Ghastly, Ghoulish and Ghostly

Having now lost two of its last three games at home and three of five in Falcon Stadium in 2004, the Falcons hit the road to play two improving teams: Wyoming and Army. With recapturing the CIC Trophy and winning the MWC title both out of the question, the remaining goals would seem to be securing a winning record and clinging to the hope that some bowl committee, any bowl committee, will notice. If AFA is going to win three of its next four games it will need to overcome some disturbing habits.

THIS NEEDS TO STOP…AND SOON. Maybe AFA would have been better served by the schedule makers if forced to play the majority of its games on the road this year. Playing at home has been of no discernible advantage to Fisher DeBerry's team, as an unacceptable 2-3 record attests.

Equally as disturbing as the team's poor record in Falcon Stadium this fall, is the manner in which the team has performed, especially in the second halves of games. In five home games this season AFA has faced four division 1-A teams and one division 1-AA team, Eastern Washington. Against the Eagles, Air Force scored seven points in the third quarter. It's not an accomplishment of which to be proud, but in this sorry case it represents the good news.Chernobyl

The bad news is that AFA did not score a point in the third quarter against Cal, Navy, New Mexico or BYU. The Falcons lost all but the New Mexico game and did their best to gift-wrap that one for the Lobos by utilizing a punting game that was then, and is now, in a greater state of disrepair than Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.

AFA will wind its way up I-25 later this week to face Wyoming on Halloween Weekend. The occasion caused me to wonder just how long the Falcons' third quarter ineptitude has been present. As the proud owner of a set of keys to H. G. Wells' Time Machine, purchased on e-bay for a song, I invite Falconatics to join me in a brief trip back in time to Halloween Night 2002 in Falcon Stadium when the Falcons were drubbed, 31-12, by CSU. The game marked the onset of a disturbing malfeasance by coordinator Chuck Petersen's offense.
Rams-Falcons 2002
Beginning with the Halloween Night game of 2002 and continuing to, and through, last weekend's game versus BYU, Air Force has played 24 games. In 13 of the 24 games (54.1%) Air Force has failed to score a single point in the third quarter. The Falcons' record in those contests is a dismal 2-11(.153). One of the dogged-eared platitudes trotted out by Fisher DeBerry several times a year in pre and post game radio interviews, is the importance of a team's scoring on its first drive of the third quarter for the purpose of establishing offensive momentum in the second half of a game.

In 2002 after being held scoreless in the third quarter by CSU, AFA was blanked by Virginia Tech in the San Francisco Bowl. The trend picked up speed on a precipitous basis in 2003 when the Falcons were throttled seven times in the third quarter by: Northwestern, Wyoming, Navy, CSU, Utah, New Mexico and San Diego State. Unable to break that skein, this year's squad has floundered against Cal, Navy, New Mexico and BYU immediately after halftime.

SUGGESTIONS AND SOLUTIONS. It goes without saying that players often perform poorly. Ironically, what may go unsaid is that coaches have horrendous performance streaks, too. To the utter disbelief of many AFA fans in 2003, Petersen was the recipient of at least one national assistant coach of the year award. It was indeed a strange accolade accruing to a man who stood watch over a team which finished the season on a 2-5 slide while being shut out in the third period on five of seven occasions--all resulting in losses.

In fact, Petersen's offense has been shut out in the third quarter nine times in its past fourteen games, that's a staggeringly unacceptable 64% of the time and a stretch of games in which AFA has posted a pathetic 5-9(.357) record.

Before other teams start referring to the AFA offense as "Petersen's Patsies" measures need to be taken, and at once. Senior halfback Darnell Stephens is 21 yards shy of becoming the 21st player in academy history to rush for 1,400 or more yards. Assuming Stephens gains the necessary ground against Wyoming, he'll join Scotty McKayScotty as the 20th leading rusher in the history of AFA football. Over the course of his career Darnell has averaged a robust 5.96 yards each time he has carried the ball. More amazingly, Stephens is averaging an incredible 7.1 yards per carry this season. The most mind-boggling aspect of Stephens is the abject manner in which he continues to be disregarded by Petersen this season when constructing game plans.

Bear in mind Stephens is on the cusp of entering a rushing realm where few AFA HBs have trod since the origin of option football at the academy. If Stephens gains 99 yards in his final four regular season games he will leave the academy as the second most prolific ground gaining halfback in the school's option era. Yet despite this sustained record of productivity, he is on pace to carry the ball a mere 64 times this season after having toted it 120 times last year. Why the continuing disappearance of the team's best and most productive runner? Sorry, you'll need to ask the architect of this clever plan, Chuck Petersen.

