Betwixt and Between

The Air Force Falcons bring their 2003 regular football season--and perhaps their entire season--to a close this weekend when they play the San Diego State Aztecs. Fisher DeBerry's team is traversing a slippery slope which has seen the squad drop four of its past six games. It's a late season scenario which is becoming alarmingly, too familiar.

AFAFalcon Staff Writer; Chris Field
Chris Field

AFAFalcons 
Staff Writer

CONFLICTING ENTITIES. Two of life's competing forces are optimism and pessimism. Some people feel there is no more constructive energy than theF emboldening confidence emanating from optimism, nor any more destructive force than the negativity oozing from pessimism. Others feel that optimism turns a blind eye to reality, while pessimism fails to give credible weight to possibility. As individual AFA fans make their lasting assessments by which they will remember this season's team, they will be in position to decide whether optimism or pessimism will shape and shade, forge and found their thinking. There are events from this season on which the pessimist will dwell, just as there are hopeful and heartening episodes toward which the optimist will be drawn.

       Bearing all this in mind, and depending on your point of view, here then are some highlights/lowlights which may assist you in reaching any conclusion you may make regarding the 2003 Falcons' team.

       POINT/COUNTERPOINT. The optimist will say: by defeating SDS this weekend the Falcons will compile an 8-4 record on the regular season, the tenth consecutive season in which AFA has finished at or above .500. A victory over the Aztecs would mean DeBerry has authored 17 winning seasons, and another in which his team went .500, while having only two losing seasons after two full decades as the team's head coach.

       The pessimist will say: A loss this weekend will consign the Falcons to a third straight season in which the team compiled a 2-5 record over the course of the final seven games of play. The record would show that during three consecutive late season swoons the Falcons' combined record was 6-15(.285). In posting that meager win total the AFA Falcons had gone 3-0 against Army, 2-1 versus UNLV while going
1-14(.066) against all others.

       The optimist: By beating SDS this week the Falcons will raise their composite MWC record to 18-17--fifth best among MWC teams since the inception of the conference--and will have winning records against BYU, UNLV, Utah, SDS and Wyoming over the first five years of MWC play. Only CSU (4-1) and UNM (4-1) will have winning marks against the Falcons in MWC play.

       The pessimist: A loss to SDS will drop AFA's overall record in their three late season slides to 6-15; 2-9 on the road; 4-5 at home; 0-1 at neutral sites; 2-4 in home conference games; 1-7 in road conference games and 3-11 in overall conference games during the slide. A loss will further demonstrate that whether at home or on the road late in the season Air Force cannot and does not win.

       The optimist: The game against the Aztecs gives the offense one more chance to unleash a fury which hasn't yet erupted this season. After being held to twelve points and 158 yards rushing, Chance Harridge, the HBs and the TE Adam Strecker & HB Joe Schieffer celebrate (AP)rediscovered Adam Strecker at tight end are primed to finish the regular season on a high note in an attempt to earn a bowl bid. Harridge became only the third QB in AFA history to surpass the 2,000 yard mark in career passing and rushing when he threw for 115 yards against the Lobos this past weekend.

       The pessimist: The game versus SDS is the final stop for the Falcons before they go home for the holidays. The offense hasn't scored forty points in regulation against a division 1-A team. To project that the Falcons will do so against a team which has played solid defense all season is ill-advised. In fact, this will be the first season since 1999 when Fisher's team hasn't scored forty points at least once during the season against a division 1-A team. This year's offense was a bomb which ticked, but never detonated.

       The optimist: The UNM game was the first game all season in which there was an abject failure on the part of the HBs to be HB Joe Schieffer catches pass in New Mexico game (AP)productive running the ball on the perimeter of an opposing defense. Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens, Matt Ward and Joe Schieffer combined for only 15 yards. That won't happen again.

       The pessimist: Okay, the HBs may well bounce back and be productive against SDS. The fullback game has been next to nonexistent for most of this fall. What's happened to what was once the bedrock of AFA's ground based option attack--the fullback position? The same offensive line which blocks for the HBs is blocking for the FBs. One group has done its job the other clearly has not.

       The optimist: A victory on the road against San Diego State this Saturday will even AFA's record for November at 2-2. It will further enhance the Falcons' appeal as a team worthy of a bowl bid, especially if some conference cannot provide teams for all the bowls with which it has affiliations. That scenario hit home for the MWC last year with the Seattle Bowl.

       The pessimist: A loss against SDS will drop the Falcons' aggregate record for the month of November over the past three seasons to 5-6. Coach DeBerry was quoted in Colorado and New Mexico newspapers last week before the UNM game saying, "It's not so much where you start the season, but where you end up." Hard to argue with you coach....and where this team has ended the past three seasons, due to faltering finishes, is on the ropes.

       The optimist: Under the leadership of Chance Harridge this offense is capable of executing well-crafted, touchdown drives at any point in a game. Not only that, but with Lynell Hamilton--the Aztecs' outstanding freshman halfback out for the year with a broken leg--the Aztecs are vulnerable to a team with as versatile an offense as the Falcons have.

