TAKE TWO. Plainly and simply it was an ugly start to the 2004 season for both the AFA and EWU last weekend as each team was decisively beaten by opening day opponents.
Air Force hosted an impressive, nationally ranked, California squad and gave coach Jeff Tedford's crew a game for the first thirty minutes of play. Five, unanswered, second half TDs by Cal and a paltry fifty-six yards of offense by Air Force were the Falcons' undoing last weekend. The Eagles could do no better as they spotted Nicholls State a, 30-0, halftime lead, which swelled to 37-0, before registering a pair of TDs to make the final score a more less numerically catastrophic, 37-14.
EWU threw three interceptions, fumbled four times--losing three of the miscues--and held the ball for only twenty-five and a half minutes on the day. While Nicholls State amassed a relatively benign 359 yards of total offense, the telling story lies in the fact that the Colonels had terrific field position throughout the first half and only needed short drives to produce touchdowns. Nicholls State's domination of the game may most easily be seen by the fact it threw only six passes all day.
AREAS OF CONCERN. Fisher DeBerry likes to remind folks that a team improves most between its first and second games of the season. This week the opportunity to demonstrate or disprove the veracity in that claim falls to DeBerry's 2004 squad. If it is indeed true, then by late Saturday afternoon Falconatics--part falcon, part fanatic--everywhere, will be basking in the afterglow of the season's first triumph. Fisher and his coaching staff had any number of areas to address this week during practice. Punter Donnie Heaton and kickoff specialist Michael Greenaway performed well from start to finish against Cal last weekend, but apart from the act of kicking the ball there was little that went right for the Falcons on a consistent basis against the vastly superior Cal team.
Pick an area, any area, and rest assured the Falcons will need to dramatically improve their performance in it this week to develop confidence for the start of the MWC portion of the schedule which begins next week against UNLV.
While freshman QB Shaun Carney displayed poise and polish in leading the offense on TD drives in each of the first two quarters of the Cal game, he looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights for much of the second half.
The performance of AFA's offensive line was solid in the first half and allowed the Falcons to keep the Golden Bears in sight with the score a competitive, 21-14, after the first thirty minutes of play. The game turned quickly and incontrovertibly in Cal's favor in the second half principally because of the exceptional and forceful play of Cal's offensive and defensive lines.
During halftime Cal's coaching staff did a masterful job of unraveling the mystery of the blocking patterns used by AFA's OL in the first half. The enigma having been solved, the Falcons' offense produced only 56 yards of gains in the second half.
Carney led the way for AFA‘s ground based option attack, but the Falcon HBs, so productive over the past two seasons, didn't aid and abet the ground game. Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler combined for 50 yards on 9 carries.
The FB spot continued its three season malaise as Adam Cole (7 carries, 28 yards) and Dan Shaffer (8 for 21) were largely ineffective throughout the game. Cole sustained a strained medial collateral ligament and to add depth to the fullback spot sophomore Jacobe Kendrick--who played FB last season, but had been switched to the HB spot--has been reassigned to the fullback spot for the EWU contest.
GREASED PIGS. In part, Cal's job was made easier last weekend by AFA defenders who executed some atrocious tackling skills. Erstwhile three and four yard gains routinely became eight and nine yard gallivants for the Golden Bears. Throw in a 43 yard TD burst by freshman RB Marshawn Lynch, a 78 yard TD reception by WR Chase Lyman and an 89 yard jaunt to AFA's three yard line by RB J.J. Arrington and it's easy to see that AFA's defense was victimized by big plays on opening day. Falcon defenders looked as comfortable assaying tackles on Cal ball carriers as your tight wad brother-in-law upon receiving the dinner check at a four star eatery.
It was tough to get a read on the pass coverage ability of the AFA secondary last week simply because Cal ran so well QB Aaron Rodgers didn't need to throw too often. Twelve completions for 231 yards and a 19.1 yard average per catch are data which will give AFA secondary coach, Vic Shealy, understandable cause for concern.
Division 1-AA Eastern Washington won't have nearly the depth, size or athleticism of the nationally ranked Cal squad. Fisher DeBerry has a 10-0 record against division 1-AA teams as he and the Falcons enter the meeting with the Eagles this Saturday. The Falcons have won their past four such encounters by a collective, 183-19, count including shutouts against Wofford (49-0) in 2003 and Tennessee Tech (42-0) in 2001.
