The Air Force Falcons play their third game of 2004 this Saturday night against UNLV in Sam Boyd Stadium. Although AFA's record is 1-1 entering the contest, in many ways the season is just beginning. The meeting marks the outset of Mountain West Conference play for this year.
The Long and Short Views
Pregame look at the 2004 AFA - UNLV Matchup
AFAFalcons Writer
UNLV Coach John Robinson (Describing Air Force)
UNLV Coach John Robinson (Describing Air Force)
Sep 16, 2004

The Long and Short Views

UNLV Coach John Robinson (Describing Air Force)

The Air Force Falcons play their third game of 2004 this Saturday night against UNLV in Sam Boyd Stadium. Although AFA's record is 1-1 entering the contest, in many ways the season is just beginning. The meeting marks the outset of Mountain West Conference play for this year.

AFAFalcons writer Chris FieldNEW BEGINNINGS. The twenty-first edition of coach Fisher DeBerry's Air Force Falcons opened the 2004 season against a vastly superior California squad. In all candor, it was a game in which the Falcons had little realistic chance to win and playing the Golden Bears competitively for thirty minutes had to suffice as consolation for AFA in front of crowd of fifty thousand in Falcon Stadium.
Eastern Washington followed Cal onto the academy grounds last weekend, for the latest in a succession of all too frequent appearances by the flotsam and jetsam which populates division 1-AA football, and against whom the Falcons have insisted on scheduling games throughout the DeBerry era.
The pair of games represented an untenable risk/reward scenario for Air Force. The Falcons had nothing to lose in playing and trying to beat California--a team which gives every indication of being a legitimate top ten contender this fall. Conversely, the Falcons had nothing to gain by scheduling and defeating the Eagles from Cheney, Washington. There may be good news on the horizon for the season ticket buying fans who comprise the economic base of AFA football.
Because current NCAA guidelines allow for only 11 regular season games to be played in most seasons (2008, 2013, 2014 & 2019 being exceptions) AFA may soon find itself in the position of being unable to schedule such farcical exhibitions for which loyal fans are forced to pay top dollar for less than expert gridiron acumen.
TCU's inclusion in MWC football beginning in 2005 will mandate that each of the nine members of the league play the other eight schools every season. Add to this, games each year with Army and Navy and ten games are proverbially set in stone for AFA in the foreseeable future. In most seasons, this will allow the Falcons to schedule only one non-conference, non-CIC battle. Since Air Force will be in the position of having ten specific teams on its schedule every year, its season ticket buying fan base has every right to expect the Falcons' athletic administration to schedule an 11th game against competitive division 1-A opponents rather than squandering a spot in a fall's slate of games on East Dakota A & M and the like.
DeBerry holds fast to his trilateral goals for every season's team: winning the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, capturing a conference title and participating in, and winning, a bowl game.  None of these ends is served by wasting--yes, wasting--a game on a non-division 1-A opponent.  AFA will take the field this Saturday evening in the full realization that UNLV has played consecutive games on the road against nationally ranked opposition, while it most recently competed against a now, 0-2, team from the Big Sky Conference. EWU is hardly the kind of preparation to ready Air Force for the rigors of a challenging MWC schedule.
THE CHICKEN & EGG CONUNDRUM. One of life's great imponderables is the timeless debate as to which came first: the chicken or the egg. Extrapolated to the realm of fans of this year's AFA team, the conundrum becomes whether there is a dearth of talent on defense or whether coordinator Richard Bell is spinning his wheels in thrusting his players into the 3-3-5 alignment now employed by AFA for the third season.
For those relative newcomers to AFA football, JP Waller catches pass in front of Tanner in 03the introduction of the 3-3-5 scheme to the Falcons came as the direct result of a post-season analysis of what had been an abysmal team performance in 2001, low-lighted by consecutive road losses to BYU and New Mexico, in which Air Force was torched for 63 points by the Cougars and then 52 points by the Lobos. Those with keen recall will harken back to the fact that BYU scored 21 points in each of the first three quarters before calling off the dogs in a contest in which they could have easily scored 80 points.
The 3-3-5 format had been in vogue at that time in division 1-A having been installed by Joe Lee Dunn, the defensive coordinator under Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State. AFA was one of a number of teams who copied the scheme after sending several defensive coaches to MSU to watch and study the scheme's efficacy during the Bulldogs' spring drills in 2002.
In theory, the appeal of the Jackie Sherillscheme is the added speed and quickness injected into the defense in the presence of a fifth defensive back, who gains entry into the lineup in lieu of a defensive lineman. The implied choice made in employing the 3-3-5 scheme over a 4-3-4 alignment is that a team has more speed on its roster than bulk. The AFA coaching staff has made its assessment and it is that the team is better served by using five DBs than four DL in its base defense.
