The Falcons and Hokies will be meeting for only the second time in football with the previous meeting having been won by the Falcons, 23-7, in the 1984 Independence Bowl. Neither team has a depth of familiarity with the other and each squad's strengths may accentuate the other's weaknesses, unless and until, the respective coaching staffs are able to implement effective changes during the course of the game.
STRAIGHT FORWARD. Fisher DeBerry and the Falcons are unlikely to spring many surprises with their passing game. Air Force attempted more than ten passes on just four occasions this year. AFA lost three of the four games. For Air Force the passing game is a clear example that less is more.
The Falcons' stock in trade is a ground based option attack in its many variations. Pitches to trailing backs, inside reserves, double reverses and even an occasional naked bootleg from quarterback Chance Harridge are means by which Air Force can, and will, spice the nation's leading ground attack. These diversionary forays will be intermingled with a healthy dose of the Falcons' standard quarterback/fullback sorties between the tackles. After QB Harridge and FBs Steve Massie, Adam Cole and Tim Gehrsitz have trudged their way to gains running into the congested segment of the line scrimmage and lulled VT into thinking AFA will try to bully its way to a sustained drive, there are sure to be quick pitches aimed at the perimeter of the Hokies' defensive alignment.
The Hokies need to pay particular attention to a revitalized contribution by AFA FBs over the team's most recent games. After an extended period of fallow production from the pivotal fullback spot in the Falcons' option during a midseason three game losing streak, Massie and Gehrsitz have produced robust numbers for Air Force. Reliable gains from the fullback spot are crucial to the effectiveness of the Air Force attack and the team's tandem at the spot has been most productive over the past three games.
Massie has carried the ball for totals of (29/187/3TDs/6.45) while Gehrsitz has supplied figures of (19/87/0TDs/4.58). In AFA's games versus Army, UNLV and San Diego State, Massie and Gehrsitz have allowed Air Force to average a solid 5.71 yards a carry. When the fullback game is providing Air Force five and six yards a crack on first down the Falcons can make ample use of Harridge's elusiveness on second and/or third down, opt to pitch the ball on the perimeter to any one of four quick, shifty halfbacks or choose to attempt a pass from the comfortable environs of a "second and short" scenario.
If the Falcons are going to spring an upset on the Hokies it will be easier to precipitate such a turn of events on the back of a solid game by the Air Force fullbacks. Massie has hit his stride--ably abetted by Gehrsitz--at the most propitious point of the schedule and his extraordinary 6.45 yards per carry, three touchdown outburst, in the regular season's final month should provide the offense with increased confidence as the kickoff for the San Francisco Bowl approaches.
RUFFLES AND FLOURISHES. Aerial fireworks aren't apt to take the form of increased pass attempts by the Falcons. At the same time, VT shouldn't disregard AFA's passing game, limited though it may appear.
Tight end, C2C, Adam Strecker (6-6/240) is the team's leading receiver in terms of receptions(13), reception yardage(243) and receptions for TDs (4). In the past five games Strecker has pulled in seven passes for 169 yards, a dazzling 24.14 yards a grab and three TDs. The team has thrown seven touchdown passes in the past five games, which represent a veritable aerial bombardment for the Falcons. While Air Force has a minuscule number of completions on the year with a mere sixty-three, its 12 passing TDs reflect a proportionately high percentage of completions resulting in scores.
An offense well grounded in a consistent fullback game, animated by slashing runs from Chance Harridge and HBs Leotis Palmer, Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward and complemented by a limited, although productive, passing game to Strecker and the wide receivers will afford Air Force a realistic opportunity to beat Virginia Tech.
EXPECT SOME CHANGES. In remarks he made in his postgame radio show following the loss to San Diego State, Fisher DeBerry spoke in pointed terms about his disappointment with the team's tackling ability over the course of the second half of the season. That afternoon he made it clear that when the team resumed practice for bowl preparations it would be met with a battery of tackling drills. Virginia Tech's talented running backs Lee Suggs (1,255 yards/20TDs) and Kevin Jones (836/9TDs) aren't likely to be deterred by the slipshod efforts at tackling which characterized too much of AFA's defense during the second half of the season.
Prior to the 2000 season, DeBerry assessed the team's defensive line as being the best he'd had in his tenure as head coach at Air Force. Falcons' fans still recall--all too painfully--the lackluster play evidenced by that group. This year's starting defensive line of Monty Coleman, Nick Taylor and Eric Thompson or Charles Bueker had no such high praise directed toward it by the coaching staff. The quartet of linemen has played acceptably, but not in a manner so as to distinguish itself as memorable.
Defensive coordinator, Richard Bell, realigned AFA's defense from its long utilized 3-4-4 configuration to a 3-3-5 format before the season began. The scheme emphasizes increased speed in the secondary over bulk in the linebacking corps. It will be problematic for a three man line to contain the Hokies' running backs and QB Bryan Randall. Don't be surprised if Air Force incorporates some four man defensive line play in an effort to ground VT's running game.
Senior defensive back Wes Crawley last saw action for Air Force on the first play of the game versus Army when he made his fourth interception of the year--a figure which leads the Mountain West Conference this season.
In addition to Crawley, Falcon back Mark Marsh missed the San Diego State game. The effect of the pair's absence led to Aztecs' wide receivers J. R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood grabbing an unconscionable 25 receptions for 249 yards and 1 TD in San Diego State's upset of the Falcons. Crawley is the team's most talented coverage specialist while Marsh is the secondary's fiercest hitter. (Marsh has been hampered since late in the season with a leg injury and his participation in the San Francisco Bowl remains an open question.) These two players will need to have solid performances to limit the effectiveness of VT's Ernest Wilford (46 receptions/875 yards/19 yards a catch/7 TDs).
Air Force and Virginia Tech will try to arrest second half skids which removed a portion of the sheen from their otherwise successful seasons. The Hokies bring a well deserved twenty-first ranking in the nation's polls with them to San Francisco. Frank Beamer's squad is an eleven and a half point favorite in the game. Air Force last authored an upset over a ranked opponent when it traveled to Berkeley and beat Jeff Tedford's Cal Bears, 23-21, in the Falcons' third game of the season.
Fisher DeBerry's teams have a history of playing well and forcefully in the post-season against high profile opponents who may feel a measure of chagrin at having squandered an opportunity to earn their way into a bowl game of greater import than that held by a newcomer to the post-season. Air Force should not be dismissed as a team incapable of welcoming the new year by defeating Virginia Tech, thereby giving itself a San Francisco treat.