DAWN OF A NEW ERA. The Falcons secured a non-conference win against Cal last week in an uncharacteristically low scoring road game given AFA's recent record away from Falcon Stadium. Richard Bell's defensive unit has the opportunity to begin a new trend in AFA football, that is, holding conference opponents to less than twenty-four points.
WELL ESTABLISHED. AFA's struggle to hold division 1-A teams to fewer than 24 points is well documented. Since November 18, 1999, the Falcons have played twenty-seven games against division 1-A teams. In 19 of those games (70.1%) Air Force has allowed 24 or more points. The team's record in those games is 8-11(.421). In the eight games in which AFA has allowed 23 points or less the team has posted an 8-0 (1.000) record.
Upon closer inspection the figures reveal an even more disturbing history for the Falcons when they play conference games on the road and allow 24 or more points.
Have a look. Over the past three seasons, 1999 through 2001, AFA has played 11 road conference games. The team's record in those games is a disappointing 4-7(.364).
In eight of those eleven games (.727) AFA has allowed 24 or more points. In those eight contests AFA is an abominable 1-7(.125).
There are three road conference games in this time frame in which AFA has held teams to fewer than 24 points. The team's record in these games is a perfect 3-0(1.000). Where AFA's defense is concerned the critical juncture seems to be 23 points. When AFA holds an opponent to twenty-three of fewer points it wins. When AFA allows twenty-four or more points it loses. The record bears out this statement. On the last eight occasions AFA has limited a division 1-A team to fewer than twenty-four points it has won.
THE TIDE IS TURNING...or is it? Air Force has played only one conference game this season and that was a home game against New Mexico in which the Falcons allowed 31 points, but still won. Air Force fans remember with painful clarity how difficult it was to endure the exploits of AFA's defense last season. Fifty-two points surrendered in Albuquerque and sixty-three points in Provo is too much carnage for any Air Force fan to have to endure. As the Falcons prepare to play their first road MWC game of 2002 there may be a knot in the collective stomach of the players, coaches and fans as all three groups await the team's first chance to show that this in, in fact, a brand new team not subject to the shortcomings of teams in the recent past.
ATTITUDE & ALIGNMENT ADJUSTMENT. Northwestern didn't present much a challenge for the Falcon's defense. The New Mexico Lobos certainly had some success in moving the ball against AFA as UNM amassed 362 yards and 31 points of offense on the day. Cal entered last week's game averaging 50 points a game regardless of how those points were scored. AFA didn't yield a TD until the sixtieth minute of play and held the Bears' offense to field goals until the game's final minute. Cal's QB, Kyle Boller, throws the ball hard, but his lack of touch may have contributed to the many drops which plagued WRs on the losing team. AFA's DBs played well and deserve a measure of credit for disrupting Cal's passing attack.
The Falcons' new 3-3-5 alignment seems to be serving the team well and yet there is a lingering suspicion that the team hasn't been severely tested through the first three games. Utah, BYU, Notre Dame and CSU may all be made of sterner stuff than the Wildcats, Lobos and Golden Bears.
DL Eric Thompson's block of a FG attempt, DB Wes Crawley's interception and near misses on several other pass attempts, DB Larry Duncan's solid hit on a Cal WR at the AFA one yard early in the game and DB Jeff Overstreet's last minute defense of an attempted two point conversion all serve as illustrations that this year's defense can be proactive rather than reactive or passive. There is an aggressiveness this year which has been AWOL far too long from Air Force defenders.
Richard Bell has installed a defense which provides evidence that this unit relishes the opportunity to face Utah, BYU, Notre Dame and CSU--the four foes on the Air Force schedule that will determine whether this year's team is a legitimate contender for a lofty national ranking or a just another in a long list of MWC teams to fall flat on its face when the calendar turned to October and November.
There's an axiom which says the college football season is a marathon rather than a sprint. It's a painful lesson Fisher DeBerry coached team's have learned. Only last year the Falcons stood at 4-1 after five games. The season's 2-5 crescendo of a finish brought the campaign to a discordant end. In 1999 Air Force also established a 4-1 early season mark before the October and November took their toll. In 1992 a sprint from the starter's block found AFA cruising to a 5-1 beginning before hit the wall and finishing with a pedestrian 7-5 record. In 1989 Fisher and company fashioned a perfect 6-0 mark before blowing a tire and limping to an 8-4-1 finish by season's end.
There is reason for optimism with this year's 3-0 start by the Falcons. Lingering doubts may still hold a tenuous grip on the team's memory, but an overtime win against a conference foe to which it had fallen three straight times and a road win against a nationally ranked team two weeks later bespeaks the blossoming confidence which cloaks this team.
After last week's game Fisher said he was more concerned with where he team was ranked in November rather than in September. After eighteen years at the helm Fisher has learned the race from August to November is not a sprint, but a marathon.