SIGNPOSTS. The telltale markings of recent second half of the season meltdowns have become all too familiar for AFA players, coaches and fans since 2001. Fisher DeBerry's squads have completed each of the past three seasons by losing five of the final seven games they contested. The Falcons' game against CIC rival, Navy, played on the final evening of September, marked yet another misstep for AFA as it began the final seven games on its current schedule. A closer examination of the Falcons' last dozen games reveals that the team hasn't beaten a competitive team in that stretch.
Two the AFA's last four victories came against UNLV, one on October 11, 2003 in Falcon Stadium and the other in Sam Boyd Stadium last month giving AFA its first MWC victory of the current year. Having attended both games I can attest to the disconsolate, disorganized, dispirited mess that is UNLV Rebels' football. John Robinson could no longer ignore the writing on the wall as his recent announcement, that he will finally cede the coaching reins to his yet unnamed successor at year's end, confirms.
Another of the Falcons' victories was posted at home against Army. The Black Knights' unending travails are the cause of universal pity from every outpost of the collegiate football landscape. Head coach Bobby Ross willingly ended a comfortable retirement to immerse himself in the cauldron of ineptitude that has become a nineteen game losing streak since the West Pointers defeated Tulane in November of 2002.
The Falcons' other win in its last dozen games came against division 1-AA Eastern Washington State University of the Big Sky Conference. There is no scenario which presents any of these triumphs as impressive. It is indeed the Falcons' good luck that four of its six remaining regular season games will be played in Falcon Stadium since the team has lost five of its last six road games--a puzzling bit of incompetence since Air Force had won 8 of 13 road games directly prior to establishing its now worrisome trend for being road kill, rather than road warriors.
COMPETITIVE OR REPETITIVE? The late season crash landings assayed by the Falcons over the past three seasons--another one of which may have been initiated with the recent loss to the Middies--have negated the strong starts of the 2001, 2002 and 2003 campaigns. In those years by the time September yielded its turn to October, the Falcons had compiled a collective, 11-1, record only to follow such success with a,10-15, mark over the remainder of three seasons.
Air Force will play New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State at home over the last half of this season. Each has been a nemesis for AFA during the past three years as the Falcons have posted an unacceptable, 2-7, record against their conference confreres. Given the Falcons' ongoing record of second half of the season frustration, the schedule does not necessarily dictate a reversal of fortune. Still, the Lobos, Aztecs and Rams give indications that each is vulnerable. DeBerry and his coaches have a clearly defined project before them: to implement methods of preparation which will yield greater success for this year's squad than has been the case for its predecessors over the closing stretch of the schedule.
While head coaches in the MWC are loathe to concede the conference title to Urban Meyer's Utah team just yet, every vestige of logic points toward the Utes' being the prohibitive choice to repeat their championship from a year ago. Only under the most ill-conceived line of thinking does a second place finish in the MWC not guarantee a bowl berth for the team finishing on that rung of the standings ladder. While DeBerry's top two annual goals of winning the CIC Trophy and a conference title are out of the Falcons' control, his third aim, earning a bowl bid and bowl game victory, still remains intact.
AIR "CRAFT" WARNINGS. San Diego State is the MWC's inscrutable enigma. The Aztecs have played alternately well enough to scare the bejeebers out of Ohio State and Michigan in those teams' home stadia in the past year and then struggled mightily to beat UNLV.
Head coach Tom Craft has replaced gifted RB Lynell Hamilton--out for the year following a broken leg last year which did not heal sufficiently after three off-season surgeries--with Michael Franklin. QB Matt Dlugolecki has completed over 58% of his pass attempts and is averaging nearly 250 a game. He also has developed a tendency to throw interceptions at inopportune times as he's thrown half a dozen while hurling just four TD passes. Neither of the Aztecs' two wins this season have been masterpieces. The first was a statistically impressive triumph over division 1-AA Idaho State from the Big Sky, while the other came against Nevada Reno of the WAC. SDS has played a better brand of football when losing to the Wolverines and UCLA than when dispatching the Bengals and Wolf Pack. It gives rise to conjecture as to whether or not Craft can keep his team focused on a weekly basis upon the challenge at hand.
The Aztecs have a history of playing in a disinterested manner late in the season, especially if a conference title isn't within reach or if the team is playing in bad weather on the road. These factors could yield an edge to Air Force when the Aztecs pay a visit to what could be a snow and ice laden Falcon Stadium on November 13th.
RAM-BUNCTIOUSThe regular season will conclude for AFA and CSU on November 20th in Falcon Stadium. I don't know what took the MWC schedule honchos so long to set this game as a fitting finale for both teams. This meeting--always hugely popular along the I-25 corridor among fans of the teams--is one which demands it be established as the climax to both the regular season and conference schedules for the Falcons and Rams. It's the perfect football adjunct to the Thanksgiving holiday which would accompany its yearly, late November positioning.
A murderous non-conference schedule was followed by an MWC opening loss to BYU for Sonny Lubick's team this fall. The Rams are 1-4 for the first time in the sunny days accompanying Lubick's arrival and facing the distinct possibility of a losing season, with games still remaining to be played on the road against San Diego State and Utah, before they head south along I-25 to butt heads with the Falcons.
The Rams' offense has been entrusted to the capable hands of QB Justin Holland, who has shown an expertise in the passing game not demonstrated when Bradlee Van Pelt was under center for CSU. As with any team which throws the ball almost 40 times a game, there has been no shortage of interceptions and Holland has thrown 10 in five games.
Rams' WR David Anderson is second in the nation in reception yardage per game and fifth in receptions per game in CSU's robust aerial attack. He and Holland will singe and otherwise scald the Falcons' secondary when the teams meet, but a replica of CSU's stalwart defense of recent vintage has yet to emerge, which helps to explain the 31 points per game the team has allowed thus far. Lubick has not yet adequately replaced defensive coordinator, Larry Kerr, who left the team two years ago, and his absence has spelled Kerr-tains for CSU's defense.
The Falcons' and Rams' defenses are without enough athletes who can make momentum altering plays in the course of a game to relieve a measure of pressure from their offensive counterparts. A possible byproduct of this dearth of defensive talent could be a recreation of the holiday cornucopia of points the teams produced in the, 44-40, Snow Bowl played in Falcon Stadium on November 11, 2000.
Next time I'll have an in-depth look at how and why Air Force could be able to skin Rocky Long's New Mexico Lobos this weekend.