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Game Preview: Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl
#19 Virginia Tech versus Air Force
by Jeff Ouellet, 12/5/02

Tuesday, December 31st, 2002, 10:30 pm Eastern

TV: ESPN2 (national)

Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
Click the "San Francisco Weather link to the right

Click here for TechSideline.com's VT/Air Force roster card


Diamond Walnut Bowl Preview
by Jeff Ouellet

Perception, at least among the college football cognoscente, is reality. That is why bowl games often played a month after the regular season is completed have such a disproportionate influence when revisiting the completed regular season and forecasting for the next season. Extrapolating that theory to Virginia Tech highlights what an important game this is to complete the 2002 season and to lay the groundwork for what Hokie fans hope will be a terrific 2003.

Will this season be characterized as one where a young team overcame a number of injuries to have a record better than many predicted, or was this simply a year of missed opportunity where certain systemic problems were exploited by the teams that know the Hokies best, their Big East brethren? The reality is obviously what concerns the coaches; however, the perception is what occupies the mind of the fan during a long offseason.

Against this backdrop the 19th ranked Virginia Tech (9-4, 3-4 in conference) Hokies travel to the San Francisco Diamond Walnut Bowl to take on Mountain West Conference opponent Air Force (8-4, 4-3). The Falcons were expected to have a mediocre year as they were predicted sixth out of eight teams in conference in many preseason polls. Air Force responded by racing out to a 6-0 start, including wins over Northwestern (52-3), California (23-21) and BYU (52-9), and the Falcons went as high as #15 in the polls. A loss to Notre Dame started a three game losing streak and the Falcons never really regained their momentum and, perhaps more importantly, their health.

Air Force Head Coach Fisher DeBerry, a long time friend of Tech Coach Frank Beamer, has been at the helm of the Falcons for 19 years. He has compiled a .645 winning percentage with an overall record of 149-82-1, including 12 bowl appearances. His accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable given the recruiting limitations facing Air Force. To emphasize the job he has done, the four other head coaches in the history of the Air Force Academy have combined to win 134 games - 15 less than DeBerry. In competition with the most similarly-situated programs in the country, Army and Navy, Air Force has won the Commander-in-Chief Trophy every year since 1989, except for 1996.

The success of Air Force is not limited to competition with its peers. In the last six years, Virginia Tech has the 10th best overall record at 54-18; Air Force is 14th with a 51-22 mark. DeBerry has built a successful program, and it is indisputable that he is one of the ten best coaches in college football today, if the criterion is getting the most out of the talent you have.

Chances Are

The Falcons are one of the last pure triple-option teams left in major college football. Air Force leads the nation in rushing offense with almost 315 yards per game. They very rarely throw the football, as they only average 90 yards passing per game. Overall, their offense produces 35.6 points per game, the 11th best mark in college football.

The trigger man in their attack is 5-11, 190-pound JR QB Chance Harridge, a second team all conference selection. Harridge entered the season as an unproven starter, but he emerged as a mercurial playmaker early. On the season, Harridge ran for 1,159 yards with a 5.0 yards per carry average, and he scored 22 rushing touchdowns. He completed 48% of his passes for 971 total yards and 10 passing touchdowns. While Air Force does not have an effective passing game, completions do tend to be big plays Ė the average catch goes for 17 yards.

Other than Harridge, the guy who handles the ball the most for the Falcons is 5-8, 175 SR RB Leotis Palmer. Palmer is a weight room stud, racking up a 380-pound bench press and a 42 inch vertical. He is explosive. Palmer is Air Forceís second leading rusher with 537 yards, a 5.7 per carry average. Also keep this in mind Ė he has three completions this year for 113 yards and two touchdowns. The triple option is usually a pretty straightforward attack, but DeBerry has diversified it as much as he can, and that includes halfback passes. If we see true freshman Jimmy Williams at free safety -- and we will -- my guess is that DeBerry wonít hesitate to throw a halfback pass.

Fellow 6-2, 185-pound SO RB Darnell Stephens is the home run hitter in the backfield with a 7.0 per carry average and 427 rushing yards on the year. Air Force tends to split carries among all its backs, so donít be surprised if a lot of players have their number called.

