Back To Work

Air Force returns to action this Saturday afternoon nine days after losing to Navy, having lost eight of its last twelve games overall and four of its last five contests to the New Mexico Lobos. The situation may sound bleak, but there is substantial reason for optimism where the Falcons are concerned.

AFAFalcons' Swami Chris

          THE "CHRIS"TAL BALL. I had another solid week with my picks to close September, hitting on five of six games to raise my record for the year to 29-5 (.852). BYU, which paid a visit to CSU in Fort Collins, upset my applecart by posting an impressive win over Sonny Lubick's squad. Here's a look at all the action around the MWC in week six of the season.


          UNLV @ BYU kicks off the weekend's action on Friday night in Provo. In its last two games--both played on the road--BYU came within a whisker of knocking off Boise State, the team with the nation's longest current winning streak--and then beat CSU in Hughes Stadium, a most inhospitable niche for visiting teams in the Lubick regime. Not only did the Cougars gore the Rams, but the manner in which they preyed upon their hosts was impressive. Entering the game ranked 116th out 117 teams in division 1-A in the running game, BYU sprinted through the CSU defense for 207 yards. That figure is as much an announcement heralding the awakening of the BYU running game as a reflection on how inept the Rams are on defense this year. I'll repeat a refrain I've been crooning for two years: CSU has yet to find an adequate replacement for defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, who left for UCLA after the 2002 season.


          Rather than poke bigger holes in the laxity which besets CSU's defense, I'm choosing to give kudos to the Cougars for a strong effort led by RBs Fahu Tahi and Curtis Brown, who gained 98 and 93 rushing yards respectively. If BYU can sustain anywhere near that kind of production on the ground for the remainder of the season, it can make a concerted run at second place in the MWC.


          The BYU QB position is a battle of the Bs between Jason and John Beck and Matt Berry. Amongst the three of them BYU s averaging a healthy 275 yards a game passing the ball. Having beaten a competent Notre Dame team, frightened Boise State and downed CSU, the Cougars have demonstrated that the onerous non-conference schedule they played prepared them well for MWC action.


          The UNLV Rebels earned their first, and probably last, win of the season this past weekend when they beat the Nevada Wolf Pack of the WAC. When UNLV hosted BYU last year the Cougars needed an overtime period to secure their, 27-20, win.


          In the lone MWC game UNLV has played in 2004--a 27-10 loss at home versus AFA--the Rebels were lethargic and unimpressive under QB Shane Steichen's direction. The oft-injured Kurt Nantkes has since returned to the lineup to lead the team's offense. He completed 11 of 19 throws against Nevada last week, but his connections garnered a mere 128 yards. WR Earvin Johnson has had no help in the passing game this year as teams have double covered him and dared UNLV to throw elsewhere. The defensive gambit has worked. HB Dominique Dorsey leads UNLV in rushing at a healthy 112 yards a game, but again, there is little talent to assist him in moving the uball on the ground.


          The Cougars will be playing at home on a Friday night, before a packed house and to a national television audience, secure in the knowledge that the most difficult part of their schedule has steeled them for a strong run in conference play. A balanced offense powered the Cougars past CSU last weekend. This game looks easy. My pick is BYU.


SAN DIEGO STATE @ WYOMING. This Saturday afternoon game is the most intriguing game of the week in the MWC. Coach Joe Glenn has directed his Cowboys to a 6-5 record in the 'Pokes last eleven games with victories over BYU, CSU and Mississippi. These are no longer the laughingstock Cowboys who served as a doormat for the mud-caked cleats of conference foes prior to Glenn's arrival.


          The team's transformation isn't complete and there are going to be disappointments for Wyoming before it becomes competitive on a weekly basis within the confines of MWC play, but the Cowboys' performance since the midpoint of the 2003 season is prima facie evidence of the momentum which continues to build in Laramie.


          The Aztecs rank as the MWC's most puzzling enigma. Tom Craft's team nearly upset a defending national champion Ohio State team in Columbus early in the 2003 season. This fall SDS played toe to toe with the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House in Ann Arbor and carried a, 21-17, lead into the locker room at halftime. The team's failure to score in the second half cost it the game as Michigan prevailed, 24-21.


          The 2003 Freshman of the Year in the MWC, RB Lynell Hamilton, won't play for the Aztecs this fall because of complications from a broken leg suffered last year in the UNLV game. Michael Franklin has filled his spot in the backfield ably by averaging 4.6 yards a carry.


