The Curtain Descends on 2004

The Air Force Falcons and Colorado State Rams meet in the 2004 season finale for each team. Ironically, both squads will finish with losing records for the first time since 1993. From that year to the present it's no coincidence that CSU has dominated AFA.

Chris Field, AFAFalcons Staff WriterQUESTION OF THE DAY. In Fort Collins and Colorado Springs perhaps the quandary most frequently voiced these days concerns the exact day and hour of the beginning of next spring's football practice as players, coaches and fans try to expel from their memory bank every vestige of disappointment surrounding the current season. With the exception of seniors on both teams who may be playing their last competitive football game on Saturday, this weekend's game can neither arrive nor depart too quickly.

In a preseason poll conducted this summer, CSU was picked to finish second in the league. The Rams were the only team, other than Utah, to receive a first place vote. Even with a win against their in-state rivals this week the Rams will finish no higher than fourth place in the MWC.

The Falcons were picked to finish seventh in that same preseason poll. If AFA loses the game it's exactly where they will end. A victory against CSU would boost AFA to a fifth place finish.
The Falcons and Rams had far headier heights in mind than middle of the pack finishes when the season began.

There are remarkable similarities between AFA and CSU in 2004. Both teams bring identical 4-6 overall records into their meeting and have constructed them in like manner. Each team is 0-6 this year when allowing opponents to score 24 or more points in a game. Each squad is 4-0 when holding opponents to 23 or fewer points.

CSU lost starting QB Justin Holland to a season ending injury against San Diego State and has seen freshman Caleb Hanie forced to take his place. AFA saw Adam Fitch suffer a devastating Achilles' tendon injury in spring practice as he was well on his way to earning the starting spot at QB for the Falcons. For much of the season freshman Shaun Carney was the team's starter. Fitch started the past two games for Air Force before injuring his ribs late in the third quarter versus San Diego State.

The Rams and the Falcons have struggled on defense from start to finish this season as coordinators Steve Stanard of CSU and Richard Bell of the academy have had little choice but to take their lumps while playing youngsters gaining their first intercollegiate playing experience on the run.

Just as there are threads of similarity binding the Falcons and Rams this year, so too, are there stark contrasts that differentiate them. Last weekend CSU played its first game in two years without committing a turnover. The result was a, 45-10, walk in the park over UNLV. In losing to San Diego State, Air Force committed six turnovers and suffered a blocked punt for what, in essence, amounted to a seventh miscue. The Falcons' ineptitude produced San Diego State's first win since September, snapped the Aztecs' six game losing streak and provided Tom Craft's team with its only MWC win in six contests this year.

Under Sonny Lubick's tutelage the Rams have compiled a 27-9 (.750) record in November since 1993. In that same period Air Force has posted a 22-17 (.564) mark. AFA fans are painfully aware of the team's unfortunate tendency for faltering finishes in recent years. From 2001 to the present, AFA has a lackluster 5-8 (.384) mark in November. Three straight seasons have ended with 2-5 collapses over the final seven games on the schedule and a loss to CSU would mean a 2-6 finish to the current campaign.

OLD HANDS IN FAMILIAR PLACES. Amid the ongoing tutorials being offered by the coaching staffs in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, is a pair of head coaches who have weathered storm tossed autumns. On September 11, 1993 DeBerry and Lubick met for the first time in a game played in Hughes Stadium. An odd competition, won by CSU 8-5, featured a defensive struggle in which both sides scored safeties. Given the manner in which the teams' defenses have performed in 2004 a pair of safeties and a game-ending total of thirteen points aren't scenarios likely to be repeated on Saturday.

In Fisher's first nine years as AFA's head coach his teams were a sparkling 7-2 against CSU. Since Lubick's arrival the Rams have won 8 of the 11 games played by the Front Range rivals. While Fisher's record stands dead even at 10-10 in his previous twenty games against CSU, there is no denying that the momentum in this series has been seized, and forcibly so, by CSU under Lubick's guidance. Fisher's success against CSU is now a fading memory that may continue to linger in the cobwebs of football history unless and until Air Force remedies that situation.

Since assuming the head coaching reins for AFA in 1984 the Falcons under DeBerry have had a surprising lack of success at home when facing CSU, while posting a better record in Fort Collins against the Rams. In Fisher's tenure AFA is 4-6 in Falcon Stadium against the Rams, but 6-4 in Hughes Stadium against CSU.

Lubick's presence has led to the Rams' establishing thorough control of the rivalry beginning in 1993 as CSU is 4-2 when visiting the academy and even more successful at home as their 4-1 record indicates. Lubick's teams beat AFA the first four times he coached against Air Force. The Rams are on the cusp of repeating that run with a victory over the Falcons this weekend. The stark reality is that if the Falcons don't defeat CSU this year a second senior class will graduate from the academy without ever having beaten its I-25 counterpart since Lubick became CSU's coach.

CLOSING THOUGHTS. The intercollegiate football careers of the members of the class of 2005 at the academy reach a collective end this Saturday. Four seasons will have come and gone in the blink of an eye accompanied by fewer successes than had been anticipated. Yet, there have been significant accomplishments for this year's graduating class. The CIC Trophy was captured in 2001 and 2002. The latter year saw the team gain AFA's first national rushing title. The team beat a nationally ranked (23rd at the time) California team in Berkeley by a, 23-21, score. The Falcons played in the San Francisco Bowl against Virginia Tech in the school's most recent postseason appearance.

