The Air Force Falcons close their 2003 regular season schedule this Saturday evening in San Diego against the Aztecs. Ever the optimist, coach Fisher DeBerry is valiantly preparing his team to earn one more win in the hopes of securing a bowl bid that is unlikely to be forthcoming.
During a second half of the season in which victories, moral, Pyrrhic or
otherwise, have been in too short supply, the AFA Falcons take flight for the
West Coast to face the San Diego State Aztecs. The game will be widely assessed
as a contest matching a pair of MWC also-rans playing out the string, and while
it's hard to disengage people from that point of view, there are substantive
victories waiting to be earned by the Falcons within the framework of their
An Air Force win would give DeBerry his twelfth season in twenty years
with at least eight victories. A win would close a tenth consecutive season in
which the Falcons have won at least fifty percent of their games. A victory
would raise AFA's five year mark in the MWC to 18-17 rather than 17-18 should it
lose. Viewed in the light of the lofty expectations many fans held for this
year's team, these achievements might serve only as minor consolation.
WHAT WENT WRONG? AFA fans have voiced as many complaints
about the performance of the current defense as any single element of this
year's team. Fisher DeBerry's litmus test for the viability of a defense remains
the number of points it yields per game. Assuming SDS scores 30 or fewer points
on Saturday it will mark the completion of the first season since 1997 in which
the defense has not yielded thirty or more points in a game during an entire
campaign. (Remember, when Utah beat AFA earlier this month, the score at the end
of four quarters was 23-23. Overtime in college football is initiated with
defenses placed with their backs against a wall as the opposition starts with
the ball a mere twenty-five yards from the endzone.)
The notion that the defense has underachieved this season simply doesn't
withstand scrutiny. By holding all previous eleven opponents to 30 or fewer
points this season the Falcons' defense kept the AFA offense in position to
challenge for victories on a weekly basis. In games against division 1-A
competition Air Force has neither produced nor suffered a rout.
If an accusatory finger is to be pointed it would be in the direction of
the offense. Apart from a twenty-one point, second quarter outburst against
North Texas in the third week of the season, there has been no avalanche of
points scored by the AFA offense, which in essence, would have relieved pressure
from the defense for the duration of any particular contest.
In truth neither the offense nor defense ever
developed the ability to deliver a lethal blow to an opponent.
Last year's offense scored 12 TDs via the passing game. This year's
group--almost identical in personnel--has scored only eight. AFA has not scored
a passing TD in its last two games. AFA's most recent TD pass came in OT versus
Utah. The last time Chance Harridge completed a TD pass in regulation play came
on September 27 when he connected with J. P. Waller against BYU for what proved
to be the game's winning points. That was in the season's fifth
The Falcons' ability to use their passing game to decimate an opposing
team has been vague innuendo rather than executed threat.
The defense has been parsimonious in allowing points to the opposition
and miserly in providing the AFA offense with advantageous field position. The
defense is not solely charged with the responsibility of winning a game, however
the ability to produce a timely fumble recovery or interception as well as limit
the opposing team's offense to a "three and out" possession never became part of
this defensive unit's stock in trade.
Had the offense been more robust, particularly in the passing game, and
the defense more timely in its ability to deliver a game altering swing in
momentum, narrow defeats to Navy and Utah might have fallen the Falcons' way.
MILESTONES. Chance Harridge has an opportunity to top the
1,000 yard rushing mark by gaining 121 yards against the Aztecs. He scorched
them for 121 yards and 3 TDs in last season's 38-34 loss. Harridge can also
reach the 1,000 yard plateau in passing by throwing for seventy yards. last
weekend he joined Dee Dowis and Beau Morgan as the only QBs in AFA history to
throw and run for more than 2000 yards in a career.
By gaining 53 yards HB Darnell Stephens would reach the 600 yard mark for
the season making him the first at the position to net that much yardage in ten
years. Jake Campbell was the last AFA HB to top six hundred yards doing so in
Anthony Butler needs a mere 17 yards to reach the 400 yard mark for the
season. He and Stephens each surpassed the one thousand yard mark in career
rushing earlier this fall.
