Friday, September 28, 2007

Bulletin Board BlogDog

Air Force players and coaches have been on their best behavior this week, refraining from any trash talk that might incite Navy.

Or so they thought.

Judging by the amount of e-mails I got this week from Navy fans regarding my story that appeared in Wednesday’s edition of The Gazette, the Midshipmen have exactly what they need to play the “they-don’t-respect-us” card.

The article explained that while the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is still “a key element” of the Air Force program, according to first-year coach Troy Calhoun, it is no longer the team’s number one goal, as it was when Fisher DeBerry was the coach. Competing within the Mountain West Conference and earning bids to bowl games now rank right with winning the trophy.

Of course, those Navy fans who e-mailed me interpreted the article as: “Air Force doesn’t care about the Navy game.”

Um. … OK.

It’s reminiscent of last year when, after the Falcons' game against the Midshipmen, Navy coach Paul Johnson referred to what he perceived as repeated slights made about the Midshipmen from the Air Force camp.

“You get tired of hearing it every year,” he said after Navy’s 24-17 victory, its fourth straight in the teams’ series. “I thought our guys did a real good job this year of not saying anything. Every day we’d pick up the paper, we’d see something about, it’s embarrassing to lose to us, we’re the luckiest team in America, we’re this, we’re that. It gets old after a while.”

Reporters in the press box searched their notes after the game and came up with only one comment that could be construed as such – then-junior Noah Garguile said the Falcons’ losing streak to Navy was “an embarrassment.” Not losing to Navy, mind you, but losing three in a row. Nonetheless, Navy was insulted. (Side note: In the “Last Year” section of the game notes released this week by Navy’s sports information department, Garguile’s comment was mentioned in the first sentence!)

Frankly, I find the “nobody respects us” routine tired. Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to use it in the Super Bowl a couple years ago? They were the FAVORITES! But nobody respected them. Sure.

Which brings us to this week’s pick by the BlogDog.

For Navy fans who might be reading this blog for the first time, here’s some background: As a beat writer, I am not allowed, per The Gazette’s policies, to predict the outcomes of games involving the team I cover. But I love prediction columns, so my dog, Norm, is picking the games.

Here’s how he does it: I put a mini-replica Air Force helmet and the mini-replica helmet of the opponent the Falcons are facing that week in front of Norm. Whichever one Norm goes to first (best three out of five times) is the one he thinks is going to win.

If Norm picks the same helmet three times in a row, he’s thinking blowout. If he chooses one team three times and the other team once, he’s thinking the game will be decided by about seven to 10 points. If he chooses one team three times and the other one twice, he’s predicting a close game.

One problem: Because I only have helmets of teams from the Mountain West Conference, I had to improvise this week. So I wrote “Air Force” on one piece of paper and “Navy” on another.

Norm went to the Navy paper first, then Air Force twice in a row. Then Navy. Then, after circling both pieces of paper … went to Air Force.

Now, Norm does not have any sort of allegiance to Air Force (nor do I, contrary to what many of the e-mails I received this week inferred). And if anything, you could make a stronger argument that Norm is biased against Air Force because of the amount of time I have to spend at the academy during the season (time that I can’t spend throwing his tennis ball).

But Norm knows his reputation as a prognosticator prohibits him from holding grudges. So he’s not a fan of Air Force (evidenced by the fact that he’s picked against the Falcons twice this year), and he's not a fan of any of his opponents. He never went to college, so he doesn’t have an alma mater. The only football team he roots for is the Washington Redskins, though he has a bit of a problem with the team’s inherently racist nickname and imagery.

Anyway, all that said, I’m sure word of Norm’s pick will spread across Annapolis and be used by the Midshipmen as motivation. (“Look at this! Even a dog doesn’t believe in you guys!”)

And if Navy wins and proves the BlogDog wrong, I fully expect this type of post-game address from Navy’s Johnson: “Well, that’s five in a row, spin it any way you want to spin it. I guess Air Force will say we got lucky. And so will that BlogDog. Yeah, we saw his pick. We read about it. We know he turned his back on us. And let me tell you something: Nothing gets these guys fired up more than a reporter’s dog picking against them. From the moment he put his paw on that piece of paper that said “Air Force,” well, you can believe these boys were ready to play.”

