HIGH RISE. If you've been to Las Vegas more than once you likely have a favorite hotel. Go ahead and think of that establishment's name while I tell you how its owners paid for the top twenty, or so, floors to be built. They did it on the backs of the lovable road dog. There is no more hopeless, and yet helpful, creature known to the travel and leisure industry which is Las Vegas.
For those unfamiliar with the road dog, quite simply, it is a team playing on the road which is not favored to win. This kind of forlorn outfit has the inexplicable power to cause people to wager their hard earned money in support of the baseless notion that it will cover the spread in a particular event or, even more preposterously, win a contest on an outright basis. Oh sure, every once in a blue moon a road dog will actually take a bite out of someone's hide, but hotels keep getting taller, grander and more gaudily ornate thanks to ill-considered backing of road dogs near and far.
The Air Force Falcons will undergo a supernatural morphing this weekend when they momentarily shed their avian status in favor of becoming that well-known traveling canine (i.e., road dog). I have verified thirteen betting lines which have AFA as a 4 1/2 point underdog against New Mexico, while a fourteenth line has AFA as a four point road dog. The overriding assessment is clear: Vegas likes UNM to win the game.
THE HISTORICAL VIEW. The skyline of Vegas bears witness to the millions who have bet collective millions in search of a road mutt which will come home without its tail between its hindquarters. Being an underdog--and especially on the road--has not been a happy state of affairs for the AFA Falcons over the past three seasons. Since the start of the 2001 season the Falcons have been an underdog twelve times and have won only four of those games.
In 2001 Oklahoma, BYU, New Mexico, CSU and Hawaii all beat AFA from the favorite's position. That same year AFA upset San Diego and Utah, although there should be an asterisk by the Utah game. The only bets placed on the game were made on the Sunday preceding the game. On the Monday prior to the December 1, 2001, game coach Fisher DeBerry placed twelve players on a one game suspension for having missed a curfew the week before while the team was in Hawaii. Because of the so-called "Dirty Dozen" incident, the game was immediately taken "off the board" in Las Vegas. In essence, if there is no opportunity to bet, then there is no favorite or underdog, but to be charitable to AFA go ahead and credit them with an upset win, albeit one at home and not on the road.
In 2002 AFA again lost to favored CSU and dropped the San Francisco Bowl to a heavily favored Virginia Tech team. Air Force did post back to back road wins as an underdog in beating California and Utah early in the season.
In the current season AFA has lost the only game it has played in which it was the underdog in losing to CSU for a third straight time. Unless there is a seismic shift in the money bet on AFA this week it will enter the game against New Mexico on Saturday as an underdog for the second time this season. In summary, Air Force has not played well in the role of an underdog in the past three seasons in compiling a poor 4-8 record when not being favored to win.
One sliver of optimism for Air Force can be found in the fact that it is 3-5 over that span when made an underdog in conference games, including the Utah game of 2001. AFA is 2-4 in that same time frame as an underdog on the road in MWC games. Air Force is a team in search of a bowl bid and while covering a spread may endear the team to bettors it will in no way assure them receipt of a coveted berth for the postseason.
BACK ON TRACK. Last week's, 31-3, defeat of Army temporarily removed the spotlight's glare from the 1-3 slide in which the Falcons had found themselves mired. AFA football fans are well acquainted with the second half of the season meltdowns which have plagued Fisher DeBerry's teams the past three seasons. The 2001 season closed with a 2-5 thud. The 2002 season crashed to the ground in a 2-5 wreck as well. The Falcons are a less than mediocre 2-3 in their past five games and face struggles with the Lobos and San Diego State to close this regular season. A third straight 2-5 finale to an AFA football season would firmly entrench a most unwelcome trend.
After a two week layoff prior to the Army game it was apparent that the Falcons' offense lacked a killer instinct early in the game. In having to settle for FGs by Joey Ashcroft on their first two scoring drives the Falcons allowed Army to remain a competitive factor in the contest owing to the 6-0 score, which Air Force should have extended to 14-0, thereby ending all suspense as to the game's outcome.
Registering field goals in lieu of touchdowns against the Lobos will hasten a disappointing ending to the day for Air Force. AFA fumbled four times against the Black Knights without losing the ball. That's a piece of luck on which AFA had better not rely when playing New Mexico.
THE FACE LOOKS FAMILIAR. Air Force beat New Mexico, 38-31 in OT, last season in Falcon Stadium. At that point in the season UNM's running attack was ably executed by Quincy Wright. The big back carried 25 times for 145 yards. He took a brief rest at one point in the proceedings and sharp eyed fans may have spied freshman DonTrell Moore as he carried the ball twice for a single yard. The week after the AFA game Wright suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury allowing Moore to ascend to the starting position. He acquitted himself with such distinction as to be named the MWC's freshman of the year. In essence Moore is a back against whom the Falcons are unfamiliar.
In the company of Utah's Brandon Warfield and San Diego State's Lynell Hamilton--both out for the remainder of the season due to injury--Moore helps form the leading triumvirate of running backs in the conference. Moore's 1,097 yards and 5.4 yards per carry average put him slightly ahead of Hamilton (1,087/4.6) in the conference rushing race.
The star of the game for AFA last year, HB Leotis Palmer, ran for 125 yards on fifteen carries--including a 54 yard TD sprint--and completed a 55 yard TD strike to Ricky Amezaga. There were plenty of ebbs and flows in the game, including a block of a John Welsh punt which eventually led to a UNM TD on the ensuing possession, preceding AFA's successful defense of a pass in its own endzone on fourth down in OT to secure the victory.