The most underrated position in a triple option is undoubtedly the fullback. If the fullback is successful, the entire offense is tough to stop. Since 1990, Air Force is 34-8 when its fullback gets over 100 yards. 5-11, 230 JR Steve Massie is coming off a 123 yard performance against San Diego State (okay, Air Force lost that game, but you still get the picture). The Hokies will have to make sure they control him in the middle so they can run to the football on the outside.

The biggest weapon in the Air Force passing game is 6-6, 240-pound JR TE Adam Strecker. He has only 13 catches on the year, but he averages an impressive 18.7 yards per reception with four touchdowns. He is a tough cover when Air Force does throw because linebackers naturally tend to overcommit against the option attack, and Strecker is a fine player in his own right. In the receiving corps, the deep threat would appear to be 5-11, 170 JR WR Anthony Park, but he has only 10 catches for 236 yards on the year. One 80 yard touchdown really helped his per-catch average.

The Air Force offensive line had no returning starters coming into the season and is undersized by major college standards with no one over 290. However, they have done a nice job. Four juniors and a senior start. The headliner is second team all conference selection 6-3, 290-pound JR RG Jesse Underbakke, and the Falcons will probably go behind him in short yardage situations.

The Falcons average 5.1 yards per carry overall, so the line is effective at scheme blocking. Because Air Force passes so infrequently, the line has surrendered only three sacks on the year. One injury note to watch Ė Air Force RT Blane Neufeld, 6-5, 275-pound JR, broke his foot and is questionable. If he canít go, or is limited when he plays, then that will allow the VT defensive ends to make running wide tougher.

A Change in Philosophy

Air Force has suffered on defense since the departure of long-time coordinator Cal McCombs for VMI in 1998, so rather than return to its traditional 5-2 scheme the Falcons started employing a 3-3-5 setup. The results have been very positive. Air Force is yielding 23.6 points per game, down from over 32 points per game last year.

Air Force has a very small defensive line. The noseguard is 6-4, 265-pound JR Nickolas Taylor, and he is flanked by bookends 6-2, 265-pound SR Eric Thompson and 6-2, 245-pound JR Monty Coleman. Both Taylor and Coleman have been injured this year, but they should be close to 100% for this game.

The best player for the Falcons is first team all-conference linebacker Anthony Schlegel. He has prototypical size for guy in the middle at 6-2, 245 lbs., and he led the team in tackles with 106 and tackles for losses with 8.5. He is the first Air Force player to go over 100 tackles since all-America linebacker Chris Gizzi did it for the Falcons in 1997. Schlegel wears #51 as a tribute to Dick Butkus, his favorite player. Make no mistake about it, Schlegel is a big time football player, and he is only a sophomore.

The best pass rusher, statistically, is 5-11, 230-pound linebacker Trevor Hightower. Hightower leads the team with 6.5 sacks and he also has 56 tackles (7.5 tackles for losses). Hightower and Schlegel make a lot of plays for this defense.

The Falcons have a five defensive back scheme so the secondary is forced to help in run support. 6-2, 210 SR Joel Buelow is a rover-type player that is close to the line of scrimmage and is second on the team with 70 tackles on the year. He has 5 tackles for losses, 3 sacks and 2 interceptions. Buelow received all conference mention.

The best player in the secondary is 6-0, 190-pound SR corner Wes Crawley. Crawley was a first team all conference player as he led the team with 4 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. He was a first team all conference performer. He is the biggest of the Air Force corners and would be their best matchup on Tech's Ernest Wilford. Crawley has also been dinged, but he should be in good shape for the game with the Hokies.

Special Teams

If you didnít know already, by now VT fans have heard about Air Forceís prowess at kick blocking. Since 1990, VT leads the nation with 85 blocked kicks. The team with the second most blocked kicks is Air Force with 79.

The leader of the block party for Air Force is 5-10, 180-pound SO DB Nate Allen. Allen has blocked two kicks this year and three overall in his young career. Watch for him when the Hokies line up to punt.

The Air Force kicking game is solid. JR PK Joey Ashcroft was first team all conference and a nominee for the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker in the country. Ashcroft was 14-16 on field goals and 46-49 on extra points.

The punting game is below average. SR P John Welsh averages only 37.4 yards per punt with a 33.7 net. Air Force has had 3 punts blocked on the season and surrenders 14.1 yards per return. Not good stats for Air Force with VT looming.

