Let me set the mood. Cue the eerie, discordant background music. Start the
disquieting voiceover from Rod Serling
so he can let you know in macabre terms that since Air Force has now completed
its game against Utah, it has just crossed over into ==èThe
Zone of Seven.
When Navy comes calling Thursday night it will officially begin that portion of AFA's schedule in which seven games remain to be played in the 2004 campaign. Any Falconatic who has been paying close attention to the team's fortunes over the last half of the season for the past three years knows the terrifying results which have enveloped Fisher DeBerry's teams. The 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons saw Air Force go 2-5 over the course of the final seven games played in each of those campaigns.
Brutal is the perfect word to describe the Falcons' play over the closing seven games in the last trio of years. Bear in mind that three of AFA's wins in that time have come against Army, which may have the dubious distinction of having been the worst team in division 1-A in that duration.
An improbable win over Utah in 2001 was the only other victory Air Force could muster in the final seven games of that season. In 2002, a triumph over UNLV helped the Falcons save themselves from an even worse season ending denouement, while last year only another victory versus the Rebels served as a measure of solace for AFA in the second half of the season. It's true that Utah followed its loss to AFA in 2001 with a bowl win over USC, but apart from its upset of the Utes in that game Air Force hasn't beaten anything approaching a solid football team over the course of its final seven games in any of the last three years, period. Talk is cheap, and theories as to why the Falcons have been so victory-starved through recent late autumns, is even moreso. No one has been impressed, nor should be, with the slim pickings of dismissals of Army and UNLV as the bulk of AFA's second half of the season successes in the past three years.
The responsibility for extricating the Falcons from this late season quagmire lies squarely on the shoulders of Fisher DeBerry and his staff. Broad platitudes, delivered in a drawl dripping with home spun introductions, won't cut it in 2004.
This year's Air Force team has had a distinct favor tossed into its lap by the MWC schedule makers. The final seven games of the season find Air Force playing at home five times. A sixth game will be played just up the road in Laramie against Wyoming. The only time between now and the conclusion of the regular season the team will need to board a plane to play a game is in early November, when the Falcons jet to New York state to face what has been its tried and true soft place to fall on the schedule: Army.
Using jet lag as an excuse will be inexcusable. Using game induced fatigue as a crutch won't work either as Air Force will play only three games in the first 36 days immediately following the Navy contest. There will be time to heal injuries, there will be an open weekend on October 16th and there will be the growing knowledge that New Mexico, San Diego State and CSU are all coming to town. This year's senior class is 1-2 versus the Lobos, 1-2 against the Aztecs and winless against CSU. Plainly using the King's English: it's time to put up or shut up when it comes to talking about whether or not AFA is able to compete against these three teams which have bullied them the past three falls. If the Falcons can't beat these teams at home, then the conclusion must be reached that they have become pretenders, not contenders, in the MWC race.
PROS AND CONS. The schedule is favorably set for Air Force as it enters what in recent years has proven to be the perilous Zone of Seven. Here's a look at why the Falcons may alternately soar or stumble as September becomes October and then November.
New Mexico has received poor play from QBs Kole McKamey and Tali Ena. All conference RB DonTrell Moore tweaked a knee ligament and could return as early as this week's game against Utah or miss three weeks. The Lobos' sporadic offense gives rise to hope for a victory by Air Force.
The flip side of the coin is that Air Force has a bad habit of making second string RBs look like world beaters. Just recall last year's game in San Diego. Lynell Hamilton--the MWC Freshman of the Year--had broken his leg earlier in the season against UNLV. Didn't matter. His replacement, Michael Franklin, stepped right into the lineup ran for over 100 yards and led the Aztecs to a 24-3 win.
BYU's lone win thus far has come against Notre Dame, a team whose performances in wins against Michigan, Michigan State and Washington show just how impressive the Irish may be in baffling the critics who predicted doom and gloom in South Bend this year. The Cougars scared the living spit out of Boise State last week losing to the team with the nation's longest winning streak when a FG attempt late in the game was errant. Although the Cougars can't seem to settle on one player at the QB spot, that indecision hasn't precluded the team from averaging 283 yards a game through the air. As AFA fans know the Falcons' perennial Achilles' Heel on defense is defending the pass.