Norm’s Pick: Air Force 31, Navy 27
Norm’s Record: 3-1

Mmmm. Air Force looks good this week.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Enemy Lines, Part 4

(Note: This is the fourth segment of an e-mail correspondence between me and my friend Christian Swezey, who covers Navy football for The Washington Post. For our initial e-mails, scroll down to Parts 1, 2 and 3).

Christian Swezey wrote: Jake – First of all I have enlisted BlogWife to make sure that no one puts gravy on the slip of paper that reads “Air Force” and thus unduly influences BlogDog’s prediction for the game. Like the coin toss for the playoff berth in “Friday Night Lights,” I will have representation present if need be (haha).

About coaching … it’s very close. Both head coaches appear to be excellent play callers who are one step (at least) ahead of the defenses. A longtime AF football follower once told me that Paul Johnson was the closest he’d seen to Ken Hatfield in terms of playcalling. That’s a pretty good compliment.

Special teams favor AF. Navy has four punts in four games, so no idea if the kid is any good. The Mids’ kicking game has been a problem, a la ND back in 1993.

Intangibles may favor AF. The old saying is when teams are even pick the one to whom the game matters more. AF has many more seniors playing this year than does Navy.

Thanks for the tidbit about AF’s safety and Carson Bird. Here’s something for free: Keep my eye on Navy's two offensive tackles, McGinn and Meek. They are pretty solid.

btw … forecast for Saturday is sunny and 76 degrees.

Jake Schaller wrote: Sweze – A little gravy wouldn’t influence the BlogDog. After four games, you’re talking about an experienced prognosticator.

He’ll make his pick tonight, and I’ll release it tomorrow. I understand that within minutes of his pick going public, the lines in Vegas shift one to two points.

Sounds like Saturday is going to be an amazing day. I was wondering if it was going to be hot and humid like it was last week. Either way, though, Air Force players are in great shape – better than they’ve been in years, as Calhoun has ratcheted up the conditioning and lifting players do in-season.

Speaking of the weather, I understand the heat last week contributed to Navy’s starting QB heading to the bench in the third quarter. Was it all the heat and his exhaustion, or did Kaipo’s performance have anything to do with that? And Johnson told me that Kaipo will start but he’s not opposed to using two QBs. What’s’ the deal there?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Enemy Lines, Part 3

(Note: This is the third segment of an e-mail correspondence between me and my friend Christian Swezey, who covers Navy football for The Washington Post. For our initial e-mails, scroll down to Parts 1 and 2.)

Jake Schaller wrote: Air Force has better athletes than it gets credit for, and Carson Bird is foremost among them. He is the player that truly personifies the difference between this year’s attacking defense and last year’s passive defense. He is aggressive and likes to go after receivers in press coverage – he is the strongest of the Falcons’ defensive backs.

Another one of the best athletes on the team is sophomore strong safety Chris Thomas. Expect him to play a major role in Saturday’s game as strong safeties always are key to shutting down triple-option attacks. He’s the perfect guy to creep into the box and make some plays against Navy. I wrote once before that if they forgot to pack his equipment, he’d probably go out on the field in shorts and a t-shirt. He’s tough, physical, loves to hit and has that knack for being around the ball.

As for the o-line, it was a big question mark coming into the season. It had been pretty good until last weekend against BYU. We’ll see.

Anyway, a reader asked me which team I think (and asked me to ask you which team you think) has the advantage in special teams, coaching and intangibles.

Here's how I see it ...

Special teams: Push. Ryan Harrison is the best kicker Air Force has had in years, and he could be the difference Saturday. But Navy's kicker has made some big-time field goals as well - last week against Duke and, most notably, against Air Force in '05. Air Force's coverage/return games have been better than last year so far, but its punting has been average.

Coaching: Push. You can't argue with what Paul Johnson has done at Navy - he's won four straight over Air Force and made the Midshipmen a fixture in bowl season.

