The Falcons' Faint, Fading Pulse

The most vital numbers in assessing a team's success are the ones designating wins and losses, while everything else is little more than garish garnish. There are times when statistics can help clarify why a team has failed or succeeded. A fourth consecutive Air Force football season seems headed for a crash landing. Here are some areas of the team's play that bear examination.

WISHES AND MATCHES. There's a profundity to the caveat warning you to be careful for what you wish because you might get it. It seems that in anyone's life wishes and matches continue to be among the leading causes of burns.

Chance Harridge was one of the most fleet-footed QBs ever to guide AFA's ground based option attack. In the future there may be other QBs or HBs who play at the academy that will surpass Harridge's career rushing total, but let the record clearly show that at the time of his graduation Harridge stood fourth on the Falcons' all-time rushing list. Whether he is the best runner to have played the QB position at AFA is a question for open debate, but Harridge's name must be included in any relevant discussion on that topic.

On the subject of determining the best passing QB in the option era at the academy, Harridge's name may be the first dismissed from the conversation. Over the course of his career at the helm of the Falcons' offense, AFA fans simultaneously marveled at his ability to run while questioning whether one of his passes could hit the proverbial broad side of a barn.

For those Falconatics who, during the Harridge regime yearned for the presence of a competent passer to lead the AFA offense, they have received a bit of manna from heaven with the emergence of freshman Shaun Carney. Maybe they should have wished for a dually talented athlete to play the QB spot, because just as Harridge had an Achilles' Heel where passing was concerned, so too, does Carney have trouble when trying to run.

Hey, be careful for what you wish. Fans who wanted a passing QB to run the AFA attack now have such a tactician. Oh, you wanted a QB for the Falcons who could run and pass? Sorry, Michael Vick is busy playing for the Atlanta, not Air Force, Falcons just now.

After averaging 218 yards of total offense through the first five games of the current season and leading the team to a 2-3 record, Carney has seen his numbers slip to 134 yards of offense per game in the past three contests during which time AFA has gone 1-2.

FALL AND DECLINE. Through the first four games of the season Carney carried the ball 73 times, gained 296 yards, scored 4 touchdowns and averaged a solid 4.05 yards per attempt. Contrast that slate of figures with his performance in the four games since then: 62 carries, which have gained 151 yards, yielded 1 TD and 2.43 yards per attempt.

The nature of the Falcons' ground based option attack dictates that Carney (or any QB) will have the ball in his hands more frequently than any other player. It's not possible to implement an option attack without having a QB run the ball as much or more often than any other player in the backfield. The key to Carney's production on a per carry basis may lie in his ability to make the correct read. Whether to place the ball in the FB's belly, keep it himself or pitch the ball to a trailing back are all decisions which must be made in no more than the blink of an eye.

It's true that Air Force entered its game against Wyoming as the nation's seventh most prolific rushing team. It's every bit as true that given its current per game average the Falcons present pace will see them finish with their second lowest rushing total on a per game basis in Fisher DeBerry's twenty-one years as head coach. Clearly something isn't working in the running game. The play of the offensive line certainly is a factor in the team's less than overpowering ground game. This line is neither the equal of the crew which led the Falcons to a national rushing title in 2002 nor the most inept I've seen in thirty years of watching Air Force football, but it's not a memorable one by any standard. The next Frank Mindrup or Bret Cillessen isn't going to emerge from this bunch of linemen.

Here's a look at how Carney has done in the passing game. Through the opening four games of the 2004 schedule he completed 40 of 57 attempts for 525 yards and 6 TDs. He completed 70.1% of his passes with each completion netting a 13.1 yard gain.

The past four games have seen Carney complete 34 of 62 attempts for 423 yards and 3 TDs. Carney hit on a respectable 54.8% of his passes, good for 12.4 yards per completion. But, upon further inspection the figures reveal that in the past three games (New Mex., BYU and Wyo.) Carney's effectiveness has slipped. He's 17 for 41 for 302 yards and 1 TD. While his yards per completion have soared to 17.7 his completion figure has plummeted to only 41%.