Because a three man defensive alignment cannot hope to pressure the opposing QB on a game long basis or adequately contain the run at the point of attack by itself, a series of well-disguised blitz packages becomes an integral part of the workings of the 3-3-5 defense.
When an opposing QB is able to correctly detect or guess from where the blitz will originate and audible into a correspondingly advantageous play, the defense becomes susceptible to sorties attacking the vacated area.
In light of unsatisfactory statistical performances, as well as allowing Cal and EWU to move the ball far too easily far too often, the debate among AFA fans rages on: is the team employing a sound defensive scheme given the players at its disposal or have DeBerry, and defensive coordinator Richard Bell made a gaffe by installing and continuing to use the 3-3-5 alignment?
SO WHICH IS IT? Air Force fans decry the statistically slow start to the current season produced by the defense after two games. Cal amassed 573 yards of offense and Eastern Washington 413. The totals are unsatisfactory, but may prove to be an accurate measure of the talent level present on this year's squad.
 As an attendee of AFA football games for the past thirty years, I've had the opportunity to see all the long blue line of talent march to the drums pounded by Ben Martin, Bill Parcells, Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry as head coaches. Chad
 As much as fans would like to cajole themselves into believing the "next" Chad Hennings or Bryce Fisher is sitting on the bench waiting for the coaching staff to realize he's there waiting CG with Packersto be inserted into the line-up, that's a case of looking at the world through Air Force blue tinted lenses.
 The "next" Chris Gizzi or Teri Maki isn't strolling aimlessly about the campus waiting to be discovered by assistant coaches and fitted for a football suit.
In any given year there is a limited amount of talent on the AFA football squad. In the years when a DeBerry coached team has posted an exceptional record, say the 12-1 mark of the 1998 squad, the team's uncanny success has been every bit as much a byproduct of roles being ably filled as stellar individual performances over the course of a year.
 It's easy for fans to wax poetic over the play of Blane Morgan at QB that season, while completely forgetting the coverages provided by Jason Sanderson and Tim Curry in the secondary. There's little tapping of the memory bank needed to summon the feats of FB Spanky Gilliam that fall. But what effort would need to be exerted before remembering  the devastating blocks thrown by left guard, Frank Mindrup, all autumn six years past?
Over the past three decades Air Force football teams have most often been an example of a contingent whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collective effort, rather than an individual's extraordinary feats, has always been the main component of Falcons' successes.
This year's defense has given indications during the first two games on the schedule that it will need everything to break right for it in order to hold teams at bay once play begins in the MWC.
Through the first two games the only starters on defense who've impressed me with consistently good play are defensive lineman Ryan Carter and defensive back Jordan Wilkie. Yes, Carter has registered a sack in each of the first two games, but beyond that, he has been the long member of the DL to be a force in helping to limit team's effectiveness in running the ball. Wilkie has made, in my mind, the outstanding play of the season for AFA thus far in running down J. J. Arrington after an 89 yard gain by the Cal tailback. I cannot tell you which member of the defense runs the fastest in a forty yard dash. I can tell you that in terms of game day speed on the gridiron Wilkie is the fastest player the Falcons have on defense this fall.
LB - JRThe play of the linebackers has been disappointing this year and for that the coaches need to shoulder a measure of blame. Here's why. Marchello Graddy, Trevor Hightower and John Rudzinski were the starters last year. Sure, Graddy had an all-conference year in 2003 and deservedly so. The fault comes in the fact that the trio's primary substitutes last year--Kenny Smith, Overton Spence and Cameron Hodge respectively--received scant playing time.
A coaching staff is charged with the dual responsibility of winning games in the present, as well as preparing a team to win in the future. The end result of those backups receiving so little playing time last year is coming home to roost this year. Rudzinski has returned to the lineup this year, but in large part Smith and Hodge are learning on the run. Because practice time is one thing while game day experience is quite another, there will be some growing pains with Smith and Hodge early in the schedule. Spence of course had his own off-season turmoil and only returned to the team in time to begin practice  prior to the EWU game. 
The defense will need to mature quickly to be competitive in the MWC. It will need to avoid injury so that the players in the starting lineup can develop some cohesiveness. As always, AFA's offense can help the defense by authoring time-consuming, TD-producing drives which will keep the Falcons' defense on the sideline and well rested, while preventing the opposing team's offense from developing the precision which comes from handling the ball for long stretches of the game.
There's angst among AFA fans when the subject turns to the team's offense. Should freshman Shaun Carney continue to be the starter? Should Adam Fitch receive more playing time on a weekly basis now that he's recovered from an Achilles' tendon injury? And what of the development or lack thereof of the offensive line? For the alarmist segment of AFA football fans it seems to be a question of too many bridges from which to jump and so little time.