Calhoun, meanwhile, already has worked wonders at Air Force. I think Fisher DeBerry is a coaching legend, but if the Falcons had last year's coaching staff this season, I think they're entering this game 1-3.

Intangibles: This is close, too, but how can you not go with Navy? Four straight victories, all by one score or less. If it gets close, Air Force will think it can win, Navy will know it can win.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Enemy Lines, Part 2

(Note: This is the second segment of an e-mail correspondence between me and my friend Christian Swezey, who covers Navy football for The Washington Post. For our initial e-mails – and so these two make more sense – scroll down to Part 1).

Jake Schaller Wrote: Sweze - Making a crack about what AF stands for is one thing, but how dare you question the BlogDog’s skills! I’m sure Norm is well aware that Navy’s helmets have blue facemasks while Notre Dame’s are gray.

Besides, I only have Mountain West Conference helmets, so I’ll just have to write “Navy” on one piece of paper and “Air Force” on another and do it that way. I was thinking about making BlogDog choose between the sky and water (Get it? Air Force and Navy?) but I’m not exactly sure how I’d do that.

Anyway, interesting stuff about the morale at the Naval Academy. But, like you said, I’m sure that Air Force will get everyone in Annapolis fired up. And I think that comeback against Duke probably was a season-saver.

My take on Navy? I haven’t seen too much of the Midshipmen yet, but it’s pretty obvious by the scores of the games that they’ve struggled on defense (thanks to key injuries) and been great on offense.

I think Air Force’s offense likely will be able to put up points on Navy’s defense. The key matchup, I think, will be Navy’s offense against Air Force’s defense. Not including the BYU game, the Falcons have been much improved on defense this year. And that’s huge.

Remember last year, when we couldn’t believe how Air Force played with its two inside linebackers about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and Navy’s fullback would pick up big chunks of yards before he got touched? I doubt we’ll see that this year. New Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter employs an aggressive style, and I think you’ll see the Falcons try to attack Navy. They might get beat for a couple of big plays, but they also should make a few.

Which team do you give the advantage to when Navy has the ball and when Air Force has the ball? And which team do you give the advantage to when it comes to special teams, coaching and intangibles?


Christian Swezey Wrote: Navy O vs. AF D will be closer than last year. As you noted, Navy won without ever getting out of second gear. AF's defense never got aggressive and the Mids were content to gain 5, 6 and 7 yards simply running up the middle. The Falcons never made them to do anything different.

No matter what defenses do, though, the Mids have an answer. This is the first time since 2002-03 that they have a starting quarterback back, and it shows. I have seen more wrinkles from Navy on offense in four weeks than I'd seen in the previous few years. Just when you think Paul Johnson has shown everything he has, he comes up with quite a lot more.

When AF has the ball ... that's a close one. Navy (finally) came up with a few things that worked against Duke. Not least were some safety blitzes from sophomore Ram Vela and the pairing of two rather highly recruited d-linemen, Nate Frazier and Andy Lark, together. Previously Lark had been Frazier's backup.

Lark and Frazier have excellent size and Frazier has good speed, too. Both were very accomplished heavyweight wrestlers in high school. Lark usually ties up one or two people up front and Frazier has been stunting to get to the QB quicker.

Ball State used its tight ends to great effect, so I would not be surprised to see Dekker be a big part of the game plan on Saturday. Duke and Rutgers were able to throw downfield but they have more speed at WR than Air Force, so I discount some of that. AF's best chance to get downfield is if Carney buys time; I do not think they will get anything off straight routes down the field.

Other than downfield passing, Navy is vulnerable in the open field. They are not great tacklers there. This is where underneath routes for Hall and Smith will be important. Get them in the open field with some space, or if Carney can break contain, AF will be in business.

Does AF have some good athletes? Is the defense better with Carson Bird playing? I have to say, I was a little surprised he didn't play more against the Mids last year. And how is the o-line looking? Dekker won't be any good to the Falcons if they have to max protect.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Enemy Lines, Part 1

One of my best friends in or out of the newspaper business is Christian Swezey, with whom I worked at The Washington Post. Sweze covers Navy football for The Post, and he’s been kind enough to share some of his thoughts on the Midshipmen and this weekend’s game for the blog.

