NO MIRAGE. While the faint hopes of salvaging the remnants of their 2004 season slipped farther into the horizon before the UNLV Rebels' eyes amid the balmy temperatures and swirling winds of a sultry late summer evening, the emerging capabilities which may power the Air Force Falcons this fall, were more prominently on display.
Once again, Coach John Robinson's squad showed that when the tough get going the Rebels' chances for victory are likely to be gone. Fisher DeBerry's Falcons had taken a beating two weeks prior at the hands of a talented California squad and followed that disappointing effort with an uneven demonstration against division 1-AA Eastern Washington. Let there be no mistake: while the Rebels may have enough talent on defense to be competitive in the MWC--particularly if the coaching staff employs said talent more judiciously-- this is a team in disarray on offense.
While some Air Force partisans will be dismissive of the team's conference-opening, road victory, it would be unwise to completely assess the Falcons' win as a meaningless conquest of what is likely to be an MWC bottom feeder in 2004. With senior starter QB Kurt Nantkes out of the lineup, it fell to inexperienced Shane Steichen to lead the UNLV offense. The Rebels' ground attack managed 98 yards on 24 carries, but twenty of those came on a shifty run by Dominique Dorsey and UNLV showed no ability to sustain a rushing game over the course of sixty minutes.
All-conference WR Earvin Johnson is the lone weapon at Robinson's disposal for the purpose of structuring an aerial attack. With Nantkes hurt and Steichen's game-day rÃ©sumÃ© being short, the Rebels are betwixt and between when formatting an offensive game plan.
Where Eastern Washington QB Erik Meyer had successfully probed the numerous soft spots in the Falcons' secondary a week prior to the UNLV game, Air Force secondary coach, Vic Shealy, appeared to have made changes in the coverage schemes employed by AFA against the Rebels. DBs Mark Carlson and Denny Poland both intercepted passes owing to the aggressive positions they had established while covering receivers. Jordan Wilkie came close to making a third swipe of the ball on another occasion in the game.
The Falcons' defense deserves full credit for holding a conference opponent to 10 points while playing away from home. As has been the case throughout the history of option football at the academy, the offense's ability to move the ball and score, provided the defense with long stretches of time on the sidelines. Head coaches and defensive coordinators will tell you that the magic number for a defense is 70. It's the number of plays after which many defenses begin to lose their stamina, and therefore its effectiveness, in being able to contain the opposition's offense. On Saturday night the Rebels initiated 51 plays from the line of scrimmage. Compare that figure with the Falcons' 85 and it's easy to fathom why the performance of AFA's defense was so markedly superior to the first two games of the season.
FRONT AND CENTER. Air Force was the beneficiary of noteworthy performances on both sides of the line of scrimmage and because of this there is substantive reason to believe that AFA's proficiency was a portent of things to come, rather than a flash in the pan.
Let's start with the kicking game. On a night when a steady wind created challenges for both teams where kicking was concerned, AFA punter Donny Heaton and PK Michael Greenaway continued their solid performances begun earlier this month. Don't be fooled by Heaton's 37.5 yard average for the game. Where the Eastern Washington game showed weaknesses in AFA's punt coverage ability the UNLV game showed that Heaton's steady effectiveness in punting the ball combined with superior coverage by the special teams will limit the opposition's ability to establish advantageous field position through long returns.
Greenaway continued to boom kicks to, and through, the end zone after AFA scored and was finally given the chance to attempt his first FGs of the 2004. He hasn't been busy as a FG specialist thus far, but when called upon to deliver he's hit both attempts. His inactivity, but accuracy thus far, are two positives signs for the Falcons' attack.
The starting trio of LBs: Andrew Braley, Cameron Hodge and John Rudzinski contained the run more thoroughly from start to finish and provided tighter pass coverage between the hash marks in stark contrast to last week's mess against EWU. When Kenny Smith--a starter for the first two games of the season at one LB spot--recovered a fumble in the second half, it effectively ended any and all hope UNLV entertained for mounting a rally and served to underscore the strong play of the entire AFA LB crew during the game.
Poland and Carlson not only provided interceptions, but glimpses of air tight man-to-man coverage--sights rarely seen in the vicinity of a Falcons' secondary in any fall. Yes, Johnson caught seven passes for 99 yards, but never came close to being the destructive force other MWC WRs have been against Air Force. The Falcons' pass defense was an asset, rather than a liability, on Saturday.
The offense was diversified and robust. DeBerry's boast that the option attack would be more reliant upon, and energized by, a productive FB game, gained further credence against the Rebels. A week after AFA fullbacks combined for 176 yards on twenty-one carries and 1 TD they authored 38 carries for 171 yards and a TD. Perhaps the yards per carry averaged dropped, but the time consumed on the game clock--which allowed the AFA defense to remain rested and ready-- rose markedly.
Shaun Carney's 12 for 14 performance in passing the ball--his third straight game of completing well over 50% of his attempts--gives AFA opponents due cause to respect the AFA passing game as well as demonstrating the balance AFA's option attack will have this season.
While the FB game has been marked by solid production for two weeks it has come at something of a cost to the effectiveness of the production of the team's halfbacks. Yes, the HBs aren't running the ball as frequently this year as in the recent past, but they are being used in other ways in Chuck Petersen's game plans. Already half of the team's 32 receptions have been made by the halfbacks (and fullbacks) with sophomore Justin Handley leading the way with seven grabs for 69 yards and 1 TD. Senior Kris Holstege was particularly impressive against the Rebels. He caught a short pass in the right flat and took it into the end zone for a 6 yard score and AFA's first points of the night, but he was far more athletic in making two other catches--one made on a third down situation, which he secured and advanced for a critical first down.
The option attack continued to be hale and hardy against UNLV in large part because of the improving play of the offensive line. Already stung by the loss of RG Curtis Grantham on opening day, the line lost TE Robert McMenomy for the conference opener. While Jason Brown technically was the starter at TE for the Falcons, it was junior Carsten Stahr, who received the bulk of playing time against UNLV. The offense ran the ball a season high 71 times and gained 278 yards on its way to amassing 417 yards for the night.
Improved defensive play--produced in part through an effective offense--tighter pass coverage, a burgeoning passing game issuing from the poised efforts of a freshman QB, the sure and supple hands of backs used as primary receivers on passing routes, a prospering FB game and sound workmanship in the kicking game unite in giving rise to realistic optimism for the continuance of success by the Falcons as the season proceeds.
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