Leading While Others Can Only Follow

Conference races across the collegiate football landscape have passed the simmering stage and reached a full boil. This is true even in the MWC where Utah has shown its championship performance of 2003 is being sustained well into the current season and will make the Utes difficult to dethrone. In particular, there is one element of Utah's team that distinguishes it from its pursuers.

Chris Field, AFAFalcons Staff WriterIRREPLACEABLE. October and November are the months during which the bulk of any college football conference's games are contested. While a quarterback can steel himself in the non-conference games of September for the spirited battles that are enacted later that fall, there is no substitute for the cool demeanor of an experienced tactician who has been through the fevered, emotional pitch of games that crown a season's victor.

When you survey the starting QBs in the MWC you'll find a stark contrast between Utah's Alex Smith and the other field generals in the league. In alphabetical order, here's a brief glance at the teams in the conference and the players leading their offenses.

AIR FORCE. Shaun Carney has revived the passing game as a viable element in the Falcons' ground based option attack. While it's possible that Fisher DeBerry may have found the player who'll lead the team's offense for four full seasons, Carney is, after all, just a freshman and unaccustomed to the vicissitudes of conference play in division 1-A football.

BYU. Matt Berry ended last season as the Cougars starter. He has been superseded by the battling Becks: John and Jason. John is getting the bulk of the playing time, but both have played a substantial portion of the season. It brings to mind the old maxim about a house divided.

CSU.Ram's frosh QB It's more than a play on words to suggest the Rams suffered a tough break when Justin Holland suffered a fractured ankle during the San Diego State game. Holland had demonstrated greater proficiency as a pocket passer than his predecessor Bradlee Van Pelt. It's a harsh, but factual assessment, that when Holland returns to the lineup he'll be in search of his first win in conference play. In the interim true freshman Caleb Hanie will be at the controlsYoung Reb QB of the Rams' attack.

UNLV. Kurt Nantkes and Shane Steichen have taken turns being dreadful as the Rebels' starting QB this season. Each has completed fewer than half his attempts. Therein lies one explanation as to why WR Earvin Johnson continues to be underutilized this fall.

NEW MEXICO. The Lobos and Rebels are in an unfortunate photo finish contest to determine which of them has the worst combination of starting QBs in the league and possibly all of division 1-A college football. Kole McKamey was a disappointment even before suffering a concussion in the Oregon State game. His backup, Tali Ena, is a fifth year senior who's completed 31% of his attempts in 2004.

SAN DIEGO STATE. Matt Dlugolecki played well enough to give the Aztecs a chance to defeat Michigan in Ann Arbor, but couldn't move the team consistently enough to win in Laramie. His tendency to throw more interceptions than TDs (7 versus 5 this season) helps to clarify the Aztecs' baffling inconsistency on offense. He sprained an ankle in the CSU game and was replaced by Kevin O'Connell, a 41% passer on the year.

WYOMING. Corey Bramlet has succeeded older brother, Casey, as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. While Joe Glenn's team has enjoyed success at home this season posting a 4-0 record, the Pokes are 0-2 outside War Memorial Stadium and haven't won a conference road game since 1999.

The preceding serves as a pretext to examining Alex Smith of Utah. Since the beginning of the 2003 season, Utah has a gaudy 16-2 record, the MWC's only postseason triumph from last year when it topped Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl and division 1-A's, third longest active winning streak at ten games. Smith led the team to an undefeated road record in conference play last season and has kept that streak intact by engineering the team to laugher in Albuquerque in the team's lone road conference game this season.

Smith has completed nearly 65% of his attempts through half a dozen games, been intercepted twice while tossing six times as many TD passes. As the MWC enters the stretch drive that will determine whether or not the Utes extend their reign from last year, Smith has shown himself to be the best and most valuable player in the MWC.

He rarely forces the ball into double coverage, makes judicious and effective use of a talented corps of receivers, is fleet enough to be Utah's third leading rusher and continues to be a primary factor in his team's being the sixth highest scoring squad--at a shade better than 39 points a game--in college football in 2004.

AINT NO DOUBLE TALK. Air Force fans are loathe to discuss the totality of the history of the series versus BYU because the Falcons are so far in arrears where wins and losses--the only substantive litmus test of any series--are concerned. Falconatics, those football devotees who pride themselves on being half falcon and half fan, prefer to focus solely, only and exclusively on the contests of 1982 and those from 1995 to the present day. In truth, all segments of the AFA-BYU series must be given equal examination in order to understand the current state of the rivalry.

AFA partisans will decry a purported abundance of their team's bad mojo, bad gris-gris and bad juju as the leading causes of the Cougars' decades long superiority in the series. While perhaps providing momentary humor, the viewpoint is steeped in denial with its staunch refusal to face reality. Three straightforward elements comprised the basis for BYU's dominance in the series. Lavell Edwards was a better coach than Ken Hatfield or Fisher DeBerry. The Cougars were blessed with an unbroken legacy of QBs who prospered under Norm Chow's offensive scheme. Most simply of all, BYU had better players than Air Force on an annual basis.

Whether playing in Falcon Stadium or Provo, in daylight or under the lights, to a television audience or just the paying customers of the day, from the birth of the series in 1956, through the 17 games played until 1994, Air Force was able to post only a single, solitary victory against BYU.

In the seven games played from 1995 through 2003, the Falcons beat BYU on five occasions. Air Force has won the past two games against BYU, three of the past four and five of the last seven. The seniors on this year's AFA team have a chance to become members of the first class in school history to post wins over BYU in three successive seasons.