Basically, we’re going to e-mail each other about the game this week. I’ll put our exchanges up periodically in a segment I’m calling Enemy Lines. If you have a question about Navy that you’d like me to ask, feel free to shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment on the blog.

Jake Schaller wrote: Yo Sweze!

Big game for both teams this week, as it is every year. But I think it’s especially critical for Air Force.

Before the start of the season, if you had offered most Air Force fans a 3-2 September, they probably would have taken it in a heartbeat. But the 3-0 start raised expectations. Now, I think, 3-2 with two straight losses would feel like a disappointment. And considering how Air Force teams of the last few seasons have let one loss turn into two or more losses, I think this is a season-defining game.

Sounds, from what I’ve read, that Navy might have had a season-defining game last week. What was the feel around Annapolis after the two straight losses to Rutgers and Ball State, and how much did the come-from-behind victory over Duke change that feel?


Christian Swezey wrote: What’s up Jake!!

Dude, quick question: With BlogDog's pick this week, are you using the same helmet for Navy and ND? If so, are you certain Blog Dog won't get confused?

Anyway, Navy's win over Duke was a pretty big deal. I mean, even Paul Johnson was in the pile of happy players who piled on kicker Joey Bullen after he made that field goal with no time left. Though Johnson got out of there pretty quick!

Morale at the Naval Academy has been a little low so far. The new superintendent has put some pretty stringent rules in place – a lot less liberty (i.e. weekends off), less Mids going to away games, there were problems with food in the dining hall, etc.

So the victory came at a good time, especially over Duke, which is no one’s favorite in any sport. The Mids needed confidence in the worst way, and they got it.

It may help Air Force to know that the Brigade was a little flat at the Duke game. Again, some of it is probably the low morale. My guess is the sight of 500 Air Force cadets in their uniforms will be a little bit of a wake-up call to them. I expect it will be loud on Saturday, and also expect a phenomenal game.

What's your take on Navy? Do you really think that 3-1 turning to 3-2 would be a bad sign for the Falcons? I have to say, I thought AF would be 1-3 entering the Navy game. Also – is it true the “AF” stands for “Arrogant fools”??


Friday, September 21, 2007

BlogDog, Brew and BYU

The dream is over.

After exploding onto the football prognostication stage by correctly predicting his first two games (and nearly nailing the score of the second exactly), BlogDog got the cold water of reality splashed into his face last week.

(For those of you just discovering this blog, my dog, Norm, is predicting the outcome of games this year because I am not allowed to as a beat writer).

BlogDog predicted a TCU victory over Air Force by about two touchdowns. And in the fourth quarter, all looked good as the Horned Frogs led, 17-3. But Air Force’s comeback destroyed the BlogDog’s hopes of a perfect year.

This is good in one respect: I had told the BlogWife that if Norm got to 5-0, we would need to start ignoring him around the house the same way baseball players stay away from a pitcher who has a no-hitter going. The BlogWife told me that if I ignored Norm, she would ignore me.

Shows you where I stand in the BlogHouse.

BlogWife also gets mad when I leave glasses of beer on the floor while watching TV. Because when I leave the room, even momentarily, Norm, invariably, attacks them.

I thought his thirst for the frosty brew would make him pick against those sobriety-loving Provo dwellers this week. But Norm is going with BYU to snap its two-game losing streak by breaking the Falcons’ three-game winning streak.

Quick refresher on how Norm makes his picks: I put a mini-replica Air Force helmet and the mini-replica helmet of the opponent the Falcons are facing that week in front of Norm. Whichever one Norm goes to first (best three out of five times) is the one he thinks is going to win.

If Norm picks the same helmet three times in a row, he’s thinking blowout. If he chooses one team three times and the other team once, he’s thinking the game will be decided by about seven to 10 points. If he chooses one team three times and the other one twice, he’s predicting a close game.

