TAKING THE OFFENSIVE. Warriner's off-season chore was a walk in the park. In essence, all he had to do was find replacements for the entire starting line. Brett Huyser (6-4/295, C2C, Oak Harbor, WA.) was a veritable graybeard entering the 2002 season as he had started the final four games of the 2001 season at right guard. Huyser was switched to the left guard spot this fall and started all twelve games. Apart from Huyser's presence, albeit in a new position, the entire offensive line was comprised of players starting for the first time at the collegiate level.
It never hurts to be lucky and this year's AFA offensive line has enjoyed remarkably good health. Five of the six linemen haven't missed a game. Tight end Adam Strecker, left tackle Brett Waller, left guard Brett Huyser, right guard Jesse Underbakke and right tackle Blane Neufeld have each started all twelve regular season games for the Falcons. Center Wayne Southam started the first five games before suffering an injury to his left knee. John Peel replaced him for six games before Southam returned to the starting lineup against San Diego State.
It's a matter of record that the offensive line has remained intact this season--save for the rotation at center--and the results show an Air Force ground game which currently leads the nation, the only division 1-A team to have rushed for over 300 yards a game and potentially the school's first national rushing title by bowl season's conclusion. A lion's share of the credit for AFA's productive rushing attack must be accorded Warriner and his warriors.
Dean Campbell, who coaches the team's running backs, must also be given a measure of credit for the team's robust ground game. A quartet of fleet footed halfbacks in Leotis Palmer a C1C, Anthony Butler a C3C, Darnell Stephens another C3C and Matt Ward a promising C4C, has given the Falcons their deepest, most talented collection of speedsters in the option era of AFA football with which to attack the perimeter of opposing defenses. This young foursome has registered totals of 242 carries for 1,497 yards, a 6.19 yards per rush average and 10 TDs. The name may say AIR Force, but these guys have rushed through opponents all fall and brought them to the ground.
Quarterback Chance Harridge, a C2C, had never started a game before the current season began. It didn't seem to faze him as he led the team to a half dozen wins, four consecutive come-from-behind victories, a heart-stopping, road conquest of a nationally ranked opponent and a fifteenth place ranking in one national poll during his first six starts.
In fact, of the players who are fixtures in the Falcons' starting offensive lineup this fall, only Leotis Palmer and halfback Tom Heier had started as many as, or more than, seven games--Palmer eleven, Heier seven--during the previous season. Palmer, whose yards gained rushing have increased in each year of his stellar career, provided ample leadership and stability early in the season when the offense needed time in which to adjust to the novelty of starting in varsity competition.
The distinguishing chronological component of the current offense is its youth. The upcoming off-season will be one in which the Falcons only need to find replacements at the wide receiver spot and both halfback spots, which are being vacated by graduating seniors. The potency of this year's offensive attack belies the wide spread inexperience and youth of its members.
Relative neophytes and novices have stepped into the breach on offense this season and the Falcons have prospered, not in spite of it, but because of it. These young cadet-student-athletes have surmounted the challenge of playing for the first time at the varsity level in intercollegiate competition with such gusto as to be a significant factor in helping Air Force secure its twelfth bowl bid in Fisher DeBerry's nineteen year tenure as head coach.
A PLAUSIBLE DEFENSE. This year's offense was built nearly from scratch, with only Palmer, Heier and Huyser having had the benefit of a measure of playing time as starters in their careers. There is a misconception that the same holds true for the Falcons' defense, but that simply isn't the case.
The offensive and defensive units have benefited from an injection of youth and more than their fair share of good health this season. Whereas the offense has thrived for the most part, the defense has struggled to stop the cascade of points it allowed in 2001.
Seventeen players have started at least one game on offense for the Falcons this season. (Fullback Dan Shaffer was injured on the first play of the second half versus Northwestern and essentially has missed the entire season.) The Falcons' defense has seen eighteen players start at least one game this season. (Matt McCraney began the season as a starting linebacker, but due to an injury hasn't played since the third game.) The point here, is that even in recalculating the number of players who have started on either offense or defense, the figures are strikingly similar.
The fixtures on defense for the Falcons, with the number of starts they had made prior to this year and the number they have made in the current season are: LB Anthony Schlegel (6/12), DB Joel Buelow (7/12), DB Larry Duncan (6/11), LB John Rudzinski (0/11), DE Monty Coleman (7/10), DE/NG Eric Thompson (1/10), DB Wes Crawley (19/10), NG Nicholas Taylor (0/8), DB Mark Marsh (1/8), LB Trevor Hightower (0/7), DB Paul Mayo (11/7) and DB Jeff Overstreet (5/7). A thirteenth player, Charles Bueker, started six games at defensive end this season.