The return guys are Palmer, who averages 9.8 per punt, and Bryan Blew, who averages 23.3 per kickoff return. Both are solid, but statistically neither is a big play threat.

Intangibles

Air Force will be prepared. DeBerryís staff has the fourth most experience of any school in Division I football, and his teams reflect it. The Falcons are only penalized 30.7 yards per game, and they do not turn the ball over much (19th in the country with a plus .83 per game turnover margin). They run the triple option and only have lost 10 fumbles on the year, an incredibly low number.

Another statistic worth noting is that Air Force leads the nation in both red zone offense and third down conversions. Of 57 trips in the red zone, Air Force has scored 53 times, including 41 touchdowns. The Falcons also convert 49% of their third downs. That success is attributable to the fact that the Falcons rarely place themselves in difficult to make third down situations, and the fact that Harridge is at his best when he needs to be.

The Lowdown

My guess is that during the early part of the game the Falcons will try the middle of the Hokie defense with straight handoffs to the FB Massie and perhaps some quick QB "slants" between the tackles. Given the Hokies recent problems stopping the run, it makes sense to attack VT in the middle. The media is focusing on how important it is for VT to get off the Air Force chop blocks, and that is certainly true. Hokie defenders will have to use their hands well to protect their legs. However, perhaps equally important is ball recognition. Harridge is a tremendous ball handler, and Tech has three relatively short linebackers that will have to try to discern whether to attack Massie inside or flow wide for the option. It is not an easy decision to make with that much traffic in the middle.

If the Hokies establish the fact they can handle the middle with their defensive tackles, obviously Harridge will run wide more. However, I think the Falcons will be careful how often they run the option to the wide side of the field. VTís team speed is much better than most teams they play and running wide only plays to the Hokiesí strength.

I also think youíll see Harridge attempt more play action passes than he has for much of the year. Air Force was not successful running the ball on Notre Dame, and that is the defense most similar to VTís in terms of overall size and speed. By mixing in play action passes to the tight end, Air Force will try to keep the Hokies honest.

This is a tough matchup for the Hokie defense. While Air Force wonít overwhelm you with their talent, the defense will have to hold their gaps and play disciplined against the option. Also remember that negative plays, a staple for the VT defense, arenít going to be a factor here. Air Force doesnít give up sacks, and they rarely lose significant ground in the running game. Conversely, however, Air Force doesnít have the overall team speed to make big plays like Miami, so they will need to have 10 plus play drives in most cases in order to generate points.

Fourth down in this game will be a key for both teams. I think youíll see Air Force go on a lot of fourth downs because: (1) they probably will have a lot of fourth and short with their running game; (2) the threat of the punt block; and (3) the concern of covering punts if DeAngelo Hall is back to return the kick. If Air Force controls the ball, this game could get interesting, and going on fourth down will shorten the time VTís offense is on the field.

As for the Hokie offense, I donít believe that Air Force will be able to contain Suggs and Jones. Ryan Grant of Notre Dame went for 190 yards against them, and Cecil Sapp of Colorado State had 132. They also donít really have an answer for Wilford in the passing game. Absent a lot of turnovers and/or penalties, VT will move the ball on the Falcons.

I have a great deal of respect for the Air Force program and its student-athletes, but I think the Hokies have a little too much size on the lines and speed in the backfield for the Falcons to handle.

Prediction: VT 31, Air Force 17

Will Stewart's Take: It's hard to say how this one could go. I have respect for Air Force's tricky rushing attack and propensity for not making mistakes, but at the same time, man, they are small. Their O-line averages 280 a man, with their center going a supermodel-like 255 pounds. Jim Pyne played well at that weight as a true freshman, but hey, that was twelve years ago, and that was Jim Pyne.

So there's a tendency to pronounce, "VT's going to kill these guys!" But Air Force has won all those games in the last few years because they know what they're doing, not because they're slow and small. And VT is not familiar with their attack. Air Force's Mountain West opponents are, and often have success slowing them down, but it could be difficult for VT, first time out of the gate.

On the other hand, I think Air Force is going to have a tough time stopping the Hokie offense. So I like Jeff's prediction, but I'm going to ratchet it up just slightly for both teams.

Will Stewart's Prediction: VT 34, Air Force 20.

          

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