CONFERENCE CALL. MWC teams played half a dozen contests against BCS foes last week and could do no better than two wins. Two other MWC constituents began their schedules with victories against division 1-AA schools.
I peered into my "CHRIS-tal" ball and correctly divined the outcome of six of eight games last week missing out on a UNM upset of Washington State and BYU's conquest of the Fighting Irish. Here's a look at this week's action.
CSU faces USC in the first Alphabet Bowl classic of 2004. The Rams are smarting from the dizzying final minute of a loss to in-state rival Colorado in Boulder last Saturday night. To his credit, coach Sonny Lubick immediately stepped up after the game and accepted every ounce of blame and criticism leveled at him and the Rams in the game's post mortems.
CSU faces an absolutely brutal first three weeks of the season with games against Colorado, USC and the Minnesota Golden Gophers--a team assessed to have a legitimate chance to contend for the Big Ten title.
I will repeat something I wrote last week about CSU QB, Justin Holland, for those fans convinced that CSU will suffer from Bradlee Van Pelt's departure. Having seen Holland play high school ball at Bear Creek I can say that he's a better QB than Van Pelt. He's not a better athlete, but as a passer there's no comparison.
Holland riddled the Buffs' secondary for 29 completions on 42 attempts for 402 yards and 2 TD passes on opening night. CSU had no running game of which to speak, picking up 44 yards on 28 carries. Southern Cal is a co-defending national champion and doesn't figure to allow much more room on the ground to the Rams than they carved out against the Buffaloes. And just as it was last week, this week's game will be shown on the tube, but nationally rather than regionally.
It's a good thing Sonny and the Rams realize they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by facing the Trojans. An optimistic disposition always makes picking up the pieces an exercise in hopeful possibility, rather than a dreaded chore. There should be plenty up pieces that need reassembling after this game is finished. USC is the pick.
BYU faces Stanford in Palo Alto. The Cardinal dispatched a wretched San Jose State team in its first game of the 2004 season by a, 43-3, score. Stanford coasted to a, 36-0, lead before the end of the third quarter. QBs Trent Edwards and T. C. Ostrander each threw for over 100 yards in the game against the Spartans. Stanford used 333 yards of passing and 132 yards rushing to control the game without ever facing a serious threat.
BYU opened at home and downed Notre Dame, 20-17, in a battle as taut as the final score indicates. As they did throughout the 2003 season the Cougars once again played musical chairs at the QB spot. Matt Berry relieved an injured John Beck in the first half.
Neither the Fighting Irish nor the Cougars could run the ball with any gusto. Notre Dame managed but 11 yards while the Cougars only 22. This weekend's game represents BYU's best shot at a win for the next month as a contest with USC next week will be followed by trips to Boise State and CSU. Unless and until the Cougars can establish some modicum of success in running the ball, opposing defenses will stack the line of scrimmage and unleash a pass rush to harass Beck and/or Berry.
The Cougars snuck past Notre Dame last week, but looked pedestrian in doing so. BYU is a mild underdog and capable of posting an upset of Stanford. It won't happen though as Stanford's balance on offense will be the most important factor in the game. The pick is Stanford.
New Mexico hosts Texas Tech. The Lobos lost to Washington State last weekend for the second time in two years. In his starting debut UNM QB, Kole McKamey, tossed three interceptions and Wazzou scored 14, fourth- quarter points after the teams played a scoreless first half.
WR Hank Baskett hauled in 9 passes for 165 yards and sensational RB, DonTrell Moore, gained 167 yards on 24 carries--including a dazzling 61 yard trek for a TD. The Lobos produced nearly 140 more yards of offense than WSU, but turnovers aborted several Lobos' possessions.
Texas Tech has made its living on offense in recent years throwing the ball 40-50-60 times a game. Kliff Kingsbury and B. J. Symons are the two most recent rocket launchers to have led the Red Raiders' offense. The line of succession has fallen to fifth year senior Sonny Cumbie. He helped lead the Red Raiders to a season opening, 27-13, win over SMU last week by completing 40 of 66 passes, for 481 yards and four TD passes, caught by three different receivers. And all of this without throwing an interception.