The Falcons' defense suffered a few nagging injuries, as any division 1-A team will, but never a spate of injuries which forced massive lineup adjustments during the course of the season. In the Navy game Taylor and Coleman did not play, but the Falcons cruised to victory, 48-7. In the BYU game the same two players were out of action, yet the Falcons smothered the Cougars, 52-9, in a game in which BYU didn't score a TD until the fourth quarter.
Only the San Diego State game found the Falcons missing more than two customary defensive starters when Taylor, Mark Marsh and Wes Crawley did not play. The Aztecs' passing attack took particular advantage of the combined absence of Crawley and Marsh as QB Lon Sheriff completed 29 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns.
A newly implemented 3-3-5 alignment at the season's beginning placed greater emphasis on speed than size. Falcon defenders forced fumbles and authored interceptions with dizzying frequency over the team's first half dozen games. By holding the California Golden Bears without a TD until the final minute of play, the AFA defense played a pivotal role in allowing the Falcons to mount a fourth quarter comeback which secured the team's first road victory over a ranked opponent since 1998. The defense single-handedly scratched and clawed the Falcons' way to victory over the Utah Utes as Air Force erased a twenty point halftime deficit.
Just as eight of eleven current starters on offense have playing eligibility remaining in their college careers, so too, do eight current defensive starters have eligibility remaining.
WHAT WAS IT? If youthful inexperience were to have been the bane of either AFA unit this season such a malady should have befallen the offense. It did not and for the most part the offense has had a banner campaign. The same cannot be said of the defense. With thirteen players having started at least six games and another four players having started at least two games there are hardly many greenhorns on the AFA defense. The unit brought far more previous starting experience into this season than did its offensive counterparts. Why has the offense flourished while the defense has faltered, especially in the second half of the season? There are no easy answers, but a few areas bear examination.
In switching from its previous 3-4-4 configuration to a 3-3-5 alignment Air Force sacrificed the size of one linebacker for the speed of a defensive back. With fewer linemen and/or linebackers with which to generate a pass rush it has been difficult for AFA to sustain pressure on opposing QBs. That made it incrementally harder for the Falcons' secondary to cover pass receivers, especially when quick developing shorter routes were utilized by opposing teams. It's exactly the kind of patterns which San Diego State used to victimize the Falcons' secondary.
The Falcons' have gambled that an inconsistent pass rush can be offset by a greater number of backs in the secondary. In the second half of the season that gamble has been shown to be a fallacy. Opposing QBs have completed a high percentage of passes to sustain drives, convert third down situations and generate TDs in the second half of the season against Air Force. A defense which permitted only 97 points in the first six games has been riddled for 186 points in the last six games.
In two of AFA's second half losses, Falcon back Mark Marsh (5-11/205, C3C, Fort Worth, TX.) was unable to play. Marsh started in last year's season ending victory against Utah and won a starting spot this season on a full time basis. Although playing in the shadow of Wes Crawley and Jeff Overstreet, Marsh may be the most ferocious hitter in the secondary. That Wyoming QB, Casey Bramlet and SDS QB, Lon Sheriff, were able to lead their teams to victory in Marsh's absence should not be overlooked as merely coincidental.
Poor tackling has been evident far too often in the second half of the season. Coach DeBerry specifically addressed this growing concern in the aftermath of last weekend's disappointing performance versus the Aztecs. He stressed that measures will be taken to improve AFA's tackling efforts in advance of the coming bowl game.
Espousing the notion that it's harder for six offensive linemen and five "skill" positions players to coalesce into a productive unit than for eleven players to implement a new defensive alignment, is an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. Young, largely inexperienced players have been able to create an accomplished offensive unit for the Falcons, whereas players with more playing experience have not provided Air Force with a defense capable of consistently containing opposing offenses. Why this has been the case is one of the imponderables which occur in college football, much like the Falcons' defeats at the hands of Wyoming and San Diego State.
Richard Bell's troops have seen five consecutive teams--including a then winless Army team--score thirty or more points against it. It's an epidemic of points the likes of which AFA has not seen scored against it since the conclusion of the 1989 season and the opening game of the following campaign.
A season which portended unimaginable success after a six game winning streak now finds itself on the brink of disheartening collapse with four losses in six games, shoddy play on defense and an unidentified, but likely talented opponent, waiting to be played in December. DeBerry and his staff have time to examine and strengthen those areas of the team's play which have fallen into disrepair. Their ability to effect meaningful improvement in the team's defensive play may yet bring an upbeat ending to a downbeat second half of the 2002 season.