This week Norm went BYU first, then Air Force, then BYU twice in a row.

There is no truth to the rumor that I doused the BYU helmet with Corona.

Norm’s Pick: BYU 34, Air Force 24
Norm’s Record: 2-1

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Noonan commits to AF men's hoops team

Trevor Noonan, a 6-foot-8 wing player from Legacy High School in Broomfield, has verbally committed to Air Force, his father, Legacy boys basketball coach Jim Noonan, said Wednesday.

Trevor Noonan averaged 13.5 points, eight rebounds and three blocks last season for Legacy, which finished 12-12. Noonan was named to the All-Front Range League first team. In a game against Horizon, Noonan scored 40 points, including eight 3-pointers.

Noonan chose Air Force over Denver and Cal-Poly, his father said.

“He just felt like it was a great fit for his skills,” Jim Noonan said. “The style that he plays, he’s a very good passer, he shoots the 3 very well, and he just thinks, and I do too, that this is the best system for him.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Calhoun press conference recap

Before I get to the press conference, a couple of notes from practice. …

-For several stretches of Tuesday afternoon’s session, Air Force managers blasted music out of two large speakers so the Falcons’ offense could get used to playing with crowd noise. Instead of the BYU fight song, however, there were selections from rappers Busta Rhymes and Chingy and plenty of heavy metal from Metallica.

“Little different, huh?” student coach Noah Garguile said, smiling. Former coach Fisher “DeBerry would’ve had Frank Sinatra or something.”

First-year coach Troy Calhoun had nothing to do with the Deejays’ choices, however.

“I hope none of our coaches selected that music,” he said. “The music selection was horrible.”

Asked what he would have selected, Calhoun said: “There might have been a little George Strait. It would have been a heck of a lot better than what we had, that’s for sure.”

But the music served a purpose.

“You’ve got to be able to communicate with noise,” Calhoun said. “Otherwise your guys get out on Saturdays and you’ve got guys jumping (offsides) or real late off the ball. I just think it helps concentration-wise.”

-Air Force senior tailback Kip McCarthy spent Tuesday working with strength and conditioning coach Matt McGettigan. Calhoun said McCarthy likely would not play Saturday.

“Based upon what I saw today, he won’t go,” Calhoun said. “It’ll be Chad Smith, Savier Stephens and maybe Jimmy Ollis. The only reason I say maybe is because there were some spots today where he wasn’t very sharp. Maybe that’s because he’s got a little bit of a dinged-up ankle.”

On to the press conference:

-Calhoun’s opening statement: “We get to go on the road again, and we’ve got to go to a tough place, playing in Provo, one where we’ve had some struggles. And yet, I think the key is this: We’ve got to come out of this one a much better football team. I’m just telling you candidly, if we go over there and our offense struggles and doesn’t really put some significant action together until the fourth quarter, and defensively it’s 600 yards and 60 points, that’s not going to help us over the long haul of the season. We better have our necks bowed and ready to go.”

-Calhoun on whether Air Force can take some momentum from last Thursday’s dramatic overtime victory over TCU: “It doesn’t hurt you. I always thought what’s most important is that you aren’t hung over one way or the other emotionally. I think you’ve got to have enough stability about you, enough backbone, enough toughness that you learn from the game that you’ve just played, but you’ve got to be able to get your motor set on heading straight ahead.”

-Calhoun on BYU quarterback Max Hall: “You watch the guy, and you’ve heard the comparisons, and I think they’re adequate parallels between him and John Beck (the quarterback Hall replaced at BYU). He’s got a knack for throwing the ball on time, in rhythm. And yet at the same time, he’s got an ability to flush and make off-schedule plays. He’s an older guy, he’s got a couple starts under his belt.”

-On playing in Provo: “You’re looking at a stadium where it’s a great atmosphere for college football. It tends to be filled to the gills and very supportive. A place where the crowd’s close to field and their students, their graduates, their supporters over there have a lot of pride in their university.”

