THE "CHRIS"tal BALL

NOTE: Due to technical difficulties last week's CHRIS-tal ball segment was not published. Here is a belated look at that column as written by Chris "Swami" Field. "Air Force has reached what may be its last chance at saving yet another season from going down the drain. In what is becoming an all-too-familiar-second-half-of-the-schedule swoon the Falcons (3-4/2-2) meet Joe Glenn's improved Wyoming Cowboys (4-3/1-2) in War Memorial Stadium this Saturday afternoon."

THIS WEEK'S GLANCE INTO THE "CHRIS"tal BALL. That's more like it. Hitting on three of four picks last week brought my record on the season to 35-10 (.777) and ended halted a two week skid during which I was 3-4 with my forecasts. BYU and UNLV take a rest this weekend while the other six MWC teams face one another in league play. Utah is trying to extend its reign as conference king by capturing a second straight title and force the BCS to extend the Utes an engraved invitation to its postseason blowout. Here's my analysis of how this weekend's play should unfold.

@ . Preseason polls and the Aztecs' play in September earmarked this game as a contest that might have crowned this year's conference champion. HB Lynell Hamilton's inability to recover from a broken leg suffered in 2003, inconsistent play by QBs Matt Dlugolecki and Kevin O'Connell, accompanied by the appearance of yet another underachieving SDS team, have been primary factors in the latest demise of the Aztecs' fortunes.

Urban Meyer's Utah team has incurred no such impediments in forging a second consecutive impressive run which has the Utes clearly in control of the MWC race in 2004. Meyer's squad has gone 17-2 since he took control of the program from Ron McBride. The Utes are one of five teams with active win streaks of at least ten games and Utah's current 11 game ride places it behind only Boise State (18) and USC (16).

Junior QB Alex Smith has been flawless in directing an offense that averages over 240 yards both in running and passing the ball. Utah is fourth in the nation in total offense and second in scoring at over 42 points a game, trailing only Louisville.

The SDS defense is called the "Dark Side", and how appropriate. Smith will indeed make it a dark afternoon for SDS when he plies the scalpel of Utah's keenly edged attack to the Aztecs. The BCS will need to wait for another day if it harbors hopes Utah will stumble and fall before posting an undefeated record in the regular season. It's easy for me to make Utah my pick in this game.

@ . Perhaps the shrewdest facet of coach Sonny Lubick's plan for his CSU Rams this season was calling for the squad to hide in plain sight of everyone in the MWC. Long since having been cast into the role of also-ran and conference spoiler after having been torn asunder in its first three non-conference games of the season, CSU has righted itself even in the face of losing starting QB, Justin Holland, to injury for the remainder of the season.

No, CSU won't post the spectacular win-loss record this year that was its custom earlier in the decade, but the Rams remain alive and kicking in the MWC race with a 2-1 record and four games remaining to be played. Only a meeting against Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium seems to be an insurmountable task. Games at home versus New Mexico this weekend and UNLV in mid-November are eminently winnable as is the regular season finale against in-state rival Air Force in Falcon Stadium. A 5-2 league mark is well within reach of the revitalized CSU Rams.

It's hard to imagine any team in division 1-A college football having received less production from its QBs this season than New Mexico. Kole McKamey and Tali Ena have been dreadful. Each has completed less than 50% of his pass attempts while throwing more interceptions than TD passes. The only saving grace for the Lobos' offense is the improving health of the sparkling talent which is DonTrell Moore.

Since returning to the lineup for UNM following a knee ligament injury in the New Mexico State game that caused him to miss the Utah contest, Moore has shown indications of being the type of guided missile he was in 2003. He ran for 110 yards versus Air Force, 141 more versus UNLV and then added 70 in the Lobos' game with SDS last week. In those three efforts Moore's totals show him with 77 carries for 321 yards and a pair of TD runs.

No one in the MWC needs less warning of the devastation Moore can inflict than Sonny Lubick. Although the Rams have split their last two games with UNM, they've had absolutely no success whatsoever in corralling Moore. He has gained 423 yards and scored four TDs against the Rams. Please remember DonTrell is only a junior. Think Lubick will lobby for him to declare for the NFL draft next spring?

After spotting Wyoming a TD on its opening drive of the game in Fort Collins last Friday night, the Rams' defense stiffened and held the Cowboys scoreless for the last 56:57 of the game.

True freshman, Caleb Hanie, now playing in lieu his injured teammate, rallied the team to victory over SDS after Holland suffered a broken ankle late in the first quarter two weeks ago. Hanie followed that rescue with a solid, if unspectacular, performance in his first collegiate start last week against Wyoming. He's completed 58% of his pass attempts while throwing one TD pass and two interceptions. The Rams aren't likely to throw as much under Hanie as would be the case with Holland running the show.