After the conclusion of the 2001 season AFA lost its entire starting offensive line to graduation. The 2002 unit, complete with an untested Chance Harridge at QB, produced the school's first national rushing title in the 2002 season. Therein lies the source of many fans' completely unreasonable expectation, to wit, that this year's batch of untested offensive linemen can catch lightning in a bottle a second time by performing in the manner of their predecessors of two years ago.
I'll begin shooting holes in those folks' pie-in-the-sky thinking by pointing out that in 2002 all six OL (including Adam Strecker at TE) started every game that year for the Falcons. This year's starting RG, Curtis Grantham, suffered a season-ending broken leg in the first game of the year. The season hadn't even reached the end of week one before the Falcons were scrambling to deal with their first major injury. So much for capturing lightning in a bottle this time around.
Amid all the head scratching about the abilities of the offensive line to open holes of sufficient size through which a collection of backs can scamper, is the fact that the team is blessed with plenty of experienced backs. HBs Anthony Butler and Darnell Stephens stand 27th and 28th on the all time rushing list at AFA--separated by a single yard. Sophomores Justin Handley and Eddie Moss have shown that new blood is being transfused into the offense based on their performances of the past two weeks.
The most telling aspect of the offense's performance thus far may be the resurrection of a passing game to augment the option attack. Carney has completed 19 of 30 passes (63.3%) for 228 yards and 3 TD passes. Last year over the course of a twelve game schedule, Harridge completed just 80 passes with 6 going for scores. There is reasonable cause for optimism given Carney's brief introduction to life in division 1-A football. If AFA's ability to throw the ball this year is more fancy passing, than a passing fancy, this may prove to be the biggest boon of all to the team's defense. An Air Force offense which, once again, demonstrates the balance which comes from being able to run and throw the ball effectively will keep opposing defenses off balance, yield a greater time of possession for the Falcons, culminate in scores and keep the defense from facing exhaustively long stints on the field.
PEERING INTO MY "CHRIS-TAL" BALL. The Falcons may be a pedestrian 1-1 so far this month, but I'm off to a blazing start having  gone 13-2 thus far and a perfect 7-0 last week in games involving MWC teams. Let's see what prognosticative divinations I can relate for week three.
Raise your hand if you can remember the last time Sonny Lubick's Rams started a season with a 0-2 mark and faced the distinct possibility of falling into a three game slump to open the year. I can't either. After losing a last second thriller to the CU Buffs in week one, the Rams headed for sunny California and were pounded into mulch by the USC Trojans, 49-0.
CSU makes its debut at home when it faces the Minnesota Golden Gophers this Saturday night. Glen Mason's team has compiled a 2-0 start while scoring 100 points in games against Toledo (63) and Illinois State (37). Of course the Gophers have allowed 21 points in each game. The Rams should receive a much needed boost from the crowd in recently expanded Hughes Stadium. Minnesota is among the legitimate contenders for the Big Ten crown this year and with a favorable schedule, which has it missing Purdue and Ohio State this fall, its chances for a championship are enhanced.
CSU QB, Justin Holland, threw for over 400 yards against the Buffs before USC intercepted him four times last week. He'll need to recapture some swagger against Minnesota. The golden rodents are averaging 180 yards on the ground and over 200 through the air. CSU may be Ram tough, but the pick here is Minnesota, as CSU stumbles to 0-3. A loss would lower the Rams' record to 7-11 in their past 18 games. 
In advance of USC's arrival in Provo this week, perhaps BYU's Gary Crowton will call Lubick to discern what measure of misery awaits the Cougars this Saturday night. BYU hosts USC this week in a game whose final score should be only slightly less horrific than the Trojans' bombardment of CSU last week.
The only thing you'll have to bear in mind is that when USC plays CSU or BYU or any other entrant in an "Alphabet Bowl", the Trojans always come out on top. LenDale White scored three TDs in the first quarter for Southern Cal last week. Even without WR Mike Williams, QB Matt Leinart should dissect the Cougars' secondary. This will be ugly. USC wins big.
Another MWC team in for a long day is San Diego State. The Aztecs had an open week in their schedule last week and are in the unfortunate position of having to play in the "Big House" against Michigan after the Wolverines were upset last weekend in South Bend by Notre Dame.
A contest two weeks ago against Idaho State is hardly what the Aztecs need to be prepared for the onslaught which will be unleashed upon their arrival in Ann Arbor. San Diego State will get a hefty paycheck for fulfilling its role as tackling dummy against an irate Michigan squad. To the surprise of no one, Michigan will prevail by several TDs in this one.