THE HALLOWEEN EFFECT. Since Halloween Night 2002 when the Falcons lost at home to CSU, Air Force has played 25 games, including the recently played contest in Laramie this past Halloween Weekend. In that time the team's record is a mediocre 12-13 (.480).

In the third quarter of the CSU game two years ago the Falcons were held scoreless in the third quarter. Beginning from that point, fourteen times in the past twenty-five contests (70%) the Falcons have not scored a point in the third quarter of a game. AFA's record in those games is a miserable 3-11(.214).

Dating back to the Navy game of 2003 and concluding with the game against the 'Pokes last weekend, Air Force has played 16 contests and failed to score a point in the third quarter 10 times. Air Force has won just once in those games with the win coming against New Mexico this year--a Mountain West Conference outing which Air Force tried to gift wrap and hand to the Lobos with a catastrophically bad punting game.

The Falcons' third quarter woes began long before Carney's appearance on the scene and their continuance is by no means solely the result of his play.

I've suggested, and will do so here again, that Adam Fitch be inserted into the lineup during the Falcons first several possessions in the third quarter in an effort to spark the team's offense and free it from the clutches of this boundless, post-halftime inertia from which the team has been unable to escape. It's a question for the ages what impact Fitch may have had on the game this past weekend had he been given the chance to guide the team for the entire second half rather than just the fourth quarter, during what essentially amounted to a belated effort to give a bad day a cosmetically better appearance.

Let me be among the first to applaud Fisher DeBerry for having shown the good sense to name Fitch as the starter for this week's game against Army. The collective focus of Falconatics should be fixed squarely upon Fitch's promotion rather than Carney's demotion. Not only has Fitch earned the opportunity to lead the team's offense, continuing to keep Carney as the starter may have resulted in irreparable damage to his confidence in his own abilities.

HALF EMPTY OF HALF FULLBACKS? Dan Shaffer and Adam Cole have been the two principal FBs for AFA this fall with Jacobe Kendrick seeing limited duty. While Shaffer is averaging 5.0 yards a carry and has scored 2 TDs this fall, his production has substantially diminished over the past month. He hasn't scored since the second game of the year. He didn't register a single rushing attempt against Wyoming and in the team's past five games he has contributed 28 carries for 108 yards and no scores. The figures for Adam Cole are only slightly better showing 40 rushes for 140 yards, but only 1 TD since the UNLV game in week three.

The combination of an ineffective runner at QB in Carney, coupled with limited production from the FBs has made it relatively easy for defensive coordinators to scheme against Air Force this fall.

Wyoming and Army, AFA's last and next opponents, bear striking similarities to one another. In recent seasons both were little more than division 1-A roadkill. Joe Glenn, and to a lesser extent Bobby Ross, are in the midst of rejuvenating what had been moribund football programs in Laramie and West Point. The Cowboys have won eight of their past fifteen games and stand one victory short of becoming bowl qualified this season. In 2004 under Ross, the Black Knights have ended a 19 game losing streak, won two games in a row and last week came close to making it three in a row. Wyoming is clearly on the rise with Glenn securely holding the reins to the program. In Ross, Army may have finally found the man capable of making the cadets respectable and competitive on a weekly basis.

Air Force may yet harbor disillusioned dreams of qualifying for a bowl game this year, but in truth, the team's record isn't a surprise. The team is bereft of the kind of defensive talent that would allow it to smother opposing attacks or make momentum-altering plays. The harsh reality is that the defense may be playing as well as it can play..

The Falcons have scored 20 or more points in seven games this season, but haven't been memorable in doing so. There is no singularly gifted talent causing AFA fans to leap to their feet while roaring their heart-felt approval. When the season is finally concluded it may show that the untimely alliance of a lax defense and a pedestrian offense proved Air Force to be little more than an also-ran in the realm of division 1-A football this year.

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