Not satisfied

I meant to blog about this last night, but it still makes sense this morning, as I can piggy-back off what columnist David Ramsey wrote about in today’s edition of The Gazette.

Air Force’s 3-0 start is nice, but coaches aren’t letting players get too happy.

On Monday, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter (the subject of Ramsey’s column), abruptly stopped practice near the end of the session and gathered his defensive players. He made them do a series of “up-downs,” (a conditioning drill) as punishment and then got in the players’ faces and screamed at them.

He demanded to see each of his players’ eyes and then told them that their effort in practice wasn’t near good enough. He reminded them that they were playing the defending Mountain West Conference champions this weekend. And he reminded them that those champs (the BYU Cougars) have beaten the Falcons convincingly the last three years.

“We didn’t have a great practice,” DeRuyter said afterwards. “Guys got to understand, if we really want to play for a championship, we’ve got to play like champions and practice like champions every time we come out. And we were just sloppy today. I don’t know if it was the weather, the weekend, what it was, but we had too much of a hangover.”

After the practice Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said his team has to improve “across the board” if it wants to be “a really good football team.”

“I’m not as pleased with the offense as we should be, I’m not as pleased with our defense as we should be,” he said. “I just look the other night – offense, there were too many parts of the game where we struggled and defense, we gave up way too many yards. We bent a lot the other night on defense. And then kicking game-wise, we’re just too inconsistent. So we’ve got plenty we can work on.”

One other note: Air Force likely will continue to use a rotation of tailbacks this season. Kip McCarthy seemed to seize the starting spot in the Falcons’ opener, but he’s been hampered by a knee injury. Jim Ollis seemed to seize the starting role with his performance against TCU, but his left ankle continues to give him problems. Either one – or Savier Stephens or senior Chad Smith or a combination of all of them – could carry the load this Saturday.

Check back later tonight for a recap of Calhoun’s Tuesday press conference.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Wrapping up the TCU victory

Just finished watching CSTV’s replay of Thursday night’s game.


If Air Force doesn’t make all of about five plays in the second half, the Falcons probably don’t win. Carson Bird’s late interception. Chris Thomas and Drew Fowler making the stuff on fourth-and-inches to set up the Falcons’ first score of the second half. And, of course, Jim Ollis’ 71-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 that tied the game with 5:55 to play.

That was an interesting situation. With about six minutes to go, Air Force could have punted, asked its defense to come through one more time and then gotten the ball back – likely with comparable field position. And, had they not made it, it’s probably ball game.

But there was no hesitation by Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, and none from his players. Quarterback Shaun Carney said he wasn’t surprised at all that the Falcons chose to go for it, and he said he knew Calhoun had the perfect call ready for the situation.

Both Carney and Calhoun noted the Falcons’ tendency on third- and fourth-and-short this season had been to run the ball inside.

“And, again, (TCU is) extraordinarily well-prepared, and they were packed down in there (inside), and so we had a chance to get the ball to the perimeter, and once we did, we were in pretty decent shape,” Calhoun said.

Indeed, Carney held the ball just long enough to draw a defender, and then made a perfect pitch to Ollis. Fullback Ryan Williams got a piece of the Horned Frogs’ play-side cornerback. Chad Hall took out not one but two TCU safeties, the second with a diving cut block was perhaps the key element of the play. And Ollis did the rest.

Other observations:

-Fantastic job by Hall faking out several TCU players on the Horned Frogs’ punt before Air Force’s game-tying drive. Hall saw the ball was going to land at about the Falcons’ 7-yard line, so he stood at the 11-yard line and pretended as if he was about to catch the punt. As TCU players gathered around him, the punt landed behind him and rolled into the end zone. So Air Force starts at the 20-yard line instead of the 5. Coaches have talked so much this season about little things adding up. That was one of those little things.

-Can’t say this enough: WHERE WERE THE TIGHT ENDS IN THE OFFENSE LAST YEAR? Travis Dekker was the only Air Force tight end to catch any passes last year and he had just four for 40 yards. This year, in just three games? Nine catches, 160 yards, one touchdown.