BYU can't run the ball at all. When it comes to the ground game Gary Crowton's cronies rank 116th of 117 teams in division 1-A play entering this week's game against CSU. The Cougars continue to bounce back and forth between John Beck and Matt Berry at the QB spot as neither is able to remain healthy long enough to seize control of the position. The situation has resulted in a sputtering offense.
Wyoming's resurrection under Joe Glenn's leadership is ahead of the pace envisioned by even the most optimistic of 'Pokes fans. Last fall's victory against CSU should have served as ample warning that the turnaround of Wyo's football fortunes would come sooner rather than later under Glenn. One Bramlet throwing fool has left and been replaced by another, as the graduated Casey, has given way to younger brother, Corey. The 231 yards passing per game average the Cowboys currently sport is likely to rise rather than fall once Wyoming becomes immersed in MWC play.
For all its resilience on offense Wyoming still doesn't have a consistent ground game to relieve enough pressure from its passing attack to give Bramlet a breather. Texas A & M held Wyoming to minus three yards rushing in a 31-0 rout. After thirty years of watching AFA play Wyoming, two immutable truths stand at the fore of this series: AFA can't stop Wyoming's passing game and Wyoming cannot contain the Falcons' ground attack. If Air Force can throw the ball more effectively than Wyoming can run it, DeBerry's crew could lasso the Cowboys in Laramie on Halloween Weekend.
As of this morning, Army retains the nation's longest losing streak not having won a game since beating Tulane on November 16, 2002. Since that time the Black Knights' daze has seen them lose eighteen straight games, including 14 in a row in Michie Stadium and 11 in a row in Conference USA contests. Coach Bobby Ross may be wondering why he emerged from retirement to undertake the Herculean task of restoring a modicum of success to a once storied Army program.
Air Force has been fortunate to know that each November a game has awaited it against its military brother-in-arms from New York. It's difficult to construct a credible scenario which leads to an upset of Air Force by Army. Freshman QB Shaun Carney will have played his first CIC game by the time this game pops up on the schedule, as well as the bulk of an entire year. The Falcons throttled Army, 31-3, last year and only a spate of injuries between now and November 6th should keep the margin of AFA's victory under 2003's twenty-eight point spread.
San Diego State played Ohio State off its feet in Columbus in 2003 before losing a close battle. To prove that effort was no fluke the Aztecs traveled to Ann Arbor two weeks ago and nearly upset the Michigan Wolverines. Exceptional RB Lynell Hamilton will red shirt this season due to complications stemming from three off-season surgeries in conjunction with the broken leg he sustained last year against UNLV. Michael Franklin has played splendidly in Hamilton's stead averaging 4.7 yards per carry through the Aztecs' first three games of the season. QB Matt Dlugolecki has completed 60% of his pass attempts and the SDS aerial attack is as prolific as ever totaling 280 yards a game. Tom Craft's team appears to be one of the few clubs in the MWC with a shot at knocking off Urban Meyer's juggernaut from Utah. SDS hosts the Utes on October 30th in a game which could ultimately crown this year's league champion.
The Aztecs are famous for folding late in the season if they have no realistic chance to win a conference title or earn a bowl bid. They are especially vulnerable when having to leave the balmy climes of San Diego late in the season for what could be the ice and snow laden surroundings of the Rocky Mountain West, such as Falcon Stadium.
CSU finally posted a win last weekend against division 1-AA Montana State. A brutal non-conference schedule against Colorado, USC and Minnesota--currently a collective 11-0--thrust Sonny Lubick's team into the position of being 0-3 early in the season, a depth to which the Rams had not fallen since 1987. QB Justin Holland has already thrown for 1245 yards. He has one three hundred yard performance, another of 298 and began the year by scorching the Buffs for 411 yards. Fisher DeBerry had great success early in his tenure at AFA versus the Rams. Sonny Lubick's arrival in Fort Collins has brought 8 wins in 11 games against the Falcons.