TBs Jimmy Green and Uldis Jaunarajs are carrying the load for the Rams' offense in capable fashion. They combined for 174 yards on 40 carries and 1 TD last week versus the 'Pokes. Green scored the game winning TD on the road against the Aztecs a week prior to that.

It's understandable that the CSU defense may have been punch drunk at the end of September after having faced Colorado, USC and Minnesota in the opening weeks of its schedule. Having allowed a combined 24 points while beating SDS and Wyo over the past two weeks presents evidence the team may have a maturing talent upon which to rely over the stretch drive in the MWC chase for bowl berths.

CSU WR David Anderson is having as good a year as any wideout in the conference and that includes Steve Savoy and Paris Warren of Utah. If Hanie can get the ball to him just five or six times during the game, that could be enough to provide Anderson the opportunity to snake his way through the UNM secondary on his way to the end zone at least once.

Neither the Rams nor Lobos figure to get the major thrust of their offense from the passing game in this meeting. DonTrell Moore isn't yet at full strength, but is getting closer to that stage each week. New Mexico has already lost two MWC games and a third assuredly will eliminate it from bowl contention. A CSU win will energize the Rams' surge toward a postseason berth. No one can make the claim that CSU has snuck up on teams this year. Sonny Lubick's charges have been hiding in plain view of everyone since opening their schedule with a heartbreaking loss to the CU Buffs. CSU's remarkable regeneration continues. The Rams are my pick to win the game.

@. Joe Glenn's predecessor, Vic Koenning, won five games in his three-year tenure in Laramie and his 5-29 ledger all but left the Cowboys for dead by the side of the road when it came to being competitive in the MWC. In less than two seasons Glenn has already won eight games. Since the 'Pokes stunned BYU, 13-10, last season in Laramie they've posted a solid 7-7 record in the fourteen contests they've played beginning with their dismissal of the Cougars. No reasonable preseason assessment of the Cowboys for 2004 could have foreseen the likelihood that as October approached November the 'Pokes would still have a shot at capturing a bowl berth.

In its past fourteen games the Air Force Falcons have posted a 5-9 record. After beginning conference play this season as underdogs with a road win over UNLV, Fisher DeBerry's team has won only one of its last four games, all but eliminating AFA from bowl contention. It was clear that a lack of talent, depth and playing experience on defense would conspire to provide Air Force with difficulty in containing opposing offenses and that has proven to be the case.

The AFA ground based option attack has been led by freshman Shaun Carney. In comparison to other QBs who've run the option for DeBerry's team, Carney is a fish out of water in that he is an eerily accurate passer rather than fleet-footed runner. On balance, he has performed in a steady manner, save for a particularly uneven effort last week against BYU when he experienced the tortures of the damned in trying to execute pitches to his trailing HBs.

While the Falcons' ground game is churning out nearly two hundred fifty yards a game, that pace is the second lowest total in the twenty-one seasons DeBerry has coached the team. Offensive Chuck Petersen has inexplicably chosen not to turn loose Darnell Stephens, the team's biggest, fastest and best threat from the backfield. Stephens, who is averaging 7.1 yards per carry this season, 5.96 per carry for his career and is set to become the 20th leading rusher in academy history when he gains another twenty one yards, has run the ball only 41 times in seven games this season. His inactivity remains a mystery shrouded by, and in, the game plans of Petersen's design.

For all the improvement in Wyoming's play that has accompanied Glenn's arrival, the Cowboys can still be a ragtag bunch when it comes to defending the run. In its past two games--losses to BYU and CSU--the Cowboys yielded 237 yards on the ground to the Cougars and 233 to the Rams. At the time of those performances the BYU and CSU offenses ranked seventh and eighth in the MWC in yards rushing per game. If ever there is going to be a time to give Stephens free reign to run the ball, this Saturday is that opportunity.

In addition to being vulnerable to the running game, Wyoming's current two game tailspin has been hastened by an offense which has scored only 20 points in the last two games, 13 against BYU and 7 more in the Border War with CSU. The combination of a team that has had difficulty scoring and freely cedes yards on the ground may be precisely the cure for what ails the AFA option attack and the Falcons' overworked defense.

Air Force is in the midst of an inexplicable struggle to score points in the third quarter. In nine of its past thirteen games Air Force has been held scoreless in the segment of the game. In all four of its home games against division 1-A competition in 2004, the Falcons have scored nary a point in the third stanza. For whatever reason the team's offense simply has been muted immediately after halftime. Here's one possibility for which AFA fans might look this Saturday.