Both he and Keith Madsen (who caught a touchdown pass from Carney) are big, reliable targets. (And watch out for freshman Steve Shaffer.) Cannot believe they weren’t more involved last year.

-Couldn’t see this from the press box, but it stood out on TV: Calhoun’s stoic reactions to huge plays, most notably TCU’s missed field goal in overtime. Loved that. You know he’s jumping up and down inside, but he’s calm and cool on the outside. Reminiscent of Larry Bird when he was coaching the Pacers and Reggie Miller hit a last-second shot to beat the Bulls in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Absolutely no reaction.

-Ditto on Ryan Harrison’s game-winning field goal. Maybe a quarter fist pump by Harrison, and then he takes out his mouthpiece and unbuckles his chin strap like it was just a walk in the park – no big deal. Then, of course, he was absolutely mobbed by all of his teammates and pretty much the entire cadet wing.

Two basketball-related notes: Saw recently-graduated Jacob Burtschi on the field after Thursday night’s game. He is spending this year serving as an assistant coach for the academy’s prep school basketball team. He still wants to play pro basketball, but he said the only time that could happen is after two years of service.

His former teammate, Dan Nwaelele, however, still is holding out hope that he can play in the pros immediately. Nwaelele’s agent, J.R. Harris, told me today that Nwaelele recently completed a minicamp with the San Antonio Spurs. Harris told me Spurs staffers told him Nwaelele was impressive. Nwaelele should find out if he gets an invite to veteran camp by the end of next week.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Halftime thoughts

Just like last week, Air Force hurt itself in the first half more than its opponent.

A blocked punt. An interception. A missed field goal (albeit from 50 yards). A couple of missed passes.

Air Force is playing right with TCU. The Falcons have 151 total yards to TCU’s 159. That’s pretty even.

With a mistake-free second half, Air Force could pull an upset.

McCarthy suited up

Air Force senior tailback Kip McCarthy, who was doubtful for tonight’s TCU game, according to what coach Troy Calhoun said after Tuesday’s practice, is on the field and warming up. He has a brace on his bum right knee and is moving decently.

Jim Ollis is running with the first team, however, and, according to Air Force officials, will start.

Greetings from Falcon Stadium

It’s 4:30 p.m., and I’m watching a handful of TCU and Air Force players warm up on the field below me. The stadium has yet to fill up.

The weather, right now, is gorgeous. About 65-70 degrees, not much breeze. But the temperature should dip quickly. It’s supposed to get down to 48 by the end of the night.

While we’re waiting for kickoff, here’s an interesting point brought up by a reader of the blog: Senior Chad Hall, through two games at Z receiver, is averaging 70 combined yards rushing and receiving (down from 75 a year ago when he was at tailback).

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun moved Hall to Z receiver in the spring to help get him the ball in the open field more. Hall has looked really good running the ball on reverses and running after he makes catches.

And though his rushing/receiving yards are down a bit, it must be noted that Hall has added returning punts and kicks to his list of duties (he did neither last year). If you factor in his return yards, he’s picking up an average of 134.5 all-purpose yards per game, fourth-best in the conference.

Calhoun was asked Tuesday if Hall is getting enough “touches.” Here’s what Calhoun said:

“I think you’re always going to go back and look and say, ‘How can we get him more?’ And yet it’s not something you can probably force either. There’s the right balance in there, and every Sunday you come back in, you always look back and say, ‘You know what? Here are three or four other ways we could have gotten it to him. Let’s make sure we carry some of those over into a given week.’ And yet I also think he’s most effective when he’s in that 14, 15 number. In that area. That’s kickoff returns, that’s punt returns, that’s receptions. I think you can get to a point, too, where maybe we’ve got to pick our spots where he’s out of there so the times that he does handle it he’s got all the TNT in him.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Perro Non Grata

The BlogDog will be watching Thursday night's Air Force-TCU game on CSTV from the comforts of his couch at the BlogHouse.

This is a good thing for Norm. At Falcon Stadium, he'd be unwelcome - perro non grata - because for the first time in his illustrious career as a football prognosticator, Norm has picked against Troy Calhoun's Falcons.

