This past Saturday, the Air Force football team began its 2000 season campaign against the Division I-AA Cal State Northridge Matadors -- an appropriate nickname for a team that, when attacked by the Air Force offense, seemed to stand aside and say, "Ol!" as the Falcons ran past for score after score after score.
The starting backfield of quarterback Mike Thiessen, halfbacks Scotty McKay and Qualario Brown, and fullbacks Scott Becker and Nate Beard gained confidence by the down as they ran all over the Northridge defense. The Falcons tagged the Matadors for 698 total yards (just two yards shy of the all-time Air Force record) and tied the record for most first downs in a game with 38 in a 55-6 goring of Cal State Northridge.
But Air Force (1-0) picked up something more valuable than records against Northridge -- they got game experience. The Falcons returned only seven starters from last year's squad, but all varsity players saw action against Northridge. In all, 16 different Falcons ran the ball, while the three Air Force quarterbacks connected with eight different receivers.
"This year there are some second team slots that are going to have to come in and step up versus a team like BYU or Notre Dame and play great games if we're going to contend for the league championship," said Air Force linebacker C.J. Zanotti.
That chance to move up in the depth chart may come this week for reserve halfbacks Leotis Palmer and Bert Giovanetti, after starting halfback and 1999 team MVP McKay broke his right thumb in the third quarter against Northridge.
"He will have to wear a cast this week," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said of McKay's status. "We'll see how he responds to using the cast. He's a tough young man. I think you'd have to kill him, and almost cut off one leg, to keep him from getting on the football field."
Following what will probably go down in the books as the Falcons' easiest test of the season, they will perhaps meet their hardest foe when the Brigham Young University Cougars come to Falcon Stadium Saturday.
BYU (1-1) is coming off a dramatic, double-overtime, come-from-behind, upset win at the University of Virginia last Saturday. The Cougars started the season with tough, non-conference games on the road against No. 2 Florida State at Jacksonville (they lost 29-3) then against the Cavaliers at Charlottesville, Virginia, the following week.
The Cougars are led by quarterback Bret Engemann and his favorite target, wide receiver Margin Hooks. Running back Brian McDonald adds an extra threat on the ground. Engemann passed for 447 yards against Virginia, while McDonald ran for three touchdowns, and proved that the Cougars can grind out short yardage when needed, especially in the red zone.
A letdown after a win as spectacular as the Virginia game is possible. But don't count on it. Often it is just that kind of trial, usually on the road, that can galvanize a team for the long campaign ahead. Look for Engemann to air it out earlier, and pressure the Falcon secondary, which is largely untested.
Strong play, combined with few mistakes by the Air Force secondary, will be a key if the Falcons hope to topple BYU. That secondary of Tony Metters -- the only senior and the only member with considerable experience -- junior Sam Meinrod, and sophomores Wes Crawley and Joel Buelow did an admirable job and gained invaluable game experience against Northridge, shutting down the Matadors' multiple-receiver passing game and holding quarterback Marcus Brady to 102 yards passing and intercepting him once.
"It definitely helped us prepare," Meinrod said of the Northridge game. "BYU is BYU, not taking anything away from Cal State Northridge, but Margin Hooks and [BYU's] receiving corps is one of the best in the nation. [Northridge] was a preparatory game for us. I think we proved ourselves today to a few people who doubted us. But next week will be the big test."
The offense can help the Falcons' defense by controlling the pace of the game. If the Air Force offense can move the ball downfield in long, time-consuming drives, it will take some of the pressure off the defense by keeping BYU's offense off the field.
The rest of the Air Force defensive line will have to do its part by keeping pressure on Engemann, and forcing him to make ill-advised throws.
Other keys to an Air Force victory include such fundamentals as playing superior special teams, which the Falcons are noted for. During the 1990s, Air Force blocked 59 kicks -- many of which spurned the Falcons to victory -- more than any team in Division I except for Virginia Tech, which blocked 63.
Air Force must also be careful not to beat itself with errors such as fumbles and penalties. Such uncharacteristic lapses were one of the chief causes that led to the Falcons' 27-20 loss at BYU last season.
"Last year we had a couple of plays called back that were touchdowns, because of holding penalties," said fullback Beard. "We fumbled inside the 10-yard line. We killed ourselves last year."
BYU coach Lavell Edwards gives the Cougars another reason not to count on a letdown. Now in his 29th year at BYU, Edwards is the seventh winningest coach in the history of college football with 252 wins against 97 losses and three ties. He announced after last season that he'd retire after the 2000 season. Look for his players to salute him on the field every week of the season; and look for the Air Force Academy to honor Edwards. Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry, a long-time friend of Edwards', said the Academy would present Edwards with an award for his lifetime of work in athletics in the Western Athletic Conference, and later in the Mountain West Conference.
"He's one of the greatest that's ever coached the game and a real credit to the game," DeBerry said of his friendly nemesis. "He's done so much for our game. Not just winning and winning a National Championship, but he's taken so much interest in the profession itself that our profession is a strong profession today because of men like Lavell."
As rivalries go, BYU/Air Force looks a bit lopsided on paper. The Falcons have only won 3 of the previous 20 meetings between the teams. But the Falcons have won two of the last three meetings, and usually force the Cougars to play to the limits of their ability.
"We enjoy playing them, but we, unfortunately, have come out on the short end of the stick too many times," DeBerry said. p
Air Force Falcons vs. Brigham Young University Cougars
Air Force Academy Falcon Stadium
Saturday, Sept. 9, at 11 a.m.
Tickets: $25. Call 472-1895