RUNNING ON FUMES? The past three AFA football seasons have concluded with the Falcons losing five of seven games in each campaign. Over the past three seasons during the final seven games of the schedule, the Falcons have lost at least once to every team in the MWC. Home or away, as favorites or underdogs, Air Force has stumbled in the concluding half of each of the past three years against every one of its MWC counterparts at least once.
The schedule this year calls for Air Force to play five of its final seven regular season games at home. Three of the visitors who will come calling to Falcon Stadium are New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State. AFA is 1-2 against the Aztecs and Lobos over the past three seasons while winless against the Rams in the same span. Given the Falcons' propensity for late season floundering and the mastery of these three teams over Air Force, this year's schedule provides AFA with the chance to reverse several ugly trends. If the Falcons hope to be contenders rather than pretenders for the 2004 MWC title they must improve on their abominable 2-9 record against the teams from Fort Collins, Albuquerque and San Diego.
New Mexico at Air Force 10/9. Coach Rocky Long's Lobos were legitimate threats to win the MWC title last year. An early season, three point loss at home against an inept BYU team derailed New Mexico's title hopes. UNM's only other conference defeat came by two points to UNLV.
The Lobos begin the 2004 season with five, all-conference, preseason picks in: RB DonTrell Moore, T Claude Terrell, C Ryan Cook, CB Gabriel Fulbright and PK Wes Zunker. Offense, defense and special teams are all represented in those honors which serves as a means of demonstrating the Lobos' proficiency in all phases of the game.
New Mexico is well versed at both running the ball effectively and stopping other teams from doing so. The Lobos (along with TCU) were one of only two teams in division 1-A football to run for more than 200 yards a game while holding their opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground.
Moore blasted through the Falcons' defense last year for 188 yards and 2 TDs as the Lobos compiled a comfortable, 24-6, lead before allowing a meaningless TD to AFA in the 59th minute of the game. The major surprise surrounding Moore is that he has chosen to keep playing at the collegiate level rather than move to the more monetarily greener pastures of the NFL.
The last time the Falcons beat the Lobos was 2002 in one of the more exciting games AFA has played in its tenure in the MWC. Air Force scored a, 38-31, overtime win which wasn't secured until the Falcons' secondary successfully defended a pass in the end zone on a fourth down play. Sandwiched around that last minute thriller was a, 52-33, embarrassment in Alumni Stadium and last year's romp by Moore and friends.
QB Casey Kelly has finally graduated so the Lobos will be looking for a replacement to lead the New Mexico offense. The search may mean that until the Lobos find a capable successor to Kelly, even more of the offensive load will fall on Moore's shoulders. Given his 277 carries, 1,443 yards rushing, 5.2 yards per attempt, 111 yards a game and 19 rushing TDs during the 2003 season, that's hardly bad news for New Mexico.
The Lobos have won two of the past three meetings with Air Force and four of the past five. New Mexico is likely to be favored coming into the game and probably should be. While I think New Mexico will win the game my gut tells me this is AFA's best shot at posting an upset since the Falcons trapped the Cal Bears in Berkeley during the 2002 season.
AFA drops the game and slips to 2-4 on the season and 1-1 in the conference.
BYU @ Air Force 10/23. Fans who have followed AFA football for some time are well aware that the schedule has not necessarily been kind to the Falcons for the first game after an open weekend. However, in recent years the Falcons have flourished after a break in the schedule. After playing five games in twenty-seven days in September, the Falcons will play a mere three games in the month of October and only one in the first 22 days of the month.
Note: (AFA lost at home to Utah last year following an open date on the schedule. Air Force beat Army and Cal--both times on the road--in 2002 after open dates. The tragic events of 9/11/01 prompted an unprecedented three week furlough in the schedule for Air Force, but the Falcons downed SDS on the road upon resumption of play. Stretching all the way back to the 2000 season AFA won yet another game following an open weekend when it defeated Utah, 23-14, in Salt Lake City.)
Fisher DeBerry's team will have on open weekend on October 16th following the New Mexico game and in advance of the Cougars' arrival at the academy. The Cougars beat AFA in 1999 by a, 27-20, score in Provo following a Falcons' open date in 1999. Those fans looking for signs of bad mojo for Air Force can dwell on that statistical oddity. Others of a more optimistic nature can turn their attention to the fact that DeBerry's team is riding a two game winning streak against Brigham Young for the first time in the academy's history. In fact, Air Force has won three of its past four games versus the Cougars and four of its past six encounters with their one-time annual PROVOkers.
This year's senior class at the academy has the opportunity to become the first one in the school's history to post three victories in its football career over BYU. Even more enticing for the seniors is the prospect of defeating the Cougars for the third consecutive time.