Sophomore Matt Ward is only twenty-nine yards short of the four hundred
yard mark on the year. By gaining ten yards, senior Joe Schieffer would become
the ninth Falcons' player to gain at least one hundred yards on the ground for
the season. When Air Force won the division 1-A rushing title in 2002 it had
only eight players who gained at least 100 yards rushing for the season.
If the team can net 424 yards rushing it will finish the season averaging
exactly 300 yards a game on the ground.
CONFERENCE CALL. For the final time in the 2003 season all
eight MWC teams will be in action in conference play. After this week's games
only the UNLV at Wyoming contest will remain to be played. That one is scheduled
for play in Laramie two days after Thanksgiving.
Wyoming hosts New Mexico. Joe Glenn has done wonders for the Cowboys'
program in his first year on the job. The good news for Pokes' fans is that
Glenn has turned the team from being confused to contenders on a weekly basis.
The bad news is that he has done such an outstanding job that the native
Nebraskan continues to be at or near the top of the list of speculative
candidates to replace Frank Solich in Lincoln if the Cornhuskers look for
another coach. If you think it's laughable that Nebraska would look toward
Wyoming for a head coach please recall that Nebraska's success is not a bequest
from Tom Osborne, but rather Bob Devaney. He became NU's head coach immediately
after leaving Laramie and the Wyo job.
UNM's HB DonTrell Moore was prolific against Air Force last week. Moore
established a New Mexico career record for TDs with 35, breaking the previous
mark of 34 held by Stoney Case. Moore has yet to complete his sophomore season
for the Lobos. The Lobos have an able QB in Casey Kelly who throws efficiently
if not spectacularly.
The Lobos became bowl qualified last weekend and will be intent on
maintaining momentum in advance of receiving the bowl bid which should be headed
their way momentarily. With Moore running the ball--ably assisted by Kelly on
the ground and occasionally through the air--the Lobos have the ability to
consume chunks of time from the clock before allowing the other team a chance to
run a play. Don't feel sorry for Wyoming senior quarterback Casey Bramlet as he
and his teammates will get a fond farewell next weekend when they host UNLV. My
pick in this week's game is New Mexico.
UNLV hosts CSU. The Rams may be the only team more disappointed at the
results they've posted in the MWC this fall than the Falcons. The consensus pick
to win yet another league title in preseason polls, CSU stumbled badly early in
the season. The departure of longtime defensive coordinator Larry Kerr at the
end of last season to UCLA, proved to be a hurdle the Rams couldn't surmount.
Unanticipated losses at home to Utah and on the road to Wyoming undermined any
hope CSU had to repeat its league title from the 2002 season.
UNLV remembers that it ventured into Fort Collins last year and dealt the
Rams a shocking defeat on the final weekend of regular season play. The Rams
followed that defeat with a Liberty Bowl loss to TCU and since losing to UNLV
last fall are 6-7 in thirteen contests. Sonny Lubick, Bradlee Van Pelt, the
seniors and every player still on the CSU squad from last year's stunner at the
hands of the UNLV Rebels remembers the defeat.
John Robinson's bunch is 1-4 in its past five games, has lost three
straight at home and compiled a miserable 2-3 mark in Sam Boyd Stadium in 2003.
After beginning the season with a solid 4-1 record the Vegasonians are likely
looking at losses this weekend and next and a 1-6 finish to the season. Time to
head to the slot machines everyone!!
Yes, UNLV still has a chance to become bowl qualified and eke out a bid
from the hometown Las Vegas Bowl. Don't hold your breath waiting for it to
happen. The CSU Rams will exact a long overdue measure of revenge for last
year's embarrassment. My pick is Colorado State.
BYU hosts Utah. The good news for the Cougars is that they are the home
team in this year's game. The bad news is that BYU is 1-4 at home this season
and has not posted a victory in Lavell Edwards Stadium since August--when it
beat Georgia Tech.
