THIS IS IT. An appetite for success has been appeased by a growing crop of talent. An opportunity to harvest acclaim and national recognition has been neatly packaged and presented to the Air Force Falcons. After taking an unlikely cue from disparaging preseason predictions, the element of favorable scheduling has emerged at a most propitious time for Air Force. All is in readiness.
No one can be more stunned at the Falcons' presence in the national polls than the sports-writing imbeciles who, with their preseason rantings, adjudged AFA to be nothing more than another face in the crowd this college football season. After stretching their current winning streak to six games, establishing a 5-0 mark for the current campaign, defeating a then nationally ranked California team on the road, sprinting to a 2-0 MWC record and launching themselves onto the rungs of every legitimate national poll, the Air Force Falcons find themselves at the confluence of opportunity and ability.
The schedule will never again be as favorable for AFA as it is right now. Having earned their way this fall into the exclusive fraternity of division 1-A football's elite, the Falcons come to a point in their schedule which finds them playing their next three home games in front of national television audiences.
PERFECTLY ALIGNED. New Mexico, Utah, BYU and CSU are four teams which beat AFA in 2001, and against whom, the Falcons also play this season. This season the Falcons have already beaten New Mexico and Utah. That makes it two down and two to go.
In seasons when apparently unlikely contenders are found in midpursuit of a championship, an abnormal amount of factors must break in their favor. And so it is with Air Force this fall. Lightly regarded on all counts before the season began, the Falcons have used Richard Bell's revamped, energized defense to effectively defuse opposing attacks while creating a surfeit of turnovers which have been presented to Chuck Petersen's offense. Chance Harridge has alternately guided the offense to prolific leads and through nerve-wracking comebacks en route to helping the team to its 5-0 record.
When players have been lost to injury--FB Dan Shaffer, ILB Matt McCraney, C Wayne Southam, DL Nick Taylor and HB Anthony Butler--others have stepped into the lineup to keep the offense productive and the defense from becoming porous.
There have been key plays. A pass deflection in overtime against New Mexico, successfully defended passes against Cal, numerous turnovers forced by the defense against Utah on the road and effective running by Leotis Palmer, Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward at the HB spots and Harridge at the QB spot are all components which have coalesced to help the Falcons achieve their 5-0 start.
Favorable scheduling has played a part in AFA's start as well. This year the team faces all of its toughest opponents in the comfort of Falcon Stadium. BYU, Notre Dame and Colorado State all come calling this season. Next year AFA will be going to Provo and Fort Collins, and thankfully, that's a story for another day.
At present, right here and now, the Falcons have an unprecedented opportunity to garner a momentous level of recognition for the academy and its football program. The Falcons may never again see the likes of such an opportunity. Air Force justifiably has earned its current standing in the nation's football polls. In facing its longtime conference nemesis, BYU, and with Notre Dame looming on the schedule in eight days, AFA plays two instantly recognizable teams in division 1-A college football. Beating both teams, while national television audiences watch, will give Air Force a chance to take a Beamonesque leap in the polls. Air Force is one of only eleven teams in division 1-A football with an undefeated record. The Falcons are achieving success in the face of being universally panned by the critics before the season began. They are in first place in their conference. They are about to play consecutive home games before national TV audiences against two of the most widely recognized programs in college football. So many favorable factors are unlikely ever to emerge and converge simultaneously for Air Force as is the case with this season.
A BETTER EFFORT. Air Force will play its next two games under the studied gaze of the nation's television watching college football devotees. As the team will have a chance to accomplish much on this national stage, so too, will Fisher DeBerry. There are some ugly numbers Fisher would like to expunge from his record.
DeBerry is 3-13(.188) against BYU in his tenure at the academy. He's an only slightly less horrific 3-9(.250) versus Notre Dame. Do the math and you find that Fisher is 6-22 (.214) against these two behemoths of the college gridiron. Ever the diplomat, Fisher would never say he wants to beat the stuffing out of the Cougars and the Irish because they've caused him so much personal torment over the past eighteen autumns. There is no mistaking that DeBerry will take more pleasure from wins over these two schools than having beaten Tennessee Tech last year or Northwestern this year. Fisher will have searched his coaching journals and playbooks thoroughly in advance of the games against BYU and Notre Dame. He'd be the first to say last year's 63-33 shellacking in Provo was the result of poor preparation on his part.
HOW IT MIGHT LOOK. Start with the passing game. Last year AFA had a reasonable day throwing the ball against BYU in amassing 12 completions for 168 yards and 1 TD. Now consider that BYU's tight end, Doug Jolley, accounted for 10 receptions for 177 yards and 3 TDs, with each score coming on an 18 yard reception. Objective number one for the AFA pass defense tomorrow night will be to neutralize the BYU TE game. This will be the sternest challenge Richard Bell's newly implemented 3-3-5 alignment will have faced this season.
Historically, BYU has the most prolific passing attack AFA has faced on a recurring basis. If AFA is going to win the game it cannot do so by allowing the Cougars to throw for 300-400-500 yards as has been the case in the past. If the Falcons' defense wants to show just how much it has been transformed since October 20, 2001, then tomorrow night will be the perfect time to do it.
Last week's battle against Navy revealed the first hint that AFA QB, Chance Harridge, may be improving in the passing game. His 6-7-107 figures on the day were the first sign of Air Force being able to move the ball through the air in 2002. While the Falcons lead the nation in rushing with almost 330 yards a game, a balanced attack aided and abetted by an effective passing game, will enable the Falcons to author time consuming, point producing drives against the Cougars. Without balance on offense AFA's attack will be contained by BYU's defense. Harridge will need to find TE Adam Strecker and WRs Ricky Amezaga and Anthony Park with some frequency.
It sounds as though HB Anthony Butler--still hampered by a sore ankle--will not start opposite Leotis Palmer as the other HB in the Falcons' backfield. If HBs Stephens and Ward recreate their efforts from last weekend against Navy then AFA should be able to move the ball outside versus BYU. It's imperative that Air Force use its speed at the HB position to stretch the BYU defense at the perimeter tomorrow night.
An unmatched opportunity to launch themselves into the upper reaches of the national polls begins in earnest tomorrow night for the AFA Falcons. A perceived regional bias owing to its "forgotten" mountain time zone locale, membership in a non-BCS conference and college football fans' widespread unfamiliarity with the effectiveness of an option based ground attack are all shackles from which the Air Force Falcons can free themselves in the next eight days. If the Falcons don't seize this opportunity they will be a long time awaiting its return.