A NEW FRONTIER. The 1978 college football season found Air Force committing one of the few major mistakes it has made in recent memory. The academy hired a young assistant coach--previously in the employ of Texas Tech--named Bill Parcells and named him to succeed Ben Martin as AFA's head coach. It was an unqualified disaster as Parcells' 3-8 record evidences. Ken Hatfield was brought on board in 1979, and in point of fact, Air Force football began its trek into a glorious era of success with Hatfield's arrival. To be sure, Hatfield was no overnight sensation as his 8-25-1(.250) mark in his first three years will attest. However, Hatfield had an idea which changed the face of Air Force football, and which change, still dominates Falcons' football.
Hatfield made the decision to install the Wishbone offense at Air Force. He felt he didn't appreciate or understand the nuances of the scheme sufficiently to initiate the changes himself, so in 1980 he hired a little known assistant coach to implement the switch to the run oriented offense. That's how James Fisher DeBerry arrived at the Air Force Academy.
Beginning with the 1974 season and running through the fall of 1981, AFA posted losing records each football season. DeBerry's first two years on Ken Hatfield's staff saw the Falcons post records of 2-9-1 and 4-7. The next two campaigns saw the Falcons flourish and record ledgers of 8-5 and 10-2, earn two bowl bids and register two post-season victories. From 1982 to the present day, AFA's composite record is 167-89-1(.652). Included in that total of 257 games are thirteen bowl appearances--in which Air Force has gone 8-5(.615)--with a fourteenth coming on the last day of the current year.
While the school's name contains the word air, there can be no mistaking how much benefit a ground game has brought its football team.
WELL VERSED. During the past twenty-one seasons Air Force has played in the Western Athletic Conference, in its many configurations, and the current Mountain West Conference. In either circuit AFA's method of operation has always been to run first and pass second--if at all. When it comes to moving the football, long time Air Force opponents such as Hawaii, San Diego State and Brigham Young have thrown it, thrown it, thrown it, called time out to catch their breath, waited for play to resume and then thrown it some more. Air Force is accustomed to defending the pass. The Falcons may not defend the pass well, but they are used to seeing teams throw the ball thirty, forty or fifty times a game.
One of the mysteries surrounding the Falcons' game against Virginia Tech is whether or not Air Force can switch gears from pass defense mode into a scheme which adequately defends the run. Make no mistake about this: the Falcons have spent far more time defending the pass over the past twenty odd years than the run. On occasion there are conference teams--Colorado State is one--which run the ball with some degree of frequency against Air Force, but by and large, the WAC (during AFA's tenure therein) and MWC are pass happy aggregations of teams.
INSTITUTING CHANGES. VT will have its hands full trying to contain the Falcons' nation leading ground game. The Hokies don't play teams which run a ground based option attack anywhere near as effectively as does Air Force. On the other hand, Air Force has rarely faced a team so accomplished in moving the ball on the ground as is VT.
Navy (260 yards), UNLV (303 yards) and Notre Dame (335 yards) all were effective in running the ball against Air Force this season. Air Force easily dismissed Navy and overcame a stubborn Rebels' team in spite of allowing chunks of yards on the ground. And then there is Notre Dame. The Falcons' game against the Irish bears inspection because ND and VT have similar identities on offense characterized by a run first/pass second attitude.
The Irish ran the ball 56 times for 335 yards and a robust 5.98 yards an attempt. When a team moves the ball that freely on the ground it can use the passing game as an effective afterthought, which is precisely what Carlyle Holiday did versus the Falcons. Holiday hit 8 of 15 passes, with all completions going to Arnaz Battle, for 112 yards. By controlling the ball on the ground and spicing its offensive attack with just enough passing to keep AFA defenders off balance, Notre Dame moved judiciously throughout the contest and kept possession of the ball for over thirty-five minutes. AFA's option attack does not operate at peak efficiency when having to overcome a deficit in a short period of time by being forced to throw the ball. A fourth quarter rally by AFA against ND failed to materialize for just such reason.
VT running backs Lee Suggs(238/1255/20TDs) and Kevin Jones(149/836/9TDS) average 5.3 and 5.6 yards per carry, figures that helped the Hokies grind out 221 yards a game via the rush. QB Bryan Randall isn't afraid to run when the need arises as he's amassed 527 yards and 3 TDs this season. Randall has aided the VT offense with a solid performance when throwing the ball completing over 62% of his pass attempts, with 12 going for scores.
Air Force began the 2002 season after having allowed opponents to score against it at a prolific pace in 2001. Defensive coordinator Richard Bell reconfigured the Falcons' defense from its base 3-4-4 formation to a 3-3-5 design. The scheme utilizes one less linebacker in lieu of an additional defensive back. In theory, the realigned defense would allow Air Force to better defend passing attacks by employing greater speed, but less heft, on defense. It is a configuration which yielded considerable success for the Falcons in the first half of the season, but no team more than Notre Dame, so thoroughly unmasked the shortcomings of opting for speed over size when trying to contain a ground based attack.
Virginia Tech's productive running game presents a challenge to the Air Force the likes of which the Falcons have not experienced this season.
PLAN "B". If Air Force is able to corral VT's running game there is the matter of containing the Hokies' passing attack. Consider the contrast in the efficiency with which the teams pass the ball.
AFA's leading receiver this year in terms of receptions, yards gained and TDs is tight end Adam Strecker, a sure handed,formidably sized target at 6-6/240. Strecker has hauled in 13 passes for 243 yards and 4 TDs. Juxtapose those data with the performance of VT wide receiver Ernest Wilford in the Syracuse game alone. Wilford caught 8 passes for 279 yards and 4 TDs. Yes, VT lost in triple overtime to the Orangemen by a 50-42 score, but the outcome can hardly be pinned to Wilford's Herculean efforts on the day. Shawn Witten has accounted for another 21 catches and 258 yards in receptions for the Hokies. His receiving yards also top those of AFA's Strecker.
Frank Beamer's team will sport an able rushing attack complimented by an accurate passing regimen with it to the San Francisco Bowl. If Air Force continues to use a three man defensive front it assumes the risk of not being able to prevent the Hokies from running the ball all night. Should the Falcons try to enhance their chances of bottling VT's ability to run the ball by inserting an extra defensive lineman in the game, they may leave themselves vulnerable to the Hokies' precision passing attack.
Condemned men used to be given the choice of selecting the manner of their ultimate demise: they could be shot or hung. The choice seems strikingly similar to the conundrum faced by many of Virginia Tech's opponents this season. After two decades of confounding their conference opponents with an option game whose explosive nature seemingly had no defensive counterpoint, Fisher DeBerry and his crew may be in the unenviable position of having to stop an offensive juggernaut which with they are ill-equipped to contend.