*Field Goals* - Searching for a Place to Land

On this Halloween Night, Air Force could have summoned witchcraft, sorcery and black magic of every stripe and none of them would have mattered. Colorado State scored an impressive 31-12 victory over the Falcons in a Mountain West Conference showdown, while demonstrating from start to finish, that it is the best team in the MWC.

   NEVER IN DOUBT. The brazen few who attended this game in person and those who watched from the balmy environs of their own homes were both hoping for a stirring contest from the long time, instate, rival Falcons and Rams. It never materialized. The Rams received the opening kickoff, marched seventy-eight yards on a fifteen play, six minute twenty-eight second drive and never looked back from that point. The Falcons executed a smart fourteen play, sixty yard drive on their first possession to register a touchdown, but a missed PAT attempt by Joey Ashcroft signified the beginning of the end for Air Force before the first quarter had expired.

   As Notre Dame had done two weeks ago in defeating the Falcons, the Rams used vastly superior play from its offensive and defensive lines to control the action throughout the night. The Falcons' three man defensive front did little to contain RB Cecil Sapp from slicing through it for consistent gains. On the other hand, CSU's defensive front held the Air Force ground game to a figure well under its seasonal average entering the game. A balanced running attack from Sapp and QB Bradlee Van Pelt were mixed expertly with the latter's deft passing touch as Colorado State's offense entranced AFA's defenders into a state of ineffectiveness in the first half.

   Sapp proved particularly elusive to the AFA defense as he ran through several attempted tackles on his way to stout gains. Although AFA ILB Anthony Schlegel finished the game tied for his team's lead in tackles, he should have been the runaway leader in that category, but he failed to successfully corral Sapp after making initial contact on two or three occasions in the first half.

   OPEN AND SHUT. The opening kickoff of the second half provided a hastened ending to whatever vestige of excitement may have remained concerning the game's outcome. The Falcons' Brian Blew was gang tackled as he returned Jeff Babcock's kickoff, the ball squirted loose and was recovered just above turf level by Babcock himself. The kicking specialist now turned sprinter, scooted twenty-nine yards into the South endzone to give CSU a 28-12 lead on a play which fully mesmerized Air Force for the remainder of the game and which will rightfully take its place in Air Force Halloween lore. Colorado State was rarely challenged by Air Force, which played in stupefied fashion over the game's final two quarters while amassing only ninety-one yards of total offense.

   UNMATCHED HALVES. Air Force is now well into the second half of its regular season schedule and the team's performance in the first six games bears not even the faintest resemblance to the fiascoes it has perpetrated in the past three games.

   For a third consecutive outing the Falcons' collective efforts have yielded diminished returns for the team. The season, which began with an unforeseen six game winning streak lifting the Falcons to dizzying heights, now finds Air Force plummeting through a terrifying free fall. At present it appears there will be no miraculous escape from the crash landing which awaits Fisher DeBerry's team. Next up on the schedule for the Falcons is a trip to West Point to play Army, a team whose ineptitude has allowed comedy fans everywhere to enjoy the Black Knights' ongoing eight week run as division 1-A football's court jesters. Fans may be laughing at Army right now, yet in a week's time they could be laughing at the relative ease with which the Black Knights may post their first win of the fall. The Falcons' football team is in a palpable state of trouble.

   Fisher DeBerry's teams are most effective when their offensive and defensive units work in concert with one another. When the offense authors ground-gaining, time-consuming, touchdown-producing drives, it allows the Falcons to build leads and their defense to stay well rested.

   For its part, a defense which forces turnovers and presents the ball to its offensive counterpart enables the AFA offense to do what it is most comfortable in doing: moving methodically downfield without feeling the pressure of needing to throw the ball--a skill for which the option based ground attack is poorly designed. Neither the offense nor the defense is doing what made the team so wildly successful during the first half of the 2002 schedule.

   The Air Force ground game hasn't been nearly as prolific or productive over the past three weeks as it was during the halcyon days of the season's first six weeks. The fullback position is an axis upon which the option attack revolves. The quarterback places the ball in the FB's belly, or makes such a fake, on countless plays in running the option. In the past three weeks AFA FBs have posted the following totals: seven carries for 14 yards versus Notre Dame; ten carries for 34 yards against Wyoming and 4 carries for 13 yards in the showdown with CSU. The hub of activity in the ground based option--the fullback--has carried the ball twenty-one times for sixty-three yards and no touchdowns in AFA's past three games. This problem, and make no mistake it is a problem, must be addressed immediately. An offense predicated in large part on reliable contributions from the FB spot cannot hope to thrive when given a meager 2.9 yards per carry from a key backfield personage. Bear in mind that when AFA defeated CSU in the Snow Bowl during the 2000 season, FBs Nate Beard and Scott Becker compiled 39/221/4 TDs figures for the night. Contrast that output with the Falcons' lack of production in the past three games.

