Campaigning for a Title

In 1888, Ernest Lawrence Thayer cautioned fans of a particular baseball team that, "The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day." The AFA Falcons have had each of the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons crash land with five losses over their final seven games. ~Take a look at our prognostications and see how they line up with yours.~

 
 Spring football practice this year saw the team suffer a devastating injury to quarterback candidate Adam Fitch and a rash of mishaps which forced the suspension of drills. An alleged steroid abuse episode rocked the team leading to court-martial proceedings for two players. Pre-season polls have dismissed the team as little more than an afterthought in the 2004 MWC campaign.  It could be Thayer was on to something with his conjecture.
 
FLUX.  Every member of last season's starting offensive line has graduated and when the Falcons take the field on opening day this fall, they will do so with a line peopled by players who have a total of zero starts in division 1-A football among them.
 
Andy Gray may be the starting QB for Fisher DeBerry's option based ground attack, but is returning to competitive football after serving a religious mission of two years' length. If Gray doesn't win the job it could go to freshman Shaun Carney or sophomore Luke Ewing. The only certainty surrounding the ongoing audition to identify the player who will lead AFA's offense is that the opening day QB for the Falcons in 2004 will be making the first start of his career at the varsity level.
 
The athletic director's position, manned so ably by Colonel Randy Spetman--now holding the same position at Utah State--has finally been filled by Dr. Hans J. Mueh.
 
Enveloping all these factors is the academy's newly instituted Agenda for Change and an uncertainty as to precisely what extent it will impact any and all AFA intercollegiate athletic teams. As the onset of the 2004 slate of games approaches, Falcons' players, coaches, fans and alumni find themselves casting a collective gaze over a largely uncharted vista. In spite of all the unknowns shrouding the 2004 Falcons' team here's an intrepid look at the games in the first half of the season.
 
California @ Air Force 9/4. The Falcons had better be loaded for bear Cal coach Jeff Tedfordbecause California certainly is. Preseason speculation raises the question of Cal's ability to crack the nation's top ten. If a publication doesn't have coach Jeff Tedford's team in its top ten it does have them in its top twenty-five.
 
Cal handed Southern Cal--a co-defending national champion entering 2004, along with LSU--its only defeat in 2003 when it downed the Trojans, 34-31, in triple overtime. It was no fluke, as Cal held the ball for nearly thirty-nine minutes of play in regulation time.
 
The Golden Bears ended the season by winning five of their final six contests, highlighted by an Insight.com bowl victory over Virginia Tech (which beat the Falcons a year earlier in the San Francisco Bowl). 
 
Cal's offense is an embarrassment of riches featuring a devastating passing attack and the PAC10's leading rushing attack from last season.
 
QB Aaron RodgersCal QB Aaron Rodgers, (junior, 6-2/210), a preseason All-America candidate, will lead a high powered PAC 10 offense into Falcon Stadium for a mid-morning season opener against the Falcons.  Air Force can expect Rodgers to throw the ball early and often based on his 215 completions in 349 attempts in the 2003 season. The Cal QB hit on an impressive 61.6% of his passes, threw only 5 interceptions while launching 19 TD passes.
 
The Falcons' secondary will receive a stern test in trying to cover a trio of gifted Cal WRs. Geoff McArthur, (senior, 6-1/200),Cal WR Geoff McArthur Jonathan Makonnen, (senior, 6-1/200) and Chase Lyman (senior, 6-4/210) will show why AFA's secondary needs to come of age quickly.  Makonnen led the team in receiving in 2002 before missing the 2003 season with a foot injury. McArthur led the Golden Bears in receiving a year ago, all of which provides Rodgers with targets aplenty.
 
 If Air Force concentrates too much of its efforts on trying to defuse the potent Cal aerial attack, coach Jeff Tedford, can call upon TBs J.J. Arrington and Marcus O'Keith to carry the ball. Arrington (5-11/210, senior) ran for 607 yards on 107 carries last year while posting a hefty average of 5.67 yards per rush and finding the end zone five times. O'Keith (6-1/180, sophomore) added 240 yards and a single TD on forty attempts and a 5.75 yards per carry. Even with his efforts of last season O'Keith may be supplanted in the backfield by either freshman Marshawn Lynch (5-11/200) or Terrell Williams (6-0/200, junior).
 
