And when the actual football game starts and the pre-game goodwill fades into memory, it's time for the Air Force Academy to let everyone who has had a full nelson grip on the Commander in Chief Trophy all these years.
In the previous few weeks, the Falcons allowed plucky, gritty opponents to smother the vaunted triple option, quite literally leaving nothing to Chance - quarterback Chance Harridge - who was smothered in a nightmarish first half.
This week, the Falcons decided to leave everything to Chance in the first half, and finally found that breakthrough first-half performance they've been looking for. Against a weak Navy defense that had been summarily sliced and diced by the likes of Northwestern and Duke, Air Force figured to run wild. Yet, in a sport where the letdown (after a big win at Utah), the look-ahead (at BYU this upcoming week), and the sandwich game (between Utah and BYU) all play into the mental dynamics of the sport, creating havoc and causing upsets of a particularly shocking nature, the Falcons had to tend to business before their most high-profile stretch of games in 2002.
Surely, steadily and without fanfare, the Falcons, who started off a little sluggish in the first quarter, began to find their footing in the second quarter. For once, Fisher DeBerry didn't have to frantically search for answers at halftime. For once, the first five minutes of the third quarter did not possess epic significance. For once, there were no white knuckles in the stands come the fourth and final quarter.
By front-running for a change against Navy, Air Force gave every indication that it will be able to take on and brush back Army when the two teams meet later in the year. All service academy football teams are more disciplined than most. This game proved that Air Force can take its discipline and blend it with both superior talent and first-rate leadership, from Harridge and everyone else on the roster. After two games of fiddling through two quarters, the Falcons proved they can roll up their sleeves, punch an opponent in the mouth, and put them on the mat… and, oh-by-the-way, claim yet another Commander in Chief Trophy in the process.
But getting past the hardware, Air Force's first-half improvement couldn't have come at a better time. Now that the Cougars from Provo are next up on the schedule, and no longer represent a tantalizing (and upset-producing) look-ahead game, it should be said that digging a hole against BYU will offer the Falcons a much more daunting challenge than the one they faced against Utah.
Whereas the Utes quite logically tried to stuff the run down the Falcons' throats in Salt Lake City, all while relying on their defense to protect a second-half lead, BYU, with brilliant head coach Gary Crowton and a bevy of offensive weapons, will use a good offense as its best defense. Crowton, one of the very best offensive play callers in all of college football, and one of the coach-as-coordinators who does his job extremely well, will be intent on increasing an early lead if the Cougars ever get one. This front-running win against Navy was so important because Air Force—against BYU and another team that shall not be looked ahead to at press time, wink, wink—will need to win games as a front-runner and establish a tidal wave of momentum and emotion in its favor at the outset.
A fast start out of the blocks will make BYU's offense profoundly one-dimensional, allowing the Falcons' defensive front to tee off on Cougar QB Brett Engemann while putting more DBs and linebackers in coverage. And against fleet-footed receivers such and Reno Mahe, or huge, freakish tight ends such as Spencer Need, the high flyers of Colorado Springs will need to put BYU in predictable situations when Crowton's options will be decidedly limited. An early scoreboard advantage will do wonders for Air Force's confidence, and set in motion a domino effect by which the Falcons will be well positioned to contain all of BYU's weapons.
Front-running and fast starts. It's a trend Air Force will need in the next two weeks.
They got a good start—and another firm grip on the Commander in Chief Trophy—last Saturday.