CSU has yet to post a win against a division 1-A team this year, but in fairness the Rams have played a murderously difficult non-conference slate. The running game--so ballyhooed with the arrival of Marcus Houston--has been a bust. The team's 10909th ranking entering play this weekend means the Rams are nearly as inept as BYU when it comes to the ground game. The MWC has finally seen fit to match AFA and CSU in the regular season finale this year. It's a move which should be permanent, not transitory. The teams will meet at the academy on November 20th, a time of year when throwing the ball could be a real challenge because of the weather. AFA will be looking for its first win in the series since the Snow Bowl of 2000. The Falcons have demonstrated a balanced attack while CSU rises and falls on the accuracy of Holland's arm. His nine interceptions as opposed to 5 TD passes should concern Lubick and quietly boost DeBerry's prospects for victory.
THE "CHRIS-TAL" BALL. I cooled off only slightly last week going 5-2 with my picks and now stand at 24-4(.857) through the first four weeks of the season. There are two MWC games this week as well as a few others and here's my guess as to how play will unfold and who'll win and lose.
Wyoming plays at home for the second week in a row this Saturday
when Louisiana Monroe invades Laramie. Cowboys' fans are going to get a steady
diet of Southern football as Wyoming played d d d Ole Miss last week and will play the
Rebels on the road next year a week after Joe Glenn's squad visits Florida to
face the Gators.
Coach Charlie Weatherbie's Indians are a terrible team playing amid the farcical geographic collection of squads which comprises the Sun Belt Conference. Just as last week when the Cowboys drew only 22,300 fans to war Memorial Stadium there will be plenty of empty seats again this week.
Fans in Laramie demand that the Cowboys win before they show up to watch the team play. Joe Glenn has done that more quickly than anyone had dared to imagine possible with wins over CSU and Mississippi and still the fans have stayed away in droves. Shame on them. Louisiana Monroe is a dreadful team, but for the moribund program which was Wyoming football early in this decade, a win posted against any division 1-A outfit consigns a sad chapter of the Cowboys' football past to a more distant corner of history. The Indians won't be the last division 1-A team Wyoming beats this season. Wyoming is my pick.k.
UNLV faces the e e e Nevada Wolf Pack from Reno. It's hard to assign a guess as to what effect John Robinson's impending retirement at the end of the season will have on the Rebels. Although the offense finally authored an explosion last week it was the offense which cost UNLV the contest against Utah State. Kurt Nantkes was intercepted 4 times--with one being returned 90 yards for a TD by the Aggies--and UNLV's lopsided total yards' advantage in the game came to naught.
The Rebels are 0-4 entering the game and may be facing their last realistic chance to win a game this season as they are not a team which will be competitive at home or on the road in the MWC. .
The Wolf Pack's two wins this year have come against division 1-AA Sacramento State and Buffalo of the MAC. It's hard to get a gauge on the quality of Reno's offense. QBs Jeff Rowe and Travis Moore have combined for 8 TDs and just 1 interception. RB Chance Kretschmer gives the Pack a decent running game.
I may be setting myself up for a bad pick here, but UNLV's offense got untracked last week, even though its five turnovers cost it the game against a poor Aggies' squad. If UNLV loses this week I won't favor them to win a game the rest of the year. With great hesitation, I am making UNLV my pick to win an instate battle in Sam Boyd Stadium in the last of its three straight home games.
Some picks are easier to make than others. Rocky Long's New Mexico team bears little resemblance to the confident squad which made a bona fide run at being a player in the MWC title chase in 2003. Uneven play at the QB spot and the recent injury to DonTrell Moore have cast grave doubt about the team's ability to produce enough offense to win a game.
Contrast that mess with the confident capable team coalescing into a national force in Salt Lake under Urban Meyer. . Alex Smith, Marty Johnson, Paris Warren, Steve Savoy and the rest of Utah's powerful offense will have no trouble in beating the Lobos in Albuquerque. Utah is my pick.
UCLA RB Maurice Drew must have been tired after his 322 yard, 5 TD performance against Washington. That was two weeks ago and the Bruins had an open week last weekend. Drew and his team should be rested and ready to tackle the San Diego State Aztecs. SDS has a challenging non-conference schedule this fall and its game effort in Ann Arbor two weeks ago was good preparation for this meeting. Matt Dlugolecki has the requisite weapons to help the Aztecs vanquish the home team in this one, but Drew's presence is just too much to overlook. In a close game in L.A. my pick is UCLA.
CSU stays at home to play BYU. The Rams played an entire month of the schedule without posting a win against a division 1-A team--a fallow period not likely to be soon repeated under Sonny Lubick's leadership. Gary Crowton's team came e this close to halting the country's longest winning streak when it lost to Boise State last week.
