The Final Chapter

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.

AFAFalcon Staff Writer; Chris Field
Chris Field

Staff Writer

ANY SORT. 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 conference finale.

       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 game.

       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 1994.

       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 Halfback Lynell Hamilton Vs. UCLA  (AP)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.

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