Nothing has gone right for BYU this season and I can't think of any
reason why that should, or will, change at this point. Utah has received an
unconscionably outstanding coaching effort from Urban Meyer in his first year in
Salt Lake City. Fans were only mildly impressed when Meyer's Utes beat
California at home on national TV before September had reached its midpoint. Now
that the Golden Bears are the only team to have defeated Southern Cal this
season the Utes' triumph has taken on additional luster.
The Utes lost a QB--Brett Elliott, a RB--Brandon Warfield, but never a
beat. Utah has won seven of eight games with only a loss to New Mexico marring
that impressive run. Warfield's knee injury has healed to the point of allowing
him to return to the lineup for this weekend's game. A win will give Utah a
conference title and a likely entry into the top twenty-five of one or more of
the nation's polls as the team celebrates Thanksgiving and gratefully considers
to which bowl it will be going.
The Utes and Stanford are the only division1-A teams which opted to play
11 games this season--a year in which it was permissible to play 12 regular
season contests. In amassing their ninth win of the season the Utes will trail
only a handful of teams around the country in number of victories and will have
played fewer games than all of the teams ahead of them in total victories.
Meyer, his staff and team are to be congratulated for producing a memorable year
for Utah football fans. My pick is Utah.
San Diego State hosts Air Force. When I wrote a preseason column
detailing what I thought would happen to the Falcons on a game by game basis I
penned the idea that AFA could very well go 9-3 or 8-4 and not
play in a bowl game this postseason.
Each year there seems to be at least one bowl eligible and qualified team
which winds up spending the holidays at home. Before you say AFA is in the
process of being robbed, consider that Northern Illinois--a team which this
season has spent more time within the top twenty-five than outside of same--may
beat Eastern Michigan this weekend finish the year at 10-2 and spend the bowl
season as a spectator instead of a participant. Say what you will about the MAC
because the very same things are said of the MWC. The MAC is the stronger
conference this fall and NIU's absence from the bowl parade would be more
egregious than AFA's exclusion.
Losses by a combined five points to Navy and Utah are part of what has
banished Air Force from the cozy confines of a 9-2 record entering the Aztecs'
game. This year's Air Force team has no distinguishing strengths just as it has
no glaring weaknesses. It is neither the strongest nor weakest squad Fisher
DeBerry has coached in his twenty years at the academy.
Even before sensational freshman halfback Lynell Hamilton suffered a
season ending broken leg against UNLV, the Aztecs were hard pressed to score
points. SDS will enter the game on Saturday night having scored in double digits
only one time in its past five games. Not only is Hamilton done for the year,
but so is QB Adam Hall. The Falcons should be wary of Hall's absence. He
suffered a concussion late last season and was replaced by Lon Sheriff for the
game in Falcon Stadium which the Aztecs won, 38-34.
A low scoring game favors the Falcons since they have a poor 12-18 record
in their past thirty games when allowing twenty-four or more points to the
opposition. Even though San Diego State has struggled to score in recent weeks
it has managed to win two of its past three games, including a 7-0 road win
versus UNLV. In its three wins against division 1-A competition this fall SDS
has totaled only sixty-six points.
Don't expect a cascade of points from either team in this affair. SDS is
playing out the string in yet another season in which high expectations have
been met with underachievement. After losing to UNM last weekend Fisher DeBerry
instructed his coaches that there would be no mention of the phrase "bowl game"
while preparing for SDS this week. Ironically, DeBerry has spoken freely and
openly in newspapers this week about the faint hopes he continues to harbor in
terms of the appeal an eight win Air Force squad would carry among bowl
committees. Fisher's enthusiasm would enable him to sell ice to Eskimos, but it
won't persuade a bowl committee that this year's Falcons' team merits an
invitation to the postseason.
The Falcons' Christmas stocking will house a lump of coal in lieu of a
bowl invitation. Air Force won't be the best team in division 1-A
without a bowl bid this year, merely among the best. Air Force
will find a way to defeat San Diego State, but have time at home during the
holidays to ponder what postseason treat would have arrived for them had they
beaten Navy and/or Utah.