This year's senior class is part of a group of AFA players to have posted consecutive wins over BYU for the first time in AFA's football history. In 2003 the class helped the team post just its second win in Provo against BYU and the first since 1982.

HBs Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler stand numbered among the top twenty rushing leaders in the annals of academy football. Stephens needs a mere seven yards to pass Jake Campbell, currently eighteenth on the all-time rushing list, while Butler needs just four yards to surpass Campbell. Stephens and Butler may finish their careers having been outdistanced by only Greg Johnson where yards gained by a HB in the option era are concerned.

Senior FB Dan Shaffer can become the latest Falcon to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau in career rushing. He has run for 982 yards entering the CSU game.

Clearly, there have been disappointments for this year's seniors. Ending with a losing record on the year, at home and in the conference, failing to recapture the CIC trophy and being unable to secure the school's first MWC title or a bid to this year's postseason, will be burdensome reminders of a difficult final chapter to their playing days at the academy.

LOOSE THREADS. Postseason awards will be trumpeted throughout media channels in the days and weeks to come. I want to offer a few of my own before the onslaught begins.

MWC COACH OF THE YEAR: Joe Glenn. The Wyoming Cowboys were picked to finish dead last in the MWC in a preseason poll. Glenn's team enters its game in Albuquerque versus New Mexico this week with a solid 6-4 record and as a squad that is both bowl eligible and qualified. Although the 'Pokes won't know until league play concludes on Saturday whether or not they will be in line to receive an invitation to the postseason, the fact that the Cowboys are in such a position is one of the unheralded accomplishments in division 1-A football this year. Glenn's Cowboys broke a five year drought in posting a victory on the road in MWC play by downing UNLV, 53-45, in triple overtime earlier this month. The only sour note surrounding Wyoming's season is that while posting a, 5-1, record in Laramie average attendance barely topped 16,000 in a stadium that holds 33,000.

Urban Meyer has had a terrific two year run in Salt Lake City, but has directed the Utes this year to what was expected: a second straight MWC title. Utah is deserving of its high rank in the polls and inclusion in a BCS sponsored bowl this year. (Let me be the first to say farewell to coach Meyer as I fully expect he will be leaving Utah after coaching the team in games against BYU and a bowl opponent. He did a superb job of reassembling the pieces of a football program left in ruins by Ron McBride). All of these successes are tributes to Meyer, his staff and the team's players. None of them is a bolt of out the blue. Glenn's ability to right Wyoming's failing football fortunes in less than two years as head coach is astounding and a major impetus for my recognizing him as MWC Coach of the Year.

MWC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alex Smith. QB Brett Elliott suffered a broken wrist in Utah's second game of the 2003 season when the Utes played Texas A & M in College Station. Smith was elevated to the role of starting quarterback and the team's fortunes took flight immediately thereafter. Utah is 19-1 with Smith leading the way and has the nation's third longest active win streak at 14 games. Only a junior, Smith has a year of eligibility remaining, although in an era of early departures for professional sports by college athletes banking on his return to Salt Lake City may amount to wishful thinking.

In hearing Smith interviewed several weeks ago he spoke at length about his desire to earn a law degree in the future. Indeed, he is a young man with more prospects for the future than slinging pigskins while dodging, eluding and evading the steroid enhanced behemoths of the NFL.

Matt Leinart of USC and Jason White of Oklahoma will doubtless trade places on most first and second string All America teams that will grace the pages of your home town's journal in the next month. You can expect to see Smith be named to several third string All America teams, while perhaps dislodging Leinart or White a time or two.

Smith has helped Utah achieve uncanny balance on offense. Witness last week's game in which Utah defeated Wyoming, 45-28, as the Utes ran for 244 yards and passed for precisely the same number. Smith's own numbers are gaudy: twenty-seven TD passes and just two interceptions. The Utes have lost one conference game in two seasons and have played in a manner that merits their inclusion in a BCS bowl game this year. Alex Smith is both the only player I considered and my choice for MWC Player of the Year.

AIR FORCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ryan Carter. On a team that has struggled on defense all season, principally because there is little talent among its ranks, Carter has distinguished himself by being that unit's most consistently outstanding player.

Playing in a three man defensive front affords any player little opportunity to pressure an opposing quarterback on a regular basis or tackle a ball carrier at the point of attack. Blitz packages become a necessary part of the mix for a scheme that utilizes a three-man front. Carter relentlessly played off double team blocks, with or without the assistance of a red-dogging linebacker or a defensive back, and never stopped being the most effective and stalwart member of an undermanned, overmatched defense. e.

One piece of testimony that provides evidence of a player's contribution to a team is how that squad plays in his absence. Carter will graduate next spring and another player will win the right to fill the hole left by his departure. Carter's game day performances this year were little noted in the media and even less appreciated by fans unless they isolated their gaze upon him whether he was instrumental in making a tackle or not. An ironic twist is that Carter's presence this year may not register most profoundly until his absence next year is painfully apparent.

For his exceptional effort in the midst of a difficult and, too often, disappointing season, I name Ryan Carter as the Air Force Player of the Year.

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