Losses in the Las Vegas, Liberty and San Francisco bowls, coming on the heels of a disastrous non-conference record during the regular season, will do nothing to raise the stature of the league or its constituents. The national acclaim sought by the MWC, as it seeks membership in the BCS, will have to be garnered in another season as the league's collective performance in 2002 showed every indication why it is currently excluded from the BCS' post-season folderol.
TAKING FLIGHT. The Falcons engineered a touchdown on their initial possession of the game when freshman running back, Matt Ward, took a pitch from Leotis Palmer and sped 15 yards to the endzone. Ward's elusive sprint to AFA's first points of the night were evidence of the considerable running talent the C4C from Fort Lauderdale, Florida possesses and which he'll have the opportunity to display with greater frequency when he becomes a polished blocker thereby facilitating his continued presence in the backfield.
QB Chance Harridge hit his first pass attempt of the evening on the opening drive when he found wide receiver Anthony Park for a forty-seven yard gain. While the completion put the Falcons in prime field position and shocked the VT secondary, it was not a portent of a prolific AFA passing attack for the night. Harridge did not complete another pass until the fifty-ninth minute of play. While Harridge joined a growing list of AFA QBs to author seasons in which they have passed and run for 1,000 or more yards, it would be accurate to attach an asterisk to the accomplishment. This was the first season in which post-season yardage was added to regular season totals. Where other AFA QBs reached the 1,000/1,000 yard barriers without the benefit of post-season play, Harridge did not.
Harridge's passing totals, (4/19/2ints/91yds.), 21 percent completion figure and inability to help the team establish anything resembling a productive passing attack may have cost Air Force a bona fide chance to upset the nationally ranked Virginia Tech team. With no hint of a passing game to relieve pressure from its ground based option attack, AFA's offense became progressively easier for VT to defend after the Falcons stormed to its ten point, first quarter lead.
The regular season documented that Harridge was most efficient, and the Falcons most successful, when he threw ten or fewer passes a game. In facing VT, Harridge attempted more than ten passes for only the fifth time all season. The Falcons lost four of those five contests.
A CURIOUS MIX. Air Force entered the game as the only division 1-A school to be averaging over three hundred yards a game rushing. Facing a formidable rushing defense in the Hokies, the Falcons gained a healthy 227 yards on the ground. AFA's rushing total in Pacific Bell Park clinched the program's first national rushing title as Air Force finished the season as the only team in division 1-A football to rush for over 300 yards a game. The manner in which the Falcons amassed their rushing yardage against Virginia Tech was puzzling.
HB Anthony Butler was productive in churning out 75 yards on 17 carries. Harridge chipped in with 18 for 70 yards. In large part, AFA sped to its national rushing title this year on the legs of four gifted halfbacks: Butler, Palmer, Ward and Darnell Stephens. The final three members of that quartet totaled a mere 8 carries and just 46 yards against the Hokies.
After his fifteen yard burst to open the game's scoring, Ward carried the ball just one more time in the game. Leotis Palmer gained 22 yards to finish his career as the third leading rusher among halfbacks in the option era of football at the academy, and yet, ran the ball only four times against VT. Stephens, averaging a team high 7 yards per carry entering the game, saw the ball only two times. Offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen chose a peculiar occasion to diminish the number of times this threesome carried the ball given their integral contributions during the regular season.
The absence of the fullback game is no less mystifying. FBs Steve Massie and Tim Gehrsitz struggled mightily through large portions of the season only to reach the apex of their productivity during the final three games of the schedule. Massie had averaged nearly 6.5 yards per carry and had scored a TD in each of the past three games in advance of the Falcons' bowl game. He carried the ball a scant five times for seventeen yards. For the night Air Force FBs Massie, Gehrsitz and Adam Cole totaled a paltry 7 carries for 22 yards.
On a night in which Harridge showed how woefully inept he can be as a passer by going fifty-six consecutive minutes without completing an attempt, when three of the team's leading HBs were consigned to being afterthoughts and when the fullback game was never given an adequate chance to demonstrate its late season vitality, it's a testament to the Falcons' defense that its performance kept the team in position to tie the game in the sixtieth minute of play.
Richard Bell's defense rekindled a passionate, fiery brand of play that was lacking in the final half of the season. Limiting Virginia Tech to 278 yards of total offense and 20 points kept AFA in position to tie the score on the Falcons' ill-fated game ending drive.
IN THE AFTERMATH. As the game unfolded there were moments at which AFA fans could justifiably have questioned certain decisions made by the coaching staff. Where was Bryan Blew? Would his insertion into the lineup for a series or two in the second half have sparked a passing attack which sputtered all night? Should Massie and Gehrsitz have been accorded more opportunities to generate a fullback game and relieve pressure from Harridge and Butler? Where were the halfbacks--particularly Ward and Palmer--throughout the game? Given the peculiar offensive game plan implemented by the Falcons it's a wonder the team was able to outgain the Hokies 318 to 278.
Nicholas Taylor, Anthony Schlegel and Marchello Graddy authored terrific hits which disrupted Virginia Tech drives at many junctures throughout the game. Though the AFA defense did not produce fumble recoveries or interceptions at the same frenetic pace against VT that it did during the first half dozen games of the 2002 season, the manner in which the Falcons' defense performed against the Hokies was reminiscent of its efficacy during the season's splendid outset.
Fisher DeBerry will have to wait until later this year to post his 150th victory as the team's head coach. This team's 8-5 record is a solid one especially when juxtaposed with the inconsistent play of last year's 6-6 squad.
A schedule whose non-conference games included contests with Northwestern, California and Notre Dame will be replaced by one with outings against North Texas State, Wofford and, once again, Northwestern. It's unlikely that the glare of national television audiences will scrutinize AFA's games in the fall of 2003 with the same regularity they did in the so recently concluded campaign. A schedule whose star appeal is so low may not be without its benefits. It's trite, but true, to say it's a long time until the 2003 season begins and there may be personnel changes to the roster which seem unlikely right now. Nonetheless, Air Force is in position to return more starting players to its offensive, defensive and kicking specialist roles than in over a decade.
If center John Peel wins the starting job in the fall, then Air Force could return all six of its starters to a team which won a national rushing title this year. In the offensive backfield all significantly utilized players will return, save for the magnificently talented Leotis Palmer.
AFA fans are well aware of Fisher DeBerry's record as a coach in years when he has a returning starting QB running his ground based option attack. The combination of Chance Harridge's return to the controls of the offense--infused with and abetted by a modicum of improvement in his passing game--a seemingly less challenging schedule than in 2002 and the team's corporate ambition to overcome two seasons tarnished by poor finishes could propel Air Force to a higher placing in the MWC and a bowl bid and victory with which to cap a memorable season.