(Note: For those who have just discovered The Gazette's Air Force blog and have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a quick refresher course: I am not allowed, as a beat writer, to predict the outcome of games. So my dog, Norm - aka the BlogDog, does it. Here's how: I have a mini-replica Air Force helmet and a mini-replica helmet of the opponent it is facing that week. Whichever one Norm goes to first - best three out of five times - is the one he thinks is going to win. If Norm picks the same helmet three times in a row, he’s thinking blowout. If he chooses one team three times and the other team once, he’s thinking the game will be decided by about seven to 10 points. If he chooses one team three times and the other one twice, he’s predicting a close game. Check out his previous picks in the archives.)

Anyway, here's how his pick unfolded this week. On his first choice, Norm walked over to the TCU helmet, but then put his nose to the Air Force helmet. A vote for the Falcons, and I figured Norm was thinking upset (odds makers have TCU as an 8.5-point favorite). But on his next three choices, Norm went - quite decisively - to the TCU helmet, grabbing it and throwing it.

Now, some might see that as a sign that Norm dislikes TCU. But whenever he gets a treat, he often picks it up and throws it. So consider that a fairly decisive vote for TCU.

My wife (the BlogWife) thinks Norm just likes the color purple. But this is the same woman that told me a few weeks ago that dogs are color blind. So there, BlogWife.

Norm's pick: TCU 33, Air Force 17
Norm's record: 2-0

Above: The BlogDog puts his bet where his mouth is.

Calhoun press conference recap

My apologies that this comes a day late. Here is a recap of Tuesday’s press conference …

-Most interesting note from the presser: Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was asked how he would evaluate Chad Hall’s transition from running back to receiver so far. Calhoun said he thought it was “real solid, and yet you’re talking about a versatile kid.”

Calhoun noted Hall has good quickness and good balance, and he also took time to describe Hall’s superlative hand-eye coordination. Calhoun said the one reservation he had about moving Hall to receiver was he didn’t know how well Hall could catch the ball. Those fears have been eased.

Before Monday’s practice, Calhoun asked his kick returners to try a new drill. They would stand with a ball in one arm as another ball was punted toward them. Then they were asked to toss the ball they were holding into the air, catch the punted ball and then catch the ball that they threw.

“If you can hit six out of 10 on that, you have very good hand-eye coordination,” Calhoun said. “(Hall) hits his first seven. And that’s a little bit indicative of the ball skills the kid has. I’d love to coach him for a few more years too.”

Other stuff from the press conference:

-Calhoun’s opening remarks: “To wrap up last week, really a quality victory against a very fine team. You’ve heard me say it before, at least some of you have, I was also very impressed with Utah. I just think the resiliency of their players and their coaches, to lose your starting quarterback, your starting tailback and your most dynamic receiver, to still be able to respond the way they did is a real tribute character-wise to their football team.”

“This week we’ve got TCU. It’s been a short week, and yet still one where there’s still time to prep. Because of it, the only thing we have, again, are reasons why we should play well on Thursday night. Now, because of who we’re playing, we’ll have to play hands-down the best football game we’ve played certainly this season and probably in a while here at the academy.”

-Calhoun was asked how he prepares for a player like TCU defensive end Tommy Blake: “You try to make yourself go to sleep for a little bit, because he’s one of those guys that will keep you up. He’s an extraordinary football player. He’s quick, he’s long, he’s got pass-rush skill, plays with good effort. Just talent-wise, he’s one of the best I’ve ever gone against at the college level.”

-Calhoun’s thoughts on TCU redshirt freshman quarterback Andy Dalton: “The kid’s very impressive with his poise. I think he’s got great pocket presence, I think he has good mobility. You watch him, this guy’s going to be a dynamite player. And this is a guy, you look at this kid’s background, he’s a winner.”

-Calhoun was asked if Thursday night’s game provides a great opportunity to see where his program stands: “I think absolutely it is. You’re playing against one of the most talented teams in all of college football. … And so if we’re going to make some strides in this conference, we’ve at least