Two weeks ago when New Mexico came calling to Falcon Stadium, Fisher DeBerry inserted (former starting) LB Kenny Smith into the starting lineup. Why? Well, Smith happens to be the only player on the AFA roster from the Land of Enchantment and there were plenty of family and friends there to watch him play. Smith helped lead a defensive charge that held the Lobos scoreless while the Falcons forged a, 21-0, halftime advantage. With young cadet Carney having struggled last week and in nearly every third quarter this season, the scenario may be tailor made for Gillette, Wyoming native Adam Fitch to see his first significant playing time of the season at the QB spot for AFA. A few series with Fitch at the helm may spark the offense as well as provide Carney a valuable perspective as to how Wyoming's defenders are crafting their schemes to thwart him. Even if Fitch doesn't see action at the QB spot--and I expect he will--you might look for him to rectify what has become a sore point for the Falcons--a punting game which has had three blocked punts returned for TDs in the past two games.

As the Cowboys have an Achilles' Heel when it comes to defending the run, so too, do the Falcons have a weakness when trying to defend the pass. Wyo QB Corey Bramlet is throwing the ball roughly thirty times a game thus far and may launch more attempts than that against an AFA secondary that doesn't appear appreciably stronger than the ordinary crew that tries to clog the passing lanes for Air Force. The Cowboys' Jovon Bouknight and Dustin Pleasant will be Bramlet's primary deep threats. The pair has grabbed 70 passes and seven of Wyoming's eight scoring aerials this season.

In short, the modes of attack will be unchanged from the historical precedents that have stood in this series for decades: Wyoming will throw the ball and Air Force will run it.

There are several 'push-pull' factors that seem to be coming to the fore in this meeting. Wyoming's offense has scored a mere twenty points in the Cowboys' losses to BYU and CSU and may be exactly the dormant bunch the AFA defense needs to face for an afternoon's work. On the other hand Corey Bramlet's success in throwing the ball may spike upward in dramatic fashion when he gets to thread passes amid the gaping seams that often appear in the Falcons' secondary.

For AFA's part, an option attack that hasn't allowed the Falcons' offense to dominate a game since the UNLV affair, may finally get the chance to kick sand in the face of Wyoming's feckless run defense.

I am compelled to cite the argument that in the past thirteen months Wyoming has improved under Glenn, the Cowboys' current two game losing streak notwithstanding. Fisher DeBerry's team has let a 2-1 start to the season and a 1-0 debut in conference play become nothing more than fading memories from an earlier segment of the current schedule. I don't discount the possibility of Air Force staging an upset on Saturday, but I've witnessed the Falcons as they've careened down darkened roads to the conclusion of three consecutive years while looking for all the world like drunken sailors on shore leave. There are too many signs suggesting Air Force is stumbling in the identical direction this fall. My pick to win the game is Wyoming.

LEFTOVERS. Hawaii makes one of its infrequent visits to the mainland this week when it jets to Boise to play the BSU Broncos , the team with the nation's longest active win streak at 18 games. Hawaii QB Tommy Chang, a fifth year senior, will become the NCAA's all time leader in passing yardage if he can throw for 241 yards versus Boise State. He trails BYU's Ty Detmer who holds the mark with 15,031 yards. How fitting that Detmer's record may be shattered by yet another QB from the WAC, the pass happy, defense bereft conference of choice for quarterbacks. BSU has won 18 straight, 31 of 32 and Dan Hawkins is 40-6 in his tenure as the team's head coach.

USC takes on Washington State one week after the Trojans halted Washington's streak of having scored in 271 consecutive games.

Auburn puts its 8-0 record on the line against Mississippi. QB Jason Campbell may be the most improved player in division1-A football, but don't overlook the Tigers' defense as a telling factor for the team's stellar fall in 2004. AU is allowing a mere 243 yards per game to opposing teams.

Georgia has lost 13 of 14 to Florida and goes to Jacksonville only days after Ron Zook and his staff received pink slips--effective at season's end--from Florida's administration. The Dawgs may be bitten again in this one.

California's offensive dynamo clashes with the Arizona State aerial circus led by QB Andrew Walter. Walter needs 2 more TD passes to break John Elway's PAC 10 career mark.

Texas figures to get even with Colorado this weekend. The Buffs are the sole team to have played the 'Horns at least 12 times that has a winning mark against them. CU leads the series 7-6.

West Virginia travels to Piscataway, New Jersey to face Rutgers. The Mountaineers have won nine in a row versus the Scarlet Knights and seven consecutive road outings in the Big East.

After a loss on opening day to Utah, the Texas A & M Aggies have reeled off a half dozen wins. They'll be in Waco this weekend to face BIG 12 opponent Baylor. Texas A & M is the only team in division 1-A not to have been intercepted this season.

LSU plays at home against Vanderbilt, which has not won in Baton Rouge since 1951.

Iowa, one of five Big Ten teams ranked among the nation's top 25, faces a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team this weekend. The Hawkeyes have won four of the past six meetings against Illinois and coasted to a, 41-10, win in last year's game.
 


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