The Cougars struggled mightily to find a starting QB in 2003 before Matt Berry assumed the role, more through attrition and the ineptitude of others, than any measure of aptitude on his part. The days of repetitive dominance in the WAC under Lavell Edwards are now a fading memory for college football fans in the Mountain time zone. BYU ran for an incomprehensibly garlow total of 1,229 yards in twelve games last fall. Unless that figure takes a quantum leap forward the ability of the Cougars to sustain a lengthy drive resulting in a TD remains suspect.
A BYU team which continues to try and establish its football identity under coach Gary Crowton will enter Falcon Stadium to find a young Air Force team which will have more than half a season under its belt. The home-standing Falcons will end a three game stint at the academy when it faces BYU. Neither school is likely to produce a squad this year which will match the achievements of the institutions' storied past.
If turnabout is indeed fair play--and it is--then long-suffering Falcons' fans, who have been witness to Cougar maulings by the scores of: 46-28 (1983), 23-3 (1986), 49-31 (1988), 54-7 (1990) and 45-21 (1994), may get their chance along with this year's team, to bask in the elation of a seismic shift in the momentum of this series when Air Force posts a third consecutive triumph over BYU.
In a season which may otherwise be bereft of emotional high points, the Falcons post a win over the Cougars, raise their record to 3-4 on the season and 2-2 in the MWC.
Air Force @ Wyoming 10/30. The last trip the Falcons made to Wyoming gave rise to one of the few highpoints in MWC play of the then Vic Koenning coached Cowpokes. Wyo fans tore down one set of goalposts and paraded it through the streets of Laramie adjacent to War Memorial Stadium.
The loss was the second in a streak which would reach three for Air Force, coming after a defeat at the hands of Notre Dame and before a Halloween Night loss at home to CSU. Those slightly squeamish AFA fans among our midst may note that 1998 is the last time Fisher DeBerry's team won the game on its schedule falling closest to Halloween. The Falcons downed the SMU Mustangs, 31-7, in the days of the unwieldy, four quadrant, sixteen team, geographic hodge-podge into which the Western Athletic Conference had morphed. It was also the only year in which the Falcons won the WAC title.
Joe Glenn took the reins controlling the Cowboys' football fortunes and worked wonders in his first year on the job. Wyoming was one of only two MWC teams to beat both BYU and CSU in 2003 (the other was Utah).
Casey Bramlet,Wyoming's career passing leader, has graduated, but he'll be succeeded by his younger brother Corey. Wyoming has always thrown the ball with gusto against the Falcons and there seems little reason to doubt Glenn will stray from that approach this season.
Like Air Force, Wyoming enters the 2004 season with an abundance of youth and a shortage of game tested depth on its roster. Preseason polls regard both teams as non-entities where the race for the MWC title is involved. Coach DeBerry knows how evenly contested this series has been for the past twenty years as his Falcons' teams hold a thin, 11-9, advantage over the Cowboys in his twenty years of his tenure as head coach. Adding the four years DeBerry spent as an assistant under Ken Hatfield, AFA's record against Wyoming is 13-11. DeBerry will complete a quarter century of competition against Wyoming this fall in what has been a closely contested rivalry between the Front Range rivals.
As head coach at Northern Colorado and Montana, Joe Glenn led teams to national championships at the division 1-AA level. There is no debate as to his ability to produce winning teams or recruit talented players.
AFA escaped with a win in Falcon Stadium last year when its offense was able to control the ball for the final five minutes or so of the game thereby denying Casey Bramlet the chance to unleash a last minute aerial attack.
Wyoming finished the 2003 season as a team in ascent, vastly improved and more confident than the injury decimated one which began the schedule. The parallels between this year's AFA and Wyoming teams are more striking than are their differences. The teams have split the last four games in Laramie and this year's contest could well be a battle deep into the fourth quarter. The Cowboys will win the struggle and drop AFA to 3-5 on the season and 2-3 in MWC play.
Air Force @ Army 11/6. When speaking about CIC battles with Navy or Army, AFA coach Fisher DeBerry laces any commentary he makes with enough diplomatic tact to ensure that his statements won't wind up on a team's bulletin board. I am captive to no such restriction.
Army enters the 2004 season having lost fifteen consecutive games. DeBerry's record against the Black Knights is a gaudy 16-4. Air Force has won its last seven games against Army and fourteen of its past fifteen games. Semantically speaking, the AFA-Army game constitutes a rivalry, but unless each team proves it can win a representative number of times during a given stretch of the series, then competitively speaking it's a one-sided affair. Air Force has beaten army like the proverbial red-headed step child for most of the past two decades.