Air Force has a 6-0 record this season when holding opponents to fewer than twenty-four points. AFA has a 1-3 record when allowing 24 or more points to the opposition. AFA is ill-equipped this year to match offensive haymakers with other teams. New Mexico has an especially explosive offense led by Moore, QB Casey Kelly and an offensive line led by Jason Lenzmeier.
In its past five games UNM has scored 34, 30, 47, 35 and 37 points for a robust average of 36.6 points. Air Force has scored as many as 36 points against a division 1-A team only once this year--and needed a triple overtime game to produce such a total. While the Falcons' defenders have done a creditable job this year in holding opponents to 19.4 points a game, New Mexico may present the single biggest challenge AFA has yet faced. The Lobos strike an adept balance in averaging over 200 yards both on the ground and through the air. On defense the Lobos have held four division 1-A opponents to seventeen or fewer points.
A New Mexico team for which much was forecast in MWC preseason polls is playing its best football of the season at the most opportune time. As a road underdog, AFA's best opportunity to win this game will come from an ability to shorten the game for its defense by executing time-consuming, TD-producing drives. By keeping its defense well rested and on the sideline--and frustrating the UNM offense by keeping it there as well--Fisher's team will maximize its chances to win the game.
CONFERENCE CALL. UNLV has an open date to further consider its 7-0 home loss at the hands of San Diego State a week ago.
The Wyoming Cowboys--winners of two of their past three MWC games, including a shocking upset of CSU in the Border War--travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah. Each team will be well rested as they had byes last week.
Wyo's Joe Glenn and Utah's Urban Meyer are doing the two best coaching jobs in the league this season. Both men have taken programs, dumped by the side of the road and left for dead for their predecessors--Ron McBride and Vic Koenning, and energized them overnight. Utah, already bowl qualified, has the potential to post a 9-2 record this fall (as the Utes are one of the few division 1-A teams playing only 11 games this season). No one expected the Utes to be bowl contenders this year, but Meyer has performed an overhaul, much to everyone's amazement, which seems likely to produce a conference title for Utah.
Joe Glenn's work in Laramie is no less mystifying in its excellence. Consecutive home wins against BYU and CSU are more than the most foolishly optimistic Cowboys' fan would dared to have given voice before the season began. By winning two of its final three games the Cowboys will become bowl qualified, truly a remarkable possibility. The Cowboys will need to get victories against New Mexico and UNLV at home because they won't be getting one this weekend. My pick is Utah.
BYU plays Notre Dame in South Bend. Here's a meeting between two programs whose historic profiles exceed their recent accomplishments. The Irish reacted to last week's, time-expiring, game-winning field goal as though it had clinched a national championship. In fact it raised ND's record to a pathetic 3-6 while helping the Irish avoid their first loss to Navy in forty years.
BYU was last seen being eviscerated, at home, before a national television audience, by Boise State. How the mighty have fallen. The Cougars are 1-4 at home and 3-2 on the road. The folks in South Bend don't like the Cougars any more than fans in MWC cities and towns. ND won't be caught napping for this one. My pick is Notre Dame.
CSU hosts San Diego State. Road losses to Wyoming and UNM in the span of six days eliminated the Rams from the title chase in the MWC. Sonny Lubick's team is now resigning itself to winning enough games to make some bowl committee--any bowl committee--notice it. CSU was unilaterally installed as the preseason favorite to win the MWC title. The thought that the Rams might need to consider spending the Xmas holidays at home never entered anyone's thinking last summer.
San Diego State suffered a devastating injury when its phenomenal freshman RB, Lynell Hamilton, broke his leg in last week's game against UNLV. Hamilton was the runaway leader for this season's Freshman of the Year award in the MWC. Even missing his team's final two games shouldn't preclude him from winning the honor. The Aztecs have won their past two MWC games, but the surge may be too little too late to earn them a bowl bid.
CSU's seniors will play the final home game of their careers this week at Hughes Stadium. The team will give them a fitting farewell. My pick is CSU.
New Mexico hosts Air Force. Utah plays home games against Wyo and BYU the next two weeks and has established itself as the clear front runner to win the MWC championship. Behind the Utes are several teams jockeying for position, wins and the attention of bowl committees with berths to award for postseason play.
The Lobos and Falcons are chief among this group. While a victory will not positively secure an invitation to a bowl game nor a defeat eliminate a team from postseason play, nevertheless that is essentially what is at stake in Albuquerque this Saturday. Air Force has lost its past two games in New Mexico and three of its past four contests when visiting the Lobos.
The last time Air Force played in University Stadium it bore an uncanny resemblance to Air Farce. The Lobos pounded AFA, 52-33, in a game much more putrid than the final score indicates. UNM ran 98 plays and gained 620 yards. The Falcons countered with 46 plays for 278 yards. The word "abused" springs to mind.
The Falcons have a poor record in games when allowing twenty-four or more points to an opponent and UNM's juggernaut is in high gear right now. If AFA can produce time consuming drives which yield points, rests its defense, keeps the Lobos' idled on the bench, shortens the game and lowers the final score, then it can win the game. A high scoring game favors UNM since it has more offensive diversity to utilize. New Mexico is the better team. Too many factors would have to break exactly right for the Falcons to produce an unlikely upset. My pick is New Mexico.