Cal DB Donnie McleskeyAll-PAC 10 selection defensive back, Donnie McCleskey (junior, 5-10/180), will lead a group of defenders bent on avenging the, 23-21, upset Air Force sprang on Cal in 2002.
 
Air Force fans should bear in mind that among Cal's six losses in 2003 was a pair of games to MWC foes: CSU and Utah. The Rams and Utes also dispatched Air Force.
 
The 2004 season begins on a down note for Air Force as Cal becomes just the second non-conference team to hand Fisher DeBerry an opening day loss. Only Wyoming in (1987), CSU in (1990 and 1993) and Oklahoma in (2001) have defeated DeBerry coached teams in a season opener in the past twenty years. Air Force opens at 0-1.
 
Eastern Washington @ Air Force 9/11. The Air Force season- ticket-buying-public may add the Eagles from Cheney, Washington to the endless list of division 1-AA scheduling fodder which has made its way into Falcon Stadium during the DeBerry era. Recent punching bags include: Wofford (49-0), Tennessee Tech (42-0), the now defunct program of Cal State Northridge (55-6) and Villanova  (37-13) in the past five years. The Falcons were able to squeak by this quartet of powerhouses by a scant, 183 to19, collective score.
 
Points are likely to come in bunches in this contest, as Eastern Washington allowed 21 or more points in eight games while compiling a 6-5 overall record in 2003. Fisher DeBerry may not say anything for attribution, but he'll be eager to face an opponent which surrendered 55 points to Idaho State and another 54 to Northern Arizona. Lest AFA fans think Eastern Washington is without prowess on offense, it should be noted the Eagles scored 21 or more points against eight opponents last year winning five of those games.
 
 Reggie Witherspoon (5-8/170, senior) Reggie Witherspoon, E. Washington RBled the rushing attack for the Eagles last season, but EWU averaged a meager 3.6 yards a carry. The bulk of the offense will come from a passing attack led by Erik Meyer (6-1/195, junior) EWU QB Erik Meyerwho completed a sparkling 62.6% of his 281 attempts for 2,301 yards and 15 TDs, while being picked off just three times.
 
A Fisher DeBerry head coached team has never lost to a division 1-AA opponent and it's unlikely that one will do so now. Yet, if there is a season in which the Falcons may be susceptible to what would be perceived as a monumental upset, this is that year.  The Falcons won't be caught napping and will post their first win of the season to raise their record to 1-1.
 
Air Force @ UNLV 9/18. After an embarrassing, 34-10, loss in Falcon Stadium to the Rebels in 2001, Air Force has posted consecutive wins against John Robinson'ssquad the past two years.
 
UNLV Coach John RobinsonIn Robinson's tenure the Rebels have established an ungainly record of underachievement predicated largely upon a lack of discipline which has shown itself in the form of untimely penalties. Belying claims that it is loaded with talent on a yearly basis, UNLV hasn't posted a winning record since the 2000 season.
 
Senior QB Kurt Nantkes may still hold the inside track to be the team's UNLV QB Kurt Nantesstarting signal caller in 2004, but he turned in an uneven performance for the Rebels last year in completing just 167 of 323 attempts (51.7%) for a mere 12 TDs and 10 interceptions. Diminutive speedster, Dominique Dorsey UNLV RB Dominique Dorsey (5-6/165, senior), carried the ball 158 times for 626 yards and 1 TD last year and will be the focal point of the ground attack for UNLV.
 
 Dyante Perkins (senior, 6-0/225) ran just 52 times during the 2003 season, but led the Rebels with 7 TDs on the ground.
 
 Whether Nantkes retains his starting spot as UNLV's QB or not, all-MWC preseason pick at WR, Earvin Johnson (6-3/200, senior), will present the Falcons with a challenge their secondary will need to meet all day.
 
 Air Force posted a, 49-32, win the last time the teams met in Sam Boyd Stadium. In that slugfest each team rushed for in excess of 300 yards and combined for 937 yards of total offense. Fans shouldn't expect those gaudy numbers to be duplicated.
 
