. While the faint hopes of salvaging the remnants
of their 2004 season slipped farther into the horizon before the UNLV
eyes amid the balmy temperatures and swirling winds of a sultry late summer
evening, the emerging capabilities which may power the Air Force
fall, were more prominently on display.
Once again, Coach John Robinson's
showed that when the tough get going the Rebels' chances for victory are
likely to be gone. Fisher DeBerry's Falcons had taken a beating two weeks
prior at the hands of a talented California
squad and followed that
disappointing effort with an uneven demonstration against division 1-AA
. Let there be no mistake: while the Rebels may have enough
talent on defense to be competitive in the MWC--particularly if the coaching
staff employs said talent more judiciously-- this is a team in disarray on
While some Air Force partisans will be dismissive of the team's
conference-opening, road victory, it would be unwise to completely assess the
Falcons' win as a meaningless conquest of what is likely to be an MWC bottom
feeder in 2004. With senior starter QB Kurt Nantkes
out of the lineup, it fell
to inexperienced Shane Steichen
to lead the UNLV offense. The Rebels' ground
attack managed 98 yards on 24 carries, but twenty of those came on a shifty
run by Dominique Dorsey
and UNLV showed no ability to sustain a rushing game
over the course of sixty minutes.
All-conference WR Earvin Johnson
is the lone weapon at Robinson's disposal for
the purpose of structuring an aerial attack. With Nantkes hurt and Steichen's
game-day rÃ©sumÃ© being short, the Rebels are betwixt and between when
formatting an offensive game plan.
Where Eastern Washington QB Erik Meyer had successfully
the numerous soft spots in the Falcons' secondary a week prior to the UNLV
game, Air Force secondary coach, Vic Shealy, appeared to have made changes in
the coverage schemes employed by AFA against the Rebels. DBs Mark Carlson
Denny Poland both intercepted passes owing to the aggressive positions they
had established while covering receivers. Jordan Wilkie
came close to making a
third swipe of the ball on another occasion in the game.
The Falcons' defense deserves full credit for holding a conference opponent to
10 points while playing away from home. As has been the case throughout the
history of option football at the academy, the offense's ability to move the
ball and score, provided the defense with long stretches of time on the
sidelines. Head coaches and defensive coordinators will tell you that the
magic number for a defense is 70. It's the number of plays after which many
defenses begin to lose their stamina, and therefore its effectiveness, in
being able to contain the opposition's offense. On Saturday night the Rebels
initiated 51 plays from the line of scrimmage. Compare that figure with the
Falcons' 85 and it's easy to fathom why the performance of AFA's defense was
so markedly superior to the first two games of the season.
FRONT AND CENTER. Air
Force was the beneficiary of noteworthy performances on both sides of the line
of scrimmage and because of this there is substantive reason to believe that
AFA's proficiency was a portent of things to come, rather than a flash in the
Let's start with the kicking game. On a night when a steady wind created
challenges for both teams where kicking was concerned, AFA punter Donny Heaton
and PK Michael Greenaway continued their solid performances begun earlier this
month. Don't be fooled by Heaton's 37.5 yard average for the game. Where the
Eastern Washington game showed weaknesses in AFA's punt coverage ability the
UNLV game showed that Heaton's steady effectiveness in punting the ball
combined with superior coverage by the special teams will limit the
opposition's ability to establish advantageous field position through long
Greenaway continued to boom kicks to, and through, the end zone after AFA
scored and was finally given the chance to attempt his first FGs of the 2004.
He hasn't been busy as a FG specialist thus far, but when called upon to
deliver he's hit both attempts. His inactivity, but accuracy thus far, are two
positives signs for the Falcons' attack.
The starting trio of LBs: Andrew Braley
, Cameron Hodge
and John Rudzinski
contained the run more thoroughly from start to finish and provided tighter
pass coverage between the hash marks in stark contrast to last week's mess
against EWU. When Kenny Smith--a starter for the first two games of the season
at one LB spot--recovered a fumble in the second half, it effectively ended
any and all hope UNLV entertained for mounting a rally and served to
underscore the strong play of the entire AFA LB crew during the game.
Poland and Carlson not only provided interceptions, but glimpses of air tight
man-to-man coverage--sights rarely seen in the vicinity of a Falcons'
secondary in any fall. Yes, Johnson caught seven passes for 99 yards, but
never came close to being the destructive force other MWC WRs have been
against Air Force. The Falcons' pass defense was an asset, rather than a
liability, on Saturday.
The offense was diversified and robust. DeBerry's boast that the option attack
would be more reliant upon, and energized by, a productive FB game, gained
further credence against the Rebels. A week after AFA fullbacks combined for
176 yards on twenty-one carries and 1 TD they authored 38 carries for 171
yards and a TD. Perhaps the yards per carry averaged dropped, but the time
consumed on the game clock--which allowed the AFA defense to remain rested and
ready-- rose markedly.
Shaun Carney's 12 for 14
in passing the ball--his third straight game of completing well over 50% of
his attempts--gives AFA opponents due cause to respect the AFA passing game as
well as demonstrating the balance AFA's option attack will have this season.
While the FB game has been marked by solid production for two weeks it has
come at something of a cost to the effectiveness of the production of the
team's halfbacks. Yes, the HBs aren't running the ball as frequently this year
as in the recent past, but they are being used in other ways in Chuck
Petersen's game plans. Already half of the team's 32 receptions have been made
by the halfbacks (and fullbacks) with sophomore Justin Handley
leading the way
with seven grabs for 69 yards and 1 TD. Senior Kris Holstege
impressive against the Rebels. He caught a short pass in the right flat and
took it into the end zone for a 6 yard score and AFA's first points of the
night, but he was far more athletic in making two other catches--one made on a
third down situation, which he secured and advanced for a critical first down.
The option attack continued to be hale and hardy against UNLV in large part
because of the improving play of the offensive line. Already stung by the
loss of RG Curtis Grantham
on opening day, the line lost TE Robert McMenomy
for the conference opener. While Jason Brown
technically was the starter at TE
for the Falcons, it was junior Carsten Stahr
, who received the bulk of playing
time against UNLV. The offense ran the ball a season high 71 times and gained
278 yards on its way to amassing 417 yards for the night.
Improved defensive play--produced in part through an effective
offense--tighter pass coverage, a burgeoning passing game issuing from the
poised efforts of a freshman QB, the sure and supple hands of backs used as
primary receivers on passing routes, a prospering FB game and sound
workmanship in the kicking game unite in giving rise to realistic optimism for
the continuance of success by the Falcons as the season proceeds.
There are moments when a squad begins to crumble into the broken pieces of what will become a wretched and ruined football team, just as there are instances which portend a unit's coalescence into a cohesive band which will exceed its critics' dour forecasts. UNLV and Air Force reached such junctures on Saturday night in Las Vegas.