          SDS has a 2-2 record this year and played a better brand of football in losing to Michigan than it did in beating Idaho State and Nevada. Wyoming is notorious for drawing almost no one to its home games as the Cowboys frequently play in a War Memorial Stadium that is less than half-filled. For a San Diego State team which has been through the rigors of playing before two of the most hostile crowds in college football at Ohio State and Michigan, playing amid the relative silence of tomblike War Memorial Stadium should present no problem.


          QB Matt Dlugolecki leads an Aztecs' attack which produces 425 yards a game. The team's overriding weakness has been its defense, but bear in mind that games on the road against Michigan and UCLA have led to a tandem of long afternoons for the Aztecs' defenders.


          Corey Bramlet leads a Wyoming offense which is growing in confidence and competence. SDS posted a, 25-20, victory when the teams met last year, but 25 points may not be enough for either team to win this meeting. Wyoming's challenge will be to find a running game to relieve pressure from Bramlet. The task for SDS will be for Dlugolecki to avoid throwing the ill-timed interceptions to which he has been prone.


          San Diego State has a history of failing to keep its focus against what it perceives to be lesser talented opponents and has struggled in recent years to beat some teams it easily should have dismissed. This game is the conference opener for both teams. Under Craft, the Aztecs finished last season by winning three of their four final MWC games. The team's performance against Michigan shows the talent with which Craft has to work.


          Weather shouldn't be a factor in the game and that bodes well for the Aztecs who are skittish when playing outside balmy SoCal. My guess is that both teams will move the ball effectively and that the defenses are in for a long afternoon. Joe Glenn's Cowboys are a team on the rise playing a San Diego State team about which predictions often supersede its performance. Nevertheless, the Aztecs believe they are working their way toward a crucial October 30th home date against Utah. Craft will put coaching blinders on his team to focus its attention squarely on Wyoming while telling it there's much work to be done in advance of Halloween Weekend. My pick is San Diego State.


BACK TO WORK. Losses to Navy and Utah have cost Air Force an opportunity to recapture the CIC trophy and likely preclude any realistic shot at a conference title in 2004. Still, the MWC schedule should produce a spirited battle for bowl berths behind the runaway train which is Utah.


          Although Air Force has lost eight of its past twelve games, all but one of its last half dozen league contests and four of five meetings against New Mexico, the Falcons appear to be catching the Lobos at an opportune time. UNM starting QB, Kole McKamey, will miss late Saturday afternoon's contest and be replaced by senior Tali Ena.


          Sensational RB, DonTrell Moore, hurt his knee returning a punt in UNM's game against New Mexico State two weeks ago and sat out last week's encounter with Utah. He'll be in the lineup for the game against AFA, but may be a far cry from the back who gained 188 yards versus Air Force last year in Albuquerque, when the Lobos won, 24-12. Given New Mexico's injuries to key personnel, how proficient the Lobos will be in moving the ball against Air Force becomes a subject for open debate.


          In last week's loss at home to Utah, New Mexico's offense mustered a paltry eight first downs which necessitated the team's having to punt fourteen times. UNM managed just 157 yards on offense. McKamey has been disastrous in throwing the ball this year completing a putrid 45% of his attempts while being intercepted five times and hurling a pair of TD passes. Ena has been even worse completing just 4 of 19 throws. Let me add that one of the few teams in division 1-A with a worse statistical record throwing the ball this fall than UNM, is Navy. AFA fans need only recall that the Falcons' most recent loss turned on the team's inability to prevent  the Middies from converting on a third and nineteen situation. QB Aaron Polanco's 66 yard completion to Marco Nelson helped Navy sail to victory.


          Throughout Fisher DeBerry's two decade tenure as AFA's head coach, Falcon defenses have shown an unfortunate propensity for yielding far too many conversions when the opposition has been confronted by third and long situations. Navy's long pass completion, an 89 yard gallop by Cal's J. J. Arrington and a 65 yard TD reception by Utah's Paris Warren show that the problem has not yet been eradicated by defensive coordinator Richard Bell's boys. Expect New Mexico to have some success moving the ball even in the face of suffering a bite from the injury bug.


          Neither team's strength lies with its defense. Both teams were unsuccessful in trying to corral the Utah offense. Coach Rocky Long's defenders may be in for a shock when they see the efficient air force the Falcons now employ on offense thanks to the passing wizardry of Shaun Carney. For the past two seasons, the Falcons' ground based option attack was too easily defended because, quite frankly, Chance Harridge was a dreadful passer.


          On defense both teams will use a 3-3-5 scheme as a base alignment, with one major difference. The Lobos' secondary will far more frequently use man to man coverage than will the Falcons. The advantage in this tactic is the speed with which tackles can be made following completed passes or, in advance of that, the frequency with which a defender can deny a completion in the first place. The drawback of man to man coverage is that should a defender fall while the ball is in flight, or after a pass has been completed, the receiver's next stop could be the end zone.