       The pessimist: The last time the Falcons faced a team without a key running back was earlier this month when Utah came calling. Brandon Warfield missed that game and coach Urban Meyer put Ben Moa--a tight end for goodness sakes!!--in the backfield and he scored three TDs for the Utes. Yeah boy, the Falcons really ate up the Utes in Warfield's absence.

       The optimist: Tackle Blane Neufeld missed the New Mexico game because of the flu, but he'll be back in the lineup for the San Diego State game. Air Force lost the home finale to the Aztecs last year and is intent on repaying SDS for that. WRs Kassim Osgood and J. R. Tolver who combined for 25 receptions and 249 yards are long gone. The defense this year has been solid and kept the Falcons in every game. CSU is the only team to have scored as many as 30 points in regulation against AFA this year. That kind of performance gives AFA an opportunity to win every week.

       The pessimist: It's a stroke of luck for Fisher's team that Hamilton won't play for the Aztecs. He'd eat this defense alive. Look at the four losses Air Force has suffered this season. Navy's Kyle Eckel ran for 176 yards and 1 TD. CSU's Bradlee Van Pelt ran for 125 yards and 2 TDs. Last week DonTrell Moore toyed with the defense and ran for 188 yards and 2 TDs. 

       The optimist: The defense this year has seen the emergence of a solid hitter Dennis Poland has played well his Sophomore year (AP)in Dennis Poland, at one Falcon Back spot, around whom the secondary can be built for the next two seasons. He and Nate Allen have done outstanding jobs this season and will continue to anchor the secondary in 2004. LB John Rudzinski is as
tenacious a player on the inside as you'll find in the MWC. Linemen Russ Mitscherling and Ryan Carter have played well and extensively throughout the season. Falcon Back John Taibi struggled with a groin injury for several weeks, finally seems to be recovered and has the size, speed, strength and agility to be a solid player on defense next year.

       The pessimist: This year's team will graduate eight defensive starters. As a sophomore, Poland has the right to withdraw from the academy at any point before the start of his junior year. Recent off-seasons for the AFA football team haven't necessarily been the smoothest periods of transition. The mention of the names Mark Marsh and Anthony Schlegel should establish that point with painful clarity. The current scuttlebutt regarding a possible reclassification of AFA athletic teams down from their current division 1 status may hasten departures of underclassmen rather than assure their continuing enrollment.

       The optimist: The Falcons have already had one game this year in which they rushed for in excess of 400 yards (441 versus Wyoming). If AFA can run for 424 net yards against the Aztecs this week they'll wind up averaging exactly 300 yards a game for the twelve game season. Harridge, Stephens, Butler, Schieffer, Ward, Adam Cole, Dan Shaffer and Steve Massie give the ground attack more than enough energy and ability to accomplish that feat. The offensive line has played well from start to finish this year.

       The pessimist: Good luck to the AFA ground game because Aztecs may be extinct, but when it comes to defending the run they are very much alive and well. SDS is allowing less than 125 yards a game on the ground this year. UNM had one of the best run defenses in the nation and pulled the plug on the Falcons' rushing attack last Saturday. Confidence may be in short supply for AFA's offense right now. Talk about a bleak picture.

      The optimist: A bleak picture you say? Let me recall a bleak picture if I may. At the end of the 2001 season the entire offensive line: Ben Miller, Brian Strock, Matt Mai (and Paul Cancino at center), Matt Joseph, Joe Pugh and Kevin Runyon all graduated. Not only that, but so did starting FB James Burns and QB Keith Boyea. The 2002 offense featured an entirely new line, QB and FB. Adam Strecker, Blane Neufeld, Brett Huyser, Wayne Southam (and John Peel at center), Jesse Underbakke and Brett Waller were up front with Chance Harridge at QB and Leotis Palmer leading the way at halfback. That crew was accomplished to such an extent that it won the division 1-A rushing crown.
            
       There was absolutely no rational cause for optimism at the outset of the 2002 season, but the team displayed its determination and character, and by the campaign's end won a rushing title. This SDS defense can't be that impenetrable because AFA sliced through it for 413 yards last season. AFA fans will be chagrined
by the graduation of this offensive line, but aware that Fisher's teams have always found ways to run the ball effectively.

       IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS. As always, the choice of assessing a team's performance in a given season is personal and yours alone to make. You can bemoan losses to Navy and Utah thinking they are ones which somehow "got away." That would be to denigrate the efforts of two teams having exceptional years, but it's your right to do so. You can applaud the efforts of Chance Harridge--who will end his playing career at AFA as the program's fourth all-time leading rusher--or you can bemoan his inability to become a gifted downfield passer.

       A victory against San Diego State will yield the Falcons their sixteenth win in their past 25 contests and a 64% winning mark over the 2002 & 2003 seasons. Even a loss would keep the Falcons' two year record at 15-10 and give them a 60% winning ledger over the past two seasons. Before being unjustifiably harsh in your evaluation of the this year's AFA team bear in mind that Alabama, BYU, Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, Syracuse, Texas A & M, and Washington--all schools with storied football histories--are among the division 1-A programs which will finish with fewer wins than Air Force this fall.


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