These teams met last year in Provo and the Rams annihilated BYU. (Boise State did the same thing and barely escaped a monumental upset at home last week against the Cougars). I don't expect anything along the lines of last year's demolition by CSU. The teams are similar in that their offensive punch lies in the pass not the run. Both teams struggle on defense. Fans in Fort Collins are no more kindly disposed toward BYU than fans around the rest of MWC. CSU will enjoy a decided vocal backing from its fans. The tortuous schedule the Rams have played and a superb group of wide receivers, led by David Anderson, will be just enough to get the Rams past BYU in this game. My pick is CSU.
Air Force hosts Navy in a nationally televised game Thursday night. Navy won last year's game, 28-25, and will try to post a two game streak against AFA for the first time since 1978 & 79.
Navy enters the game with a 4-0 record. Senior FB, Kyle Eckel, has run wild against AFA the past two seasons. In last year's contest he tore through the Falcons on 33 carries for 176 yards and a TD. That effort came on the heels of his 85 yard, 1 TD game, from 2002, against the Falcons.
Both teams are continuing to find burgeoning success with the passing game this fall. QBs Aaron Polanco and Shaun Carney are providing more balance for the Middies and Falcons on offense with their accurate arms.
All conference linebacker Marchello Graddy's graduation has had a profound effect on the AFA defense. John Rudzinski is the sole returnee from last year's LB crew whose third member was Trevor Hightower. Rudzinski clearly has not been the player this month he was last fall. Defensive coordinator Richard Bell continues what has been a futile search to find adequate replacements for the two graduated seniors.
Under Carney's nascent leadership the Falcons' offense has taken flight through the seasons' first four games. Even while being overwhelmed by Cal in the season opener AFA's offense was poised, precise and productive in the first half before being scuttled in the second half. Chuck Petersen's offense has given indications that it is capable of outscoring any of the teams which remain on AFA's schedule.
While the offense isn't a concern, the defense certainly is. Air Force has shown an inability to contain even the division 1-AA Eastern Washington Eagles who gained 413 yards versus the Falcons. DL Ryan Carteris the lone starter to have played admirably in all four games thus far. Rudzinski, Denny Poland, Jordan Wilkie and Mark Carlson have had their moments, but as currently constituted the squad is without enough players who can make momentum altering plays to stop opposing teams and relieve the burden of needing to score from the backs of Carney et al.
Wins this fall are more likely to see Air Force on the right side of a, 35-34, score than a, 17-14, outcome. Just recall the glory daze, er, days of WAC shootouts from the 1970s and 80s.
The AFA offense continues to enjoy a rejuvenated FB game thanks to Dan Shaffer, Adam Cole and Jacobe Kendrick. Carney's able running and stunning passing accuracy are additional elements of AFA's balanced option attack.
Since Air Force and Navy face each other annually and run similar though not identical attacks, execution rather than trickery becomes paramount. Either team is capable of winning this contest, but unless and until Air Force shows it can contain Eckel's sorties, which seems unlikely given the Falcons' sub-standard defensive performances so far, I am making Navy my pick to win the game.
SNOOZE OF THE WEEK With Nature brandishing its full palette of colors to create the visual grandeur which is Fall, it's only fitting that this week's S.O.W. be as radiant as the maples and aspens of the hills and mountains around us.
Fittingly enough, a Sun Belt Conference tussle matches the e North Texas Mean Green and the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. It'll be a veritable spectrum of garish display when these two clunkers take the field. The not so Mean Green is currently riding a five game slide, while the Blue, but not necessarily depressed, Raiders, have dropped two in a row.
The Greenies yielded 154 points to Big 12 teams Texas, Colorado and Baylor earlier this year before holding storm tossed Florida Atlantic--a team to which both squads have lost--to just 20.
MTSU QB Clint Marks has completed an amazing 74.6% of his attempts this year, but has only 1 TD pass to show for it and 4 interceptions.
If you need a quick nap before heading outside for the first round of raking leaves this fall, a few minutes' viewing of the moveable force facing the resistible object in this less than titanic struggle should knock you out faster than a Bernard Hopkins' roundhouse right to the kidneys.s.