans are struggling to enumerate the elements comprising that certain, je ne sais quoi, enveloping this year's Falcons.
CONFERENCE CALL. Wyoming has an open week in its schedule before resuming action in Salt Lake City versus Utah. Similarly, the Utes will enjoy an opening in their schedule in advance of hosting the Cowboys next week. BYU takes a rest until getting back into action in South Bend, Indiana next weekend against Notre Dame.
On Friday night, the New Mexico Lobos host the Colorado State Rams in Alumni Stadium in Albuquerque. Both teams suffered unexpected defeats last week. The Lobos fell victim to the underachieving UNLV Rebels while the Rams lost the Border War to coach Joe Glenn's resurgent Wyoming Cowboys.
In compiling my preseason forecast of the 2003 MWC schedule, I anticipated that the UNM-CSU game would decide the conference champion on an outright basis. Both teams are frustrated with the 2-2 marks they bring into this game. The teams are seeking a sixth victory on the season which would make them bowl qualified. The winner will gain that watershed victory while the loser will notch its third conference loss and likely be a longshot, at best, where bowl invitations are concerned.
Sonny Lubick and Rocky Long each have squads replete with returning starters from last season. Where expectations are high disappointment can be great. CSU was universally installed as the team to beat in the MWC. All that remains for the Rams is to win as many games as they can to assure themselves they don't spend the holidays at home. I'm not confident in this pick, but nonetheless, it is CSU.
UNLV hosts San Diego State. The Aztecs beat Wyoming two weeks ago to snap a four game losing streak and are coming off an open week. In four road games thus far, SDS has scored 13, 34, 10 and 6 points while posting a 1-3 record away from home.
The Rebels have won three of their last four road games, but have lost their past two home games. The Rebels seemingly can't stand the prosperity of being at home. They beat New Mexico last week in Albuquerque and looked awful the week previous to that when losing to BYU at Sam Boyd Stadium. QB Kurt Nantkes is likely to miss the game, so RBs Dominique Dorsey and Larry Croom will need to step front and center.
A win for the Rebels would make them bowl qualified and send a shiver of excitement up the spine of the Las Vegas Bowl committee which would love to extend a bowl bid to the home town team later this season. A win by the Rebels would also make it exponentially more difficult for the Air Force Falcons to receive a bowl bid this year. San Diego brings with it the league's leading defense and a well established reputation for playing like dogs late in the season when its title hopes have long since vanished. With hesitation, my pick is UNLV.
Air Force hosts Army. Each year there seems to be at least one team that is bowl eligible, qualified and deserving of a bowl bid, which finds itself staying home. While it yet remains to be seen if there will be such a team this year, I make Air Force the leading candidate to be the squad least deserving to be spending the holidays at home. Last week's loss to Utah, coupled with what I expect will be a win by UNLV this weekend, may be the combination of outcomes which sounds a death knell to AFA's postseason plans.
AFA has already lost the inside track to retain possession of the Commander-in-Chief's trophy by losing to Navy. The Falcons remain alive for a MWC title only under the most preposterous set of wins and losses by teams in the conference. The only solace remaining for the team may be to send its seniors off with a victory against Army in the final home game of their careers.
Army's troubles and difficulties have reached legendary proportion as Todd Berry becomes the latest coach unable to get the job done at West Point. The one area in which Army may vex the Falcons is the passing game. QB Zac Dahman is no wizard when it comes to throwing the ball, but Air Force has trouble stopping anything resembling an efficient passing game. Just throwing the ball forty times a game against Air Force may be all that's needed to find some creases in the AFA secondary. Army has little realistic expectation to win in Falcon Stadium where its last success came in 1977.
Army will score enough points to frustrate the Falcons, but Air Force will
handle the Black Knights and post the victory. My pick is Air Force.