New Mexico staved off Texas Tech last weekend when PK Wes Zunker hit a game winning FG as regulation time expired. This week the Lobos hit the road to play an Oregon State team which should have beaten LSU in Baton Rouge on opening night, but didn't thanks to PAT miscues by PK Alexis Serna. Quite understandably John Dailey has replaced Serna as the Beavers' placekicker.
OSU's near miss versus co-defending national champion LSU, was followed by a loss to Boise State, which owns the nation's longest winning streak. Uncustomarily, the Lobos are making a trip to the Pacific Northwest for a game. I can save Rocky Long's squad some time and trouble. They should count on being greeted by Oregon's habitual rain and a loss. The Beavers are the pick in this one as the MWC completes another winless week against BCS teams.
Utah hits the road to play Utah State in a battle for supremacy in the Beehive state. As poorly as the MWC has performed in non-conference competition since its inception, the Sun Belt Conference--which plays home to the USU Aggies--is even lower on the division
1-A football food chain than is the MWC. That's of little consequence since Urban Meyer's Utes are loaded with talent.
QB Alex Smith, receivers Parris Warren and Steve Savoy combine to give Utah a prolific passing attack which won't be contained by USU. RB Marty Johnson leads the way on the ground at 91 yards a game for a Utah attack rushing for a shade past 160 yards a game. Utah has correctly been cast in the role of prohibitive favorite to repeat as MWC champ this fall. Meyer's squad gets a last tune up before opening conference play next week against Air Force. The Utes win and go to 3-0 on the year.
Wyoming does not play this week.
Air Force travels to the desert to face UNLV in the first MWC conference game of the 2004 season. The Rebels have faced two nationally ranked opponents on the road in Tennessee and Wisconsin. The Falcons were trapped by the Cal Bears on opening day before posting a less than stellar victory over the Eastern Washington State Eagles in week two.
 The Falcons play just three road conference games in 2004 and I feel Saturday night's contest represents the team's best chance to garner a win away from Falcon Stadium. The recent past provides ample reason to expect lots of points and offense in this game. In their last three meetings the teams have combined for exactly 2,200 yards of offense and 156 points. In light of the first  two weeks of the season neither team seems equipped to stop the other.
John Robinson's Rebels' Rebs coachsquads have an unsavory record for underachievement. UNLV beat two nationally ranked teams in 2003--CSU and Wisconsin--and then fell flat on its face at home to a middling San Diego State team, 7-0.  By the same token, the Falcons didn't spring a single upset in the 2003 season and haven't pulled one since beating Cal in Berkeley in 2002. 
HB Dominique Dorsey will give the AFA defense periodic fits on Saturday night, just as DB Jamaal Brimmer and LB Adam Seward--two kids who stayed home to play college football--will provide the Falcons' option attack.
I'm not going to change horses in midstream on this game even though I'm uncomfortable making the selection. My preseason pick had Air Force as the victor in this game and that's my call now. Air Force will win the game and take momentary control of first place in the MWC race. Maintaining that position against the Utes in Salt Lake City next week, is a story for another day.

SNOOZE OF THE WEEK.  One team has a glorious history of running the ball and has been able to do so seemingly at will. But that apparently is a thing of the pass, er past. The other has forgotten that it no longer has any receivers to whom to throw the ball, yet persists in continuing to pass away, which come to think of it, is exactly what its aerial attack did in the off-season.
Times change. Don't believe me? Then how else to explain the Nebraska Cornhuskers having thrown seven interceptions in two weeks' time? The installation of coach Bill Callahan's West Coast scheme certainly has been offensive, especially to Big Red fans. Geez, I hope all that crying doesn't rust their John Deeres.
Or perhaps yTylerou'd like to consider the plight of the flight of the ball in Western Pennsylvania. With WR Larry Fitzgerald's early departure for the NFL draft last spring, the passing attack of the Panthers certainly is the pits. Nineteen passing attempts by QB Tyler Palko produced just six completions for 49 yards against the always ferocious Ohio Bobcats. Two of the completions even went for as many as 11 or more yards! Wow, a veritable replica of the "Air Coryell" Chargers' attack.

NU's Joe Dailey has thrown 72 passes this year with six of them going for TDs. Seven of his attempts have been caught by the opposition. In short, Nebraska and Pitt are two teams who immediately need to "Pass Go" and proceed directly to the establishment of a running game. Nebraska's passing attack enabled it to lose at home last weekend to Southern Mississippi, while the Panthers were wholly unimpressive in downing the Bobcats of the MAC.
A few series of trying to watch these floundering would-be aerialists will have you snuggly in the arms of Morpheus. Pleasant dreams!