          AFA is more likely to employ zone coverage in its implementation of the 3-3-5 defense. The advantage in so doing is that there are generally more defenders in a given area of the field to tackle a receiver if, and/or when, a pass has been completed. In theory, the "zone" edition of the 3-3-5 prevents a defense from allowing long completions. The inherent danger is that proficient QBs can dissect a secondary by throwing to the soft spots or the seams between the zones in the alignment.


          Given UNM's difficulty in passing the ball this year, coupled with a less than healthy DonTrell Moore, placed in juxtaposition to the Falcons' proclivity for allowing the big play, seems to weigh slightly in favor of AFA's defense not being as prone to yielding sizable gains at inopportune junctures in the game, even though AFA ranks last in total defense in the MWC. UNM should be more adept at moving the ball than might otherwise be expected in light of their hamstrung offense, while AFA's defense should be more taut than is often the case. Bear in mind this is a UNM team which beat Texas Tech--a team that moved the ball with no problem all day long in Norman against the Sooners. The Lobos will get some yards, just not as many as they have been accustomed to piling up against AFA in the past five years.


          JoelAFA's lone victory against the Lobos since the formation of the MWC came two years ago by a, 38-31, score in overtime in Falcon Stadium. DB Joel Buelow successfully defended a fourth down pass thrown into the endzone on the final play of the day to seal the win for Air Force. The Falcons have a horrid record under Fisher DeBerry when allowing 24 or more points and in each of the past five meetings UNM has reached that total, surpassing it on four occasions.


          A defense's strongest ally is a ball-controlling, point-producing offense. Under Carney's direction the air is clearly back in the Air Force attack. FBs Dan Shaffer and Adam Cole--assisted by Jacobe Kendrick--have infused the lifeblood of the option attack, the fullback game, with a vigor not seen in the past three seasons from the AFA offense.


          WRs Alec Messerall and J.P. Waller each snared passes for in excess of 100 yards against Navy. On average, Carney has amassed over 218 yards of total offense through the first five games of the season. I'll now repeat something I wrote in August concerning this game.


          ==> 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. <==


          I wrote that long before Moore was injured or McKamey was knocked out of this weekend's contest. UNM was favored earlier in the week until Las Vegas' sportsbooks got wind of McKamey's plight and took the game off the board before reestablishing AFA as the game's favorite. Air Force has had its lunch handed to it by New Mexico since the two became annual foes in MWC competition. Neither team appears headed in the direction of being a bona fide contender for a league title this season. Each team has a loss in conference play and second defeat so early in the season will effectively eliminate one team from the chase for a bowl berth.


          By the time this game begins, Air Force may still be the betting favorite in Las Vegas and therefore a victory over the Lobos, technically, wouldn't qualify in all quarters as an upset. That doesn‘t concern me in the least. My pick to win the game is Air Force.


SNOOZE OF THE WEEK.SnoozerThe brilliant hues of October are surpassed only by the cumbersome work required to gather the leaves in your backward once Nature has sent them earthward. RutJust when you think the process of raking has ended, you find out it's only begun. You'll need to be fit and invigorated to for the job at hand and it's understandable that you'd want to take a nap before beginning such arduous backyard business. Your in luck. This weekend's pointless meeting between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Vanderbilt Commodores will have your examining the insides of your eyelids in no time.

          While scarlet may be a fine hue to describe Baroness Emmuska Orczy's pimpernel or an O'Hara from Gone with the Wind, it surely is unfitting when trying to bring to mind a fearsome gridiron warrior. Then again just how daunting can Rutgers be after having lost to New Hampshire? After four games two Rutgers' backs have gained as many as 55 yards rushing this season.  The Knights'  ground "attack" if you'll pardon the expression, has produced 2 TDs this fall.

          Vandy may be the quintessential good news-bad news story. The Commodores graduated only one starter from last year's team, meaning that 21 other starters have returned. Therein lies the problem. The Commodores piloted the mess that is their football team onto the rocks last year by going 2-10 last year and are off to a 1-3 start this fall.  And that's before games against Georgia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee have been played.

          Vanderbilt returned more players to its lineup this season than any program in division 1-A football. Geez, with as fine an education as students receive at the school you would have thought someone would have figured out how to find an actual player or two down there. Guess not. 

          A maladroit offense ranking 92nd in the nation has made it difficult for Vanderbilt to sustain drives this year. Maybe the 89th ranked Rutgers' defense will be its blundering equal. The sound sleep you'll experience after watching a few series of this disaster masquerading as a football game will have you feeling rakish in no time.

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