   With its FB game dwindling to the point of extinction, AFA has been left to move the ball by other methods and that has meant using QB Chance Harridge and HBs Leotis Palmer, Darnell Stephens, Anthony Butler when healthy, Tom Heier and on occasion Matt Ward. When the AFA FB attack is not working, opposing defenses can stack safeties at the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the Falcons' attempts to establish its outside running game. Since nine defenders are placed in, or near, the so-called "box"--the area in close proximity to the line of scrimmage--it becomes exponentially more difficult for Air Force to sustain healthy gains by running the ball into a heavily defended point of attack.

   So an answer is for Air Force to throw the ball. In theory, yes, in point of fact, no. For all his marvelous leadership capability, toughness and determination on the field, Harridge is simply not an accomplished passer, nor does he give evidence that he will become one, the protestations of Fisher DeBerry notwithstanding.

   Harridge is frequently mentioned by DeBerry as being headed for a career in which he will join the likes of Beau and Blane Morgan, Marty Louthan, Mike Thiessen and Dee Dowis. It simply won't happen until Harridge develops something approximating a passing game. Harridge threw for 57 yards when facing the Fighting Irish and an incomprehensibly low figure of 29 yards against the Rams. He did throw for 169 yards against Wyoming, with nearly half that total coming on a short completion to WR Anthony Park, who then blazed most of eighty yards while outdistancing three Wyoming defenders to complete AFA's longest pass play of the season. Park's speed, not Harridge's passing ability, was the major factor in this play's success.

   Harridge hasn't enough strength in his arm to stand in the pocket and rifle spirals downfield into tight coverage. Nor is he asked to do so with any frequency. Look at last night's AFA TD pass play. Harridge and the entire AFA offense rolled right and then stopped, as he lofted a pass to wide open, tight end Adam Strecker, on a play which relied more on misdirecting a team's defensive flow than on the strength of Harridge's arm. Harridge led the team to unanticipated success in the first six games, but that is hardly a résumé for inclusion in the pantheon of truly accomplished AFA QBs who proved themselves over the course of two or more fall schedules. Harridge has ample time remaining in his career to join his storied predecessors, but only when he becomes more than a one dimensional offensive back. It is incumbent upon offensive coordinator, Chuck Petersen, Fisher DeBerry and Harridge to implement some number of pass plays on which Harridge can complete a reasonable percentage of attempts, so that a passing game can be constructed to complement, and relieve pressure from, the AFA ground game.

   The Air Force pass defense has reverted to its passive performances which plagued the team throughout last season. Carlyle Holiday, Casey Bramlet and Bradlee Van Pelt have each moved the ball smartly with the pass against the Falcons. The omnipresent, aggressive, attacking, proactive play of AFA's pass defenders of the first half of this season has been replaced with a lax, zone coverage, reactive posture which has allowed opposing offenses to move the ball far too easily with the pass. If San Diego State gets hold of game film from AFA's three most recent games, wide receivers J.R.Tolver and Kassim Osgood may not sleep for a week due to the heightened anticipation from which they will suffer at the thought of getting to run unencumbered through the AFA secondary.

   The game against CSU marked the second straight contest in which the Falcons' defenders did not force a turnover. Therein lies a contributing factor as to why Wyoming scored 34 points and the Rams totaled 31 points against Air Force. Moreover, the lack of turnovers from the defense keeps the Air Force offense on the sideline wondering how it will be able to erase a mounting scoring deficit.

   In some regards, the Falcons' offensive woes and defensive largesse toward opposing teams puts a new spin on the age old problem of whether or not the chicken preceded the egg or vice versa. If the Falcons' players and coaches do not find answers for their current dilemmas in advance of the Army, UNLV and San Diego State games, then the prosperous times of the season's first month and a half will be an indistinct image fading in the rear view mirror as Air Force speeds toward the conclusion of its schedule.


Falcon Authority Top Stories