Scouting Report: Air Force

Sooners prepare to face young Falcon squad that returns only seven starters on offense and defense

Oklahoma fans will get a chance to see part of their past this Saturday when the third-ranked Sooners travel to Colorado Springs to take on Air Force and their vaunted wishbone rushing attack.

Just as the Sooners did in the mid-80's, there is no team in the country that runs the wishbone better than Air Force.

The Falcon offense was tremendous last season, averaging 35 points per game, 497 yards of total offense and holding the ball for an average of 32:08. Air Force's ground game was its usual self. The Falcons led the conference and ranked third nationally with 295 yards per game.

Air Force returns only six starters on offense and defense from last years team, but that shouldn't be a problem as the Falcons returned only seven starters prior to the 2000 season and 9-3 record and a victory over Fresno State in the Silicon Bowl.

"We're a very, very young football team like we always are, but we're a very eager football team and anxious to play," said Air Force Head Coach Fisher DeBerry.

"I know Oklahoma's glad to have one game under their belts. I'm sure Bob (Stoops) will certainly feel good about that because I think your football team improves the most from the first game to the second game."

Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops isn't anticipating the Falcons to drop from last years success after losing 15 starters.

"I'm sure they feel good even though there may not be a great number of starters back," said Stoops. "There's are a great number of players that have been in their system and know what they're doing. I'm sure they feel that's certainly a positive for their team."

Just how concerned are the Oklahoma coaches about this game? Very concerned. So concerned in fact, they started preparing for the Falcon's wishbone attack this summer and during two-a-days.

"You adjust your defense each week to who you're playing, but when you face a triple-option team that is different than every other style of offense that you play, you do change up somewhat," said Stoops of the difference in preparing for a wishbone attacks, as opposed to any other type of offense.

"We worked on it hard this summer in double sessions. We took several days and worked strictly on Air Force, so when we got into practice our players were already in solid position in recognizing what they're doing and having a good feel for it. Having spent the time in double sessions, we feel good about our preparation."

Offensively, the Falcons must replace there top playmaker from a year ago in option quarterback Mike Thiessen.

Thiessen was the Falcons leading rusher last season, carrying the ball 179 times for 869 yards including 10 rushing touchdowns. In addition to his outstanding rushing abilities, Thiessen set single season passing marks at Air Force under DeBerry's wishbone attack for yards (1,687) as well as throwing 10 TD passes.

Expected to replace Thiessen at quarterback this season is junior Keith Boyea. Boyea was Thiessen's backup last season and rushed for 43 yards on 15 carries and passed for only 27 yards while seeing limited action in five games.

"The concern we have entering this season is the absence of playing time at quarterback," said DeBerry. "Mike took most of the playing time last year because so many of our games were close. We have some young men with the ability to do what we need."

"We'll be starting a quarterback (Boyea), like OU did with Hybl the other night, that will be making his first start. I know he's anxious to play, and we're anxious to see him play. We think he has the skills to do what we do offensively with the option, but I'd feel a lot better if he had eight or 10 games under his belt at this particular time, and particularly considering who our opposition is."

When Boyea goes to the air he will be looking for one of the best receivers in the Mountain West in 6-foot-5 senior Ryan Fleming. Fleming was Thiessen's top target a year ago cacthing 52 passes for 930 yards.

The Falcons' offensive line lost four starters from a year ago will be anchored by their lone returning starter in senior tackle Ben Miller. DeBerry says Miller, who recorded 150 knockdown blocks last season, could be the best lineman he's ever had at the academy.

In the backfield, Air Force lost two of their leading rushers out of the backfield in Nate Beard and Scott Becker, but return one starting running back in Brandon Brown, who rushed for 496 yards last season, and senior halfback Tom Heier, who returns to the lineup after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Leotis Palmer also returns in the backfield after rushing for 275 yards in 2000.

Defensively, the Falcons return only four starters and will rely heavily on its front three. DeBerry feels senior Zach Johnson, along with defensive tackles Justin Pendry and Dan Probert compose the top defensive line in the conference.

Johnson rolled up seven tackles for loss and a sack in just eight games last year. Pendry is the team's top returning tackler with 48 stops, including four tackles for loss. He has unlimited potential and great size at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. Both are returning starters. Probert was among the team leaders in tackles for loss with eight and sacks with five last season, despite starting just three games.

The Falcons biggest weakness on defense is at linebacker where they lost all three starters from a year ago. Air Force does return two starters in the secondary and they will need them to slow down Oklahoma's talented receiving corp.

The secondary will be bolstered by senior Falcon Back Sam Meinrod and junior corners Joel Buelow and Wes Crawley. Meinrod and Crawley are returning starters and Beulow was a part-time starter last season.

Meinrod is the second leading returning tackler with 36. He also had two tackles for loss and one interception. Crawley posted 28 total tackles a year ago, while Beulow had 22.

"I like the fact that we're playing a very good option football team, because it prepares us for some of the Big 12 schools that we're going to play that emphasize and still run the option, though it's slightly different, there are some similarities," said Stoops on playing Air Force.

"Our players are focused in practicing this week because they realize we're going to need to play better than we did a week ago. But we're looking forward to the challenge."

All-Time Series
This is the first meeting ever between Oklahoma and Air Force. The Sooners are 2-2 all-time against the service academies and have not played one since they lost to Navy in 1965.

The Sooners enter this weekend's game ranked third in both polls for the second week in a row. Air Force in unranked.

Legend in the making
The Falcons are led by legendary Coach Fisher DeBerry, who is entering his 18th season at Air Force ranks ranks eigth in victories among active division one coaches with 135, and ranks third among active coaches in longest tenure at one school.

The streak
Oklahoma enters this weekend's matchup boasting the nations longest winning streak at 15 games. The Sooners have won their last seven games in a row away from Owen Field during the current streak.

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