Okay, SMU isn't anywhere near as good a team as Rocky Long's New Mexico squad. The test this week for the home-standing Lobos will be the extent to which their secondary can limit the productivity and effectiveness of the aerial blitzkrieg which will be unleashed upon it.
McKamey will need to be more judicious about forcing the ball into tight coverages. Poor decisions in that regard hurt New Mexico's chances to win last week. This should be a close, high scoring game. This pick goes against my better judgment, but I'm taking one more shot that the Lobos will be a team with which to be reckoned in the 2004 season. I'll make a hesitant pick of the Lobos as the winners.
UNLV travels to Camp Randall Stadium to face the Wisconsin Badgers. What a conundrum the UNLV Rebels have been under John Robinson. Last year the team beat a then 14th ranked Wisconsin team as well as a 13th ranked CSU team. Then, in Mr. Robinson's neighborhood of Sam Boyd Stadium, the Rebels fell over themselves by losing to San Diego State, 7-0, in a game in which UNLV sputtered its way to a whopping 175 yards on offense.
UNLV got hammered by Tennessee this past Sunday in Knoxville. Now the Rebels must fly back to the eastern time zone to face the Badgers. Wisconsin used nice balance on offense (230 yards passing and 170 on the ground) to defeat Central Florida, 34-6, while limiting the Golden Knights to a pair of FGs in its season opener last weekend.
The Rebels will lose at least one day of preparation for the Wisconsin game between flying back to Las Vegas late Sunday and having to fly to Madison later this week. HB Dominique Dorsey turned in the best performance of the evening for UNLV against the Vols last week, but it wasn't nearly enough to rescue the team from defeat. The Badgers will be a solid favorite to win the game and a repeat of last year's upset of Wisconsin by Robinson's troops is highly unlikely. Wisconsin is the pick here.
Urban renewal continues apace in Salt Lake City. The Utes looked invincible against a pathetic Texas A & M bunch last Thursday. QB Alex Smith led Utah to a, 27-0, cushion before the game was twelve minutes old. The Utes were in mid-season form from the opening kickoff. Smith threw for 359 yards, three touchdowns, suffered no interceptions and found WRs Parris Warren and Steve Savoy at will. The Utes pounded the Aggies for over 200 yards rushing as Utah posted a 582 yard evening.
This game will be played in Arizona, but the days of Desert Strom defense are long gone from Wildcats' football. The Wildcats opened the season with a, 21-3, win over the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks from Flagstaff. It took 14, fourth quarter points to salt away the game for the U of A. Forgive me if I'm unimpressed. Utah wins this one.
Wyoming hits the road to play Texas A & M. If coach Joe Glenn's team was listed on the New York Stock Exchange it would be a commodity in which you'd want to own some shares right now. This team is one that's on the rise. Last week's rout of Appalachian State by a, 53-7, count won't turn any heads among the cognoscenti of college football, but Wyoming is in the process of becoming a team which will be competitive in the MWC in short order.
I don't think the Cowboys have quite enough guns to win this contest, but they showed signs of a running game last week against the Mountaineers. Couple this growing ground arsenal with QB Corey Bramlet's capable debut and there's ample reason to believe the Cowpokes will pose plenty of problems for teams which take them too lightly this fall.
The Aggies are catching Wyoming at a propitious point in the schedule. In two months' time I'd pick this game the other way, but right now the call is Texas A & M.
San Diego State doesn't play this week.
Air Force hosts Eastern Washington University in a game featuring two teams looking for their first win of 2004. The Falcons looked competitive for a half against a superbly talented California team before being shunted aside by the offensive and defensive lines of the Golden Bears.
Shaun Carney gave indications of being a freshman wunderkind in the first half and showed in the second half that he is, after all, a freshman.
The AFA HBs and FBs didn't carry their fair share of the option load last week and will need significantly higher production this week against what should be a somewhat overwhelmed opponent.
The defense needs a revamped effort in the face of a dreadful display of tackling which yielded too many game breaking plays for Cal. If Carney can recapture the poise he demonstrated in the first half, if the offensive line can overcome the loss of starting RG Curtis Grantham to a broken leg and if the defense can limit the Eagles to something approaching half the total offense Cal authored last weekend, then Air Force should have an easy time of it against the visitors from Cheney, Washington.
Fisher and his 2004 team get their first win of the current campaign with a solid effort versus Eastern Washington.