Last season, the AFA offense was directed by QB Chance Harridge, a brilliant runner, but an unfinished work as a passer. This season's QB, Shaun Carney, gives every indication he may become AFA's most proficient passer in the option era by the time his four year career has reached its conclusion. On the other hand he is no where near as fleet afoot or as elusive as was Harridge.

One of the premises upon which a ground based option attack is founded, is that the QB running such a scheme will be called upon to play an integral part in running the ball on every offensive possession initiated by his team. Carney has carried the ball three times as often as Stephens this season (124 carries vis-à-vis 41), while gaining less than half as many yards per attempt.

No, Petersen cannot eliminate Carney's having to carry the ball, nor should he. However, Petersen can, and should, ensure that Stephens receives decidedly more carries than has been the case through a most unsuccessful first seven games of the season for Air Force. In thirty years of watching AFA football the only HB I've seen who can match Stephens' size and productivity on a per carry basis is Greg Johnson. By the time this season is finished Johnson will likely be the only HB to have gained more yardage in the option era at AFA than Stephens. The senior from Midwest City, Oklahoma is the most potent rushing weapon the Falcons have in their backfield this season and yet he is suffering from chronic inactivity in Petersen's game plans.

The Falcons pride themselves on having one of the most robust ground attacks in division 1-A football on an annual basis. This year's team is averaging a shade less than 250 yards a game entering the Wyo contest. Cosmetically, the team's seventh place ranking in rushing among all 117 division 1-A teams may sound fine and dandy, until you realize that the current pace is the second lowest total for Air Force since 1984. Only in 1992 did the Falcons run the ball for fewer yards per game when they moved it 242 yards a game on the ground.

Reducing the number of times Carney carries the ball, while simultaneously increasing the number of Stephens' carries, will allow each player to do what he does best. Carney is a superb passer with a solid corps of receivers at his disposal. Stephens is among the best HBs ever to play at the academy, regardless of the offensive scheme being utilized.

With Matt Ward having been dismissed from the academy, the future participation of HB Eddie Moss being uncertain and an untimely decrease in production from the fullback spot over the past month, getting the ball into the hands of Stephens--and his running mate Anthony Butler--becomes a more pressing issue and necessity. AFA needs to attack the perimeter of opposing defenses to keep its offense diversified and defenses off-balance. Stephens and Butler have the wheels to get outside and spread defenses, thereby opening larger gaps in the middle of the field through which Carney and the FBs can scoot when they carry the ball. It's a classic example of a "one hand washing the other" scenario.

A RELIEF PITCHER? Another possibility for dispersing the Falcons' third quarter doldrums calls for a seemingly drastic personnel change, but one which cannot be any less productive than a scheme which has failed to score a point in nine of the past fourteen third quarters. Insert QB Adam Fitch into the lineup for the first two or even three possessions immediately after halftime. If Fitch sparks the team to greater effectiveness so much the better for the Falcons, but as it stands now Carney has struggled mightily in the third quarter and he and the offense need a panacea for what afflicts them.

A ruptured Achilles' tendon sidelined Fitch in spring ball in 2004, as he appeared to be in the process of winning the number one spot at QB on the depth chart. In his only significant game action during 2003, he rallied the team to a victory on the road over Northwestern after Harridge was ejected from the game. This success might be an isolated instance, and yet, indicates Fitch has the makings of a player who can came off the bench to lead the troops to lofty heights. Petersen needs to make this adaptation before the season slips into a fourth consecutive, dark hole of a, 2-5, finish.

Bringing Fitch's name into the conversation requires an examination of one other area of the Falcons' play, namely the punt team. An unqualified disaster in the past two games, during which time AFA has suffered three blocked punts all returned for TDs, the Falcons' inability to execute a punt enabled New Mexico to resuscitate its chance for victory while flat out allowing the Cougars to seize control of a game and never relinquish it.

Another time-tested bromide in the DeBerry lexicon is the importance of special teams' play and especially where kicking is concerned. The three blocked punts resulting in opposition TDs give Air Force the dubious distinction, along with the Akron Zips and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, of being one of only three teams to have had three punts returned for TDs in 2004. Though it may be regarded by some as splitting statistical hairs, the NCAA regards a blocked punt resulting in a TD as a punt having been returned for a TD. The time has arrived for kicking coach, Jeff Hays, and special teams' coordinator, Tom Miller, to give Fitch a try as the primary punter.

 


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