Oct. 1, 2010
By Bob Socci
On Saturday the Air Force Falcons will be in familiar territory.
They'll be at home in Colorado Springs, where they are 16-4 under Troy Calhoun. A third of the way through their 2010 schedule, they also enter their fifth game with a 3-1 record for the fourth straight season.
Among those wins was a very unfamiliar result. It was a 35-14 blowout of BYU in the season's second week, marking a milestone for Calhoun and a watershed for his program.
Calhoun had never triumphed over the Cougars, not as an Air Force player or assistant; nor in his first three years as the head coach of his alma mater. In fact, the Falcons had lost six straight in the series.
Moreover, in recent years they had been grouped with the `rest of' the Mountain West Conference, one of the six teams not referred to as BYU, TCU or Utah. Air Force and the five other league members had lost 48 straight to the Mountain West's Big Three since Wyoming defeated TCU on Oct. 6, 2007.
What was reality for the Falcons was a `fait accompli' for most of the Mountain West. That is, until Air Force totaled 477 yards and shut out the Cougars in the second half.
Three weeks later, the Falcons look to bust another streak, when they host Navy this weekend. For the last seven years - including six losses decided by a touchdown or less, four by three points or fewer - Air Force has been left on the short side of a series it dominated for two-plus decades.
Through 2002, the Falcons won 19 of 21 meetings with the Midshipmen. Since 2003, they've experienced one agonizing loss after another. Two years ago, Navy scored twice off blocked punts in a 33-27 win. Last season, an overtime field goal attempt - and a chance to tie - sailed wide left to help the Mids prevail, 16-13.
Despite that recent past, the Falcons don't despair. Never mind that Navy is the seven-time defending Commander-In-Chief's champions, by virtue of 15 consecutive victories over service-academy rivals.
"That's been the feeling since I've been here, that we've been the team to beat," Air Force senior wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. "The last few years we've outgained them in yardage; just the mental mistakes were killing us. My freshman year, we gave up two blocked punts for touchdowns. Last year we missed a field goal in overtime, couldn't get anything established on offense.
"Yeah, I really believe this is finally our year to come way with a victory."
As already established, Warzeka's correct about those recent kicks gone awry. He's also right about the total yardage. For the record, the difference the last three years was 231 yards in favor of the Falcons.
While he's got those facts straight about the last two games, others in the prediction business share his sentiment about this year's affair. Quite literally, they're booking an Air Force win - from the Rockies to the Vegas strip.
Either they strongly believe in the law of averages, or are convinced that this year's 3-1 Air Force start trumps those of the previous three years and, more relevantly, this year's 2-1 record for Navy.
In addition to their inspired performance vs. BYU - knowing it would be the Falcons' last shot at their rivals before the Cougars defect from the MWC after this season - Air Force overwhelmed Northwestern State and rallied over Wyoming.
Scoring 41 unanswered points to break open a close game at halftime, the Falcons employed 80 players and racked up 616 yards in the first, opposite a lower-division program.
They had significantly more difficulty in the last. The Cowboys entered with 73 yards rushing in three games. Total, overall. Last Saturday alone, they gained 174 on the ground. Alvester Alexander carried 22 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Air Force left points in Laramie by way of a missed field goal try, an errant snap on another attempt and a blocked extra-point kick. However, the Falcons did produce 455 total yards on 85 plays - compared to Wyoming's 45 snaps - and 14 points in the final quarter.
Besides - whether past Navy-Air Force encounters or a more recent matchup of Air Force-Wyoming -only two totals really mattered, those differentiating victory from defeat. On Saturday they were: Falcons 20 points, Cowboys 14 points.
A win is a win is a win. In conference play, on the road, a win is worth much more.
But what seems to mean even more than any of Air Force's three victories is its lone loss. It certainly caught the attention of Navy senior Kevin Edwards.
"That was a wake-up call, seeing how well Air Force played at Oklahoma," Edwards, a senior cornerback, said last week of Air Force's 27-24 loss to the eighth-ranked Sooners on Sept. 18.
Not that Edwards or any of his teammates were sleeping on the Falcons. He fully realizes the importance of every play in this rivalry, thanks to his first three seasons in Annapolis.
"I think those experiences will help us," Edwards says of Navy's knack of making one more play than Air Force so far in his career.
He's determined on Saturday to make sure this year is like last year. And like the year before, and the year before that.
"We're always hearing from the coaches that we don't want to be the ones who drop the ball," he said, before what's expected to be his 21st career start at cornerback. "We talk about it a lot with the other seniors on the team. We have to be well prepared for the other academies."
On defense specifically, opposing Air Force especially, that preparation involves training your eyes to avoid deception.
"Air Force tries to throw you off guard with guys going in motion, receivers and backs, and when they switch formations," Edwards advises. "Coach (Buddy) Green always tells us to read our keys and keep our eyes in the right place. You can't get caught up in the motion."
Green is Navy's ninth-year defensive coordinator and as much of an expert on defending option offenses as anyone in the country. The last four seasons, he's watched the Falcons evolve for Calhoun, who played quarterback in the `flexbone' under his predecessor as head coach, Fisher DeBerry.
As a former play-caller at Ohio University and Wake Forest, and an assistant with the NFL's Houston Texans, Calhoun has developed an offensive style that involves plenty of moving parts before the ball is snapped.
"They give you so many different formations, so much misdirection," Green says. "You've got to be disciplined."
If you're not, the Falcons will exploit you. In beating BYU, they scored on a 33-yard run, a 46-yard run and a 37-yard pass. Against NSU, they ran eight plays covering 21 yards or more.
Many of those long gainers were produced by junior Tim Jefferson, who's led Air Force to a 15-7 record as its starting quarterback. Healthy after offseason knee surgery, Jefferson averages 6.5 yards per rush, including five touchdowns. The last two games, he averaged 95.0 yards rushing.
Almost impressive as his legs is Jefferson's right arm, particularly off play-action.
"He's throwing the deep ball as well as I've seen," says Green, who first saw Jefferson enter off the bench against the Mids as a freshman, before starting last year at Annapolis.
But two personnel developments in the past week should help diminish the threat of the long ball.
A plus for Navy is the expected return of Emmett Merchant and his team-leading five career interceptions at safety. Merchant did not play on Sept. 18 at Louisiana Tech, due to a concussion. Last year, he intercepted Jefferson and returned the pick 33 yards.
A minus for Air Force is the anticipated absence of receiver Kevin Fogler, who injured his right knee at Wyoming. His career average of 22.3 yards per reception is the second-best in Falcons' history. In 2008 Fogler caught a 53-yard touchdown pass vs. Navy - one of the few big plays Green's defense has surrendered in the series.
In fact, against both pass and run, his Mids have been miserly. Under Calhoun, Air Force has converted just 35 percent of its 3rd-down attempts opposite Navy. That's far below the success rate generally enjoyed by both teams. This season, for example, each is converting at least 50 percent on 3rd down.
Defending against the option, unfamiliarity breeds contempt. Lately, in this series, familiarity has bred containment, as well as comfort and confidence.
"We play the (option) all the time, we see it all the time," Edwards says. "It never stops. Even when we're preparing for SMU, a passing team, we spend a period of practice on the option. It becomes second nature...We go into those games with full confidence."
The Falcons likely feel the same, considering how they played against the Mids' offense lately. No question, both defenses will be treading on familiar turf.
And both teams - as well as any prognosticator - should know not to be deceived or distracted. Don't waste time comparing this season's scores or schedules, and forget just about every statistic from recent editions of Navy-Air Force.
There's one thing that matters Saturday. Odds are, it will boil down to one play.