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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Hit or miss

By Tom Quinn

Saying that Air Force is a difficult football team to figure out would be quite the understatement.

Over the last two months, the Falcons have enjoyed the highest highs and suffered through the lowest lows of almost any team in the country. They came within a two-point conversion of beating Tennessee, let archrival Navy walk all over them, sat briefly atop the Mountain West Conference and then lost to lowly San Diego State.

“They’re 4-5 overall and still fighting for a bowl bid,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Falcons. “That will be their motivating factor.”

After enduring such a frustrating season, it’s a wonder that head coach Fisher DeBerry hasn’t spit out more of the ESPN-worthy sound bites that drew the entire nation’s ire last fall.

Although they haven’t been the most consistent team in the MWC, there is ample reason to believe that the Falcons are capable of denying the Utes their seventh victory of 2006.

First and foremost, Air Force’s defense has improved dramatically since surrendering 38 points to Utah in Salt Lake City last fall. DeBerry’s staff has succeeded in tightening up a unit that finished in the bottom third of the NCAA in virtually every major statistical category.

On average, the Falcons have given up 10 fewer points and allowed nearly 100 fewer offensive yards this season than they did in 2005, a statistic that could spell trouble for a Utah team that has struggled to put up points consistently on the road.

Fans would do well to keep an eye on Drew Fowler, a junior linebacker who leads the MWC in tackles and ranks 10th in the nation with 10.1 stops per game.

A good showing by the defense would go a long way toward securing a win Saturday evening, and not just because the Falcons’ offense isn’t good at playing catch-up. On the season, the Utes are 5-0 when they score first.

Offensively, Air Force’s pesky triple-option attack has been as effective as ever. The Falcons’ ground game earns them an average of 250 yards per game, a stat that not only puts them at the top of the conference, but also third in the nation.

“You never completely stop it,” Whittingham said of the Falcons’ option offense. “They’re very effective with the run game, as you’d expect.”

The Falcons’ rushing attack lives and dies with halfback Chad Hall, a 5-foot-8 mighty mite who has racked up 661 yards on 127 carries this season, netting him a team-leading 5.2 yards per tote. A speedy cutback runner, Hall is every bit as dangerous along the sideline as he is in the open field.

The only player on the roster with more rushing touchdowns than Hall is quarterback Shaun Carney, who has six on the season to go with his 563 yards on the ground.

In addition to being the team’s second-leading rusher, Carney, a junior, is the best throwing quarterback that Air Force has had in years. He is fourth in the MWC with a pass-efficiency rating of 151.4, and he moved into fourth place on the school’s all-time passing yardage list during last weekend’s loss to Notre Dame.

In spite of the talent that the Falcons boast at both quarterback and halfback, the success of their offense could rest on the production of fullbacks Ryan Williams and Jacob Kendrick. Going back to 1990, the Falcons are 43-12 when their big uglies rush for more than 100 yards.

“There have been some real barn-burner-type games with those guys that have gone right down to the wire,” Whittingham said. “Since I’ve been here, there have just been some great battles that we’ve had with the Air Force Academy.”

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