 Road games always provide a daunting task for teams in the MWC, but this outing will be an oasis in the desert for AFA as it posts its first road victory of the season, starts the conference portion of the schedule on the right note and raises its record on the season to 2-1.
 
 Air Force  @ Utah 9/25. After the 2002 season Urban Meyer Utah coach urban Meyerwas hired to resurrect a Utes' program which had faltered badly under Ron McBride.  Meyer's urban renewal project was wildly successful in a 2003 season that saw the Utes win the MWC title and post the only bowl victory among the conference's post-season representatives.
 
 RB Brandon Warfield has graduated, but Utah should once again be prolific on offense. QB Alex Smith Utah QB Alex Smith (junior, 6-4/202) may have the finest tandem of Utah WR Paris Warren WRs in the conference in Paris Warren (senior, 6-1/213) and Steve Savoy (sophomore,5-11/183). That pair caught 12 passes for 137 yards and 1 TD in last year's triple OT thriller at Falcon Stadium.
 
 Utah Utah WR Steve Savoyhas had a run of stellar return specialists in recent years. (AFA fans may recall the 1999 Snow Bowl which turned on a brilliant Stevonne Smith punt return for a Utah TD.) Bo Nagahi and Morgan Scalley continued that tradition for Meyer's squad last season and return again this fall.
 
 The 2002 game between the Falcons and Utes in Salt Lake City saw AFA mount a furious second half rally to post a, 30-26, win in the final minute of play. This year's Utah team appears in almost every pre-season top twenty-five poll and has been picked to repeat as champs of the MWC. Yeah, sometimes the polls aren't worth the paper on which they're printed and other times they are an accurate prediction of things to come.
 
 This is such a time.  AFA drops this contest to Utah and falls to 2-2 for the season and 1-1 in the MWC.
 
Navy @ Air Force 9/30. Prior to, and following, head Navy coach Paul Johnson coach Paul Johnson's arrival at Annapolis, the Midshipmen were well versed in the art of executing ground-based, option-attack football,  reliant upon a healthy fullback game.
 
 Two years ago the Falcons sank the Middies by a, 48-7, score, but not before Navy FB Kyle Eckel Navy FB Kyle Eckel ran 19 times for 85 yards. Eckel showed that performance was no fluke when he shredded the Falcons for 176 yards on 33 carries last year in leading Navy to a, 28-25, victory over the Falcons. Navy captured its first CIC trophy since 1981 when it defeated Army in its regular season finale.
 
 AFA defensive coordinator Richard Bell's charges will have a third opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they can implement a naval blockade of Eckel (senior, 5-11/235) who returns for his senior season.
 
 The ineffectiveness of AFA's FB game over the past two seasons is as much a product of fine play by the team's HBs during that period (in particular, Leotis Palmer, Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward) as the paucity of talent at the FB position itself. In 2002 the AFA team won its first national rushing title. The HBs had no trouble picking up yardage that season while the FBs' efforts were undistinguished. QB Chance Harridge ran for over 1,000 yards. The HBs flourished when they carried the ball and yet the FBs struggled to be productive, and all of this while rushing behind a line which managed to produce holes gaping enough so that the team won a national rushing title.
 
 Unless and until Air Force can produce a robust FB game to aid and abet production from the HB and QB spots, and simultaneously construct a defense to smother Navy's exceptional Eckel, then last year's victory by Navy will mark the start of a trend rather than stand as an aberration.  President Bush presents the CiC trophy to the Middies in 03
 
 A national television audience will see this ESPN Thursday night meeting which initiates CIC trophy play in 2004. Navy has beaten AFA in Falcon Stadium just once in Fisher DeBerry's first twenty years as a head coach. This will be the second victory for the Middies as visitors in the DeBerry era and the first for Johnson as a visiting head coach. AFA drops to 2-3 overall, remains at 1-1 in the conference, but sees a second straight season without securing the CIC trophy become a distinct possibility.
 
 Next time I'll have a look at the second half of the season which begins with the New Mexico Lobos--a team which has beaten AFA four times in the past five seasons.
 

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