Coach Bobby Ross, who enjoyed success with Georgia Tech and the San Diego Chargers, is now charged with the responsibility of resurrecting a moribund program. The numbers surrounding Army's 2003 team are just plain ugly.
Offensively, Army ranked dead last--117th--in rushing the ball, 115th in total offense and 111th in scoring. On defense, Army was just as inept ranking 106th against the run, 111th in total defense and 110th in scoring defense. Army has been rebuffed in its effort to schedule a game against the Little Sisters of the Poor because the saintly ladies have taken a lifetime vow not to inflict corporal punishment.
Some things are slow to change while others never do, such as the Falcons ability to dismiss Army almost at will. Air Force may not have what it takes to wrest control of the CIC trophy from Navy, but it certainly has the firepower to dismantle Army. The Falcons will win this game and raise their record to 4-5 on the year and 1-1 in CIC battles.
San Diego State @ Air Force 11/13. While the Falcons hold a comfortable edge in the series with the Aztecs during the DeBerry era, San Diego State has won the past two meetings.
The Aztecs vanquished AFA by a, 24-3, score last year in a game which saw Air Force avert a shutout by virtue of PK Joey Ashcroft's 40 yard field goal as the first half ended. Freshman RB sensation Lynell Hamilton missed the game having broken his leg against UNLV two weeks earlier. The Falcons will get their first look at Hamilton, who along with UNM's DonTrell Moore, is a bona fide candidate for conference postseason honors.
On defense the Aztecs will be led by LB Kirk Morrison, who made the all-conference preseason team this summer after being a first team selection for the 2003 season. Matt McCoy joins him at another LB spot as a member of this year's preseason first string all-conference team and underscores the contention that SDS has the finest linebacking corps in the MWC.
Once again expectations and projections for the Aztecs, who perennially find ways to stumble in conference play, are sky-high. The last time the Aztecs played in Falcon Stadium they stole a, 38-34, victory with a second half rally ignited by AFA return specialist Leotis Palmer's dropped punt.
Twenty-one fourth quarter points, including James Truvillion's game winning TD plunge with 58 seconds remaining in regulation time, secured the Aztecs' improbable comeback. The outburst is indicative of the second half of the season malaise which has gripped AFA for the past three seasons.
The Aztecs may inflict more disappointment on their fans this season, but it could finally be the year when San Diego State makes a run at a conference title. The visitors win another installment in this series as the Falcons drop to 4-6 on the year and 2-4 in conference.
Colorado State @ Air Force 11/20. Let me applaud the MWC schedule makers. He, she or they have finally hit upon a sensible regular season finale in pairing these teams. Since the formation of the MWC in 1999, Air Force has closed the home portion of its schedule by playing UNLV, SDS twice, Utah, and Army. I have no quarrel whatsoever with Army being AFA's final home opponent in any year, but if local fans are going to maintain interest in the Falcons during the cold, dark, dank days of late November they need to see an opposing team which represents a rivalry for AFA--preferably Wyoming or CSU. Frankly, I hope the MWC comes to its collective senses and establishes this game as an annual regular season finale for both teams.
In his first decade as the Falcons' head coach, Fisher DeBerry led his teams to a 7-3 record against CSU. In the last ten years DeBerry's record against the Rams is 3-7. What happened? The pivotal year was 1993. The Falcons lost in Fort Collins by the unusual score of 8-5. The contest marked the WAC coaching debut of Sonny Lubick. Since his arrival in Fort Collins, which has seen him complete the handiwork begun by Earle Bruce, Lubick and his teams have gone 8-3 against DeBerry and his teams.
Tides ebb and flow, worms turn and momentum shifts. That has clearly been the case in this series. Affable, well liked, soft-spoken and gifted as a football tactician there indeed have been many Sonny days in Fort Collins since 1993.
Bradlee Van Pelt has graduated, but Justin Holland will be a solid replacement at the QB spot for the Rams. While not as athletic, strong or big as Van Pelt, Holland is a vastly superior passer. TE Joel Dreessen and WR David Anderson will give Holland two preseason all conference targets to whom he can throw. Erik Pears, yet another CSU all-conference preseason pick, will anchor a solid offensive line for the Rams.
While AFA's record against CSU stands at 10-10 over the past twenty years, the Rams have unequivocally seized recent control of the rivalry by winning nine of the past twelve meetings. The momentum in this series may eventually turn in Air Force's favor, but such a trend won't start this fall. AFA drops its season finale by losing to CSU and finishes 4-7 overall, 2-5 in the league, 1-1 in CIC competition and stays home for the holidays without a bowl berth.