Just as AFA fans are more than reticent to discuss the length and breadth of the series which finds their beloved Falcons lagging badly with a 6-18 (.250) record, so too, are Cougars' fans unwilling to engage in the conversation which discusses the seemingly seismic shift in AFA's recent success in this series.

An inability to find a dominant QB of the stripe by which Cougars' teams were led when Edwards stalked the sidelines, has been a major deterrent to BYU's ability to sustain its momentum in this series.

After beating AFA by thirty points in 2002, the Cougars were dismissed out of hand by the Falcons', on national television one year later by 43 points, a reversal of fortune to the tune of seventy-three points. Talk about fans being PROVOked by such a nuclear meltdown! There isn't a BYU who'll willingly chat about that specific catastrophe.

Whether the players and coaches involved in this series regard it as a traditional rivalry is a question for another day. However, there is no uncertainty about the existence of the open dislike and mutual disregard in which the fans of each team hold one another.

STASIS AND CHANGE. There was a time I was a firm believer that open weeks in the schedule proved more deleterious than beneficial to an Air Force team. Fisher DeBerry's record after such off-weeks bolstered my belief. The Falcons' ability to play competitively against BYU has been accompanied in recent years by increased success in games following open weeks. The Falcons are not only 5-2 in their past seven games versus the Cougars, but an identical 5-2 in their past seven outings following a brief respite from the rigors of the gridiron.

Dating back to the 1998 season, AFA has beaten Tulsa '98), Washington ('99), Utah ('00), SDS ('01) and Cal ('02) upon returning to action. AFA's two losses came to CSU last year and BYU in 1999. With age comes wisdom, and for DeBerry and his staff, perhaps a growing realization of how to make more productive time of openings in the team's schedule.

Gary Crouton's Cougars will face an Air Force team that is reliant on its ground based option attack to move the ball. There are two elements of the attack the Cougars have not needed to defend in the past several years as the Falcons' fullback and passing games were missing in action. However, both have been much in evidence this year.

FBs Dan Shaffer and Adam Cole have energized the FB game for the Falcons to a point of efficiency not seen from this spot in the AFA backfield since the days Spanky Gilliam was churning out critical third down yardage to sustain drives.

The 2004 edition of the Falcons' backfield is one in which no single back's talent will stun the opposition, but every individual's performance will enable the offense to maintain possession of the ball, gain first downs, run the clock and move the ball into position for a score. Half a dozen backs have carried the ball at least twenty times and gained 100 or more yards on the season. Shaffer is averaging a healthy 5.0 yards a carry. Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler--the team's principal HBs--are averaging 7.5 and 6.1 yards per rush respectively. The message is clear: if BYU tries to stop the FB game inside, the Falcons have the requisite speed and size to attack the perimeter of the Cougars' defense.

BYU will actually need to play pass defense this time around against AFA. Even though the Falcons won the past two games against BYU, the Cougars defensive game plan was to stack seven, eight and nine men "in the box" at the line of scrimmage daring AFA to beat them with the pass. QB Chance Harridge was among the best practitioners of the run in the storied history of the option era at the academy, while being among its worst passers.

Freshman Shaun Carney is the polar opposite of his immediate predecessor. Nowhere near as fleet afoot as Harridge, or either of the Morgan brothers, Keith Boyea, Dee Dowis or several other option era AFA QBs, Carney has already shown an aptitude in the passing game which may allow him to establish new marks in every meaningful statistical category should he play four years at Air Force. If BYU defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, stacks the line of scrimmage in an effort to dare AFA to beat BYU via the pass, he may, in short order, regret the decision.

JEKYLL & HYDE. Saturday afternoon's game will pit two teams, but squads that have shown a multitude of tendencies in only half a season's play.

There's the BYU running game which ranks 112th nationally, but gained 207 yards in Fort Collins versus CSU and 237 last week against Wyoming as the Cougars posted a pair of wins.

There's the BYU offense that has amassed over 400 yards on offense in each of the team's last four games, but scored as many as 30 points on just one occasion in that period.

There's the BYU team that was good enough to beat Notre dame--now ranked 25th in the country--as well as the Cougars' squad so inept it lost at home to a dreadful UNLV bunch.

The Falcons have struggled with inconsistent play as well. There's the offense that was confident and competetnt enough to score 35 points in Salt Lake against a Utah team that has posted a 16-2 record in its past eighteen games. There's also the maladroit crew that has been shut out in the second half of a game once and held without a point in the third quarter on two other occasions, all in home games.

There's the Falcons' team that threatened to pummel New Mexico into oblivion two weeks ago as well as the one which inexplicably couldn't execute a punt in the second half and nearly handed the Lobos a victory on a proverbial silver platter.

There's the Falcons' defensiveunit which limited Navy to five pass completions over the course of sixty minutes, but allowed a game-altering, 66 yard completion when the Middies faced a fourth and nineteen deep in their own territory.

AFA and BYU have displayed strengths that have propelled them to impressive victories as well as weaknesses leading to their demise.

These two teams, as well as CSU and Wyoming, have one loss in MWC play, but the schedule may show an advantage weighing in AFA's favor. The Falcons have already played Utah while BYU, CSU and Wyoming have yet to contest the Utes. BYU and CSU will do so in Rice-Eccles Stadium, while SanFran BowlUtah will travel to Laramie to play the Cowboys. Additionally, AFA has games remaining to be played against each of the three teams having just a sole loss in conference play, with only the game versus Wyoming being played outside Falcon Stadium.

If the Falcons can extend their recent mastery over BYU this weekend, the team will take a sizable step toward becoming bowl qualified and earning its first postseason invitation since 2002 when it faced Virginia Tech in the San Francisco (now Emerald) Bowl.

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