Ready or Not...

It's been an interesting off-season, to say the least. And not just in Seattle, where the Washington Huskies are coming off their worst season in history and will endeavor to dig out from the 1-10 rubble of 2004 with the deployment a new Head Coach, a new "us" attitude, and a quarterback situation that just (tenuously) resolved itself on Tuesday.

Washington (0-0, 0-0) at Air Force (0-0, 0-0)
Saturday, September 3 - 12:35 PM (PST) – ABC TV
Qwest Field, Seattle, WA
Series All-time: AFA leads, 5-2-0
Last Meeting: September 18, 1999 – AFA 31, Washington 21
Line: Washington by 2

But also in Colorado Springs, where long-time head coach Fisher DeBerry endured just his third losing season, a knee replacement surgery in April, and a rift with the Academy administration over the religious expression the self-professed Christian employs within the closed doors of his locker room.

No wonder the first words he uttered at his Tuesday press conference were, "Fellas, I've been ready (for the season to start) since the day last season ended. That's just how it goes in this profession."

The 66-year old dean of Mountain West Conference coaches likened this particular opener to a game of hide-and-seek, as in "Remember as kids shouting ‘ready or not, here I come'? I used to play that game," he smiled. "I'd have been happy if we had another week or so to prepare. We probably know less (about Washington) than any team since I don't know when."

"But its ‘ready or not, here we come Seattle'. And it's here now, so it's time to go – and we're excited to go."

Even though the Academy is projected to finish seventh in the Mountain West media poll, DeBerry is understandably excited about his Falcons' rebounding chances. His previous two non-winning seasons were followed by eight-win, bowl-bound campaigns - a point he proudly makes, almost challenging this particular squad, as if he expects another such upgrade. "I'm really anxious to see how this team is going to respond," said DeBerry. "They were so young last year ... and they've done all the things we've asked them to do in the off-season."

While DeBerry is looking forward to the visit to Qwest, he made no bones about being labeled the ‘home team'. "We might be wearing the blue jerseys", he chuckled, "but you're not fooling me – we're certainly not the home team."

"It should be a big advantage to (Washington). Heck, they can suit up in their homes if they want."

As of Tuesday afternoon, DeBerry had yet to learn that Isaiah Stanback was named the Husky starter, but he made it clear that he prepared his team for two styles of QB, and that not knowing who the starter was at that late date would have "no effect in our game planning. We're preparing both ways, and we're going do the best that we can with that."

"We have all the respect in the world for Ty and his staff, and certainly the Washington cupboard isn't bare. They've got 19 starters returning. And we'll have to be at our very best to stay on the field with them."

And their very best could well mean history repeating itself again for Fisher DeBerry – as in giant first step towards another bowl game.

TEAM STATS:  29.6 points, 425.5 yards 
             (277.4 rush, 148.1 pass)
             39-44 (34 TDs) in Red Zone offense 
             (.886, 2nd MWC)

RUSHING:     Shaun Carney 159-596-6 TD (3.7), long 47
             Jacobe Kendrick 43-233-1 TD (4.3), long 42 
             Justin Handley 22-94-0 TD (4.3), long 20
PASSING:     Shaun Carney 91-149-6 (.611),1315 yards,11 TD 
RECEIVING:   Justin Handley 13-127-1 TD (9.8), long 25
             Jason Brown 9-164-1 TD (18.2), long 45
             Robert McMenomy 5-81-1 TD (16.2), long 30

It's an offense new Husky defensive coordinator Kent Baer describes as "like learning a crash course in a new language". And it's no secret what these option Falcons will do – they have been in the top five on the NCAA team rushing charts for seven years running. In fact, AFA's 277 yards-per-game on the ground in 2004 was their LOWEST average since 1998.

That little tidbit, in part, was due to the emergence of QB Shaun Carney, who as a freshman broke the school record for completion percentage in a season. Carney – one of three Davey O'Brien Award nominees that Washington will face in 2005 (USC's Matt Leinart and Oregon's Kellen Clemens are the others) – had a pass efficiency rating of 152, third-best in school history, while still being the team's leading rusher. DeBerry says that Carney "has the potential of being one of the great ones that has played here. Last year he was just coming out of basic training. He knows the offense now." The 5-10 sophomore's main targets will be wideout Jason Brown and tight end Robert McMenomy, both 6-4 seniors.

Carney is the lone starter returning to the Falcon four-pronged backfield. Junior Jacobe Kendrick, a former halfback, will be counted on to provide the necessary fullback punch that an option attack requires. Kendrick, who ran for 232 yards in a reserve role a year ago, tore his MCL in spring ball but says he's "the best I've felt since I've been here". Junior Justin Handley (94 yards in 2004) and sophomore Chad Hall are slated as the halfback starters, though last year's backup QB Adam Fitch, another nifty runner, could see significant time.

The line is a different story, and should be Air Force's strength all season. All five starters return, led by senior All-conference center Jon Wilson. Seniors also abound in guards Curtis Grantham and Lawrence Hufford, and tackle Ross Weaver. Offensive line coach Pete Hurt says that junior tackle Robert Kraay could be a future star.

GAME OUTLOOK: Not only is the Falcon line mega-experienced, they're TALL (led by Kraay at 6-8). It allows for the diminutive Carney to run around behind them with ease. In an option game it's all about assignments and adjustments, and this line should have an advantage in simply knowing each other so well. Air Force doesn't stop themselves too often, only 16 turnovers in 2004 (Washington had mind-boggling 42). Not exactly the kind of opponent a new-identity Husky team needs to be opening with, though certainly better to face them now than at mid-season.

TEAM STATS:     31.1 points, 422.1 yards
                 (200.0 rush, 222.1 pass)
                8-12 in Red Zone defense
                42-49 (33 TDs) in Red Zone defense 
                (.857, 8th MWC)

TACKLES/TFL:    Mark Carlson 73/2.0 
                Bobby Giannini 67/1.5
                Chris Sutton 65/2.0
PASSES DEF/INT: Chris Sutton 5/2  
                Gilberto Perez 2/0
                Denny Poland 2/1
SACKS:          Denny Poland 4.0
                Gilberto Perez 1.0
                Bobby Giannini 1.0

Put simply, the Air Force defense is going to have to be better than it was a year ago if they expect to return to a bowl. Their "stop" unit didn't stop much of anyone in 2004, allowing almost 42 points per game in their six losses (California hung 56 on them in the season opener). They didn't cause turnovers (19 all season), they gave up 200 yards per game on the ground, and their one sack threat from a year ago has graduated.

But coach DeBerry thinks that his up-front guys will be much improved, hinting that "I wouldn't want to swap my guys for anyone else in the league". Junior Gilberto Perez (39 tackles in 2004) moves from the middle to defensive end, where his penchant for rushing the QB might be more fully utilized. Senior Nelson Mitchell (18 tackles) mans the other side, and huge senior Erik Anderson can spell both. 290-pound senior Russ Mitscherling (36 tackles) returns at the nose.

The Falcons were hit hard by attrition at linebacker, and in their unique "Falcon" alignment (in essence, three LBs and two "Falcons", or rovers), it's critical that the new guys come up to speed quickly. Senior Overton Spence provides the most experience. Converted running back Jared Baxley will get his first start, as will sophomore ILB Drew Fowler.

The secondary should be a strength, with senior "Falcons" (strong safeties) Denny Poland and John Taibi both returning. Poland had four sacks from his rover position, and leading tackler Mark Carlson moves over from free safety, which will be manned by hard-hitting sophomore Bobby Giannini, who made a name for himself with a fourth-down, one-on-one stop at the goal line to preserve a win against New Mexico. Junior Chris Sutton provides Air Force with corner experience; his five total passes defended and two interceptions led the team in 2004. Sophomore Carson Bird has a problematic groin strain, but will start at right corner.

GAME OUTLOOK: It should be interesting to see how Stanback and Rankin fares against the roving 3-5-3. Giannini is a big-time popper, but there isn't blinding speed. The Huskies have a size advantage up front, and AFA's inexperienced LB corps might be exploitable for an offense that can do nothing but improve from a comically abysmal 2004.

PLACEKICKING:  Scott Eberle 0-0 FG, 6-6 XP
PUNTING:       Donny Heaton 47-41.3 (long 90),
                .158 inside the 20
KICK RETURNS:  Justin Handley 8-20.5 (long 29), 0 TD
PUNT RETURNS:  Chris Sutton 11-7.0 (long 19), 0 TD

Special teams at Air Force has always meant blocked kicks and long field goals in the thin Colorado Springs air, but last year they only connected on seven three-pointers on the season and blocked just two kicks. It's an area that coach DeBerry is stressing for improvement in 2005. "We need to get back to creating big plays in the kicking game," says DeBerry.

Senior Scott Eberle has apparently won the place-kicking battle. He is the only one on the roster with game experience, having hit on six extra-pointers last season. Senior Donny Heaton returns as the Falcon punter. Heaton nailed a conference-record 90-yarder against Utah last year, and averaged 41 yards per boot. However, he did have five punts blocked. Chris Sutton returned punts in 2004, averaging seven yards per return, and Othello's Greg Kirkwood may be called upon to return kickoffs.

GAME OUTLOOK: This could be a real crapshoot. If Evan Knudsen doesn't win the Husky kicking job, both starters will have little or no game experience. Douglas and Heaton rate out pretty even as punters, and neither team has had a penchant for blocking kicks lately. Now watch somebody like Kirkwood or UW's Roy Lewis bust some kind of return in their debut.


AFA officials are negotiating with Bob Walsh Enterprises on a "more realistic guarantee" from lagging ticket sales. Air Force Associate A.D. Mike Saks told the Colorado Springs Gazette, "When we negotiated the guarantee, it was based on what we thought was going to be a sellout or near-sellout crowd. Obviously, it doesn't appear we're going to get that" ... This marks the 50th year of Air Force football, Division 1 style ... August 16 was declared Fisher DeBerry Day in Colorado Springs, celebrating his 25 years at Air Force. DeBerry is 161-94-1 in the 21 years he has served as the Top Gun ... it will be the second time DeBerry and Tyrone Willingham have locked horns. Willingham's 2002 Notre Dame squad beat the Falcons, 21-14 in Colorado Springs ... The game will also serve as the opener for new AFA Athletic Director Dr. Hans Mueh. Hired in June, Mueh is technically the Academy's first "civilian" A.D., though he is a retired USAF Brigadier General ... In keeping with technicalities, the game marks AFA's 18th straight year opening a season with a home game. Only this one happens to be 1400 miles away from home ... Along with Kirkwood, Air Force sports another three Washingtonians on their roster: Freshman RB Rashad Mobley (Curtis) and sophomores Blaine Guenther (Bethel) and Noah Garguile (Bremerton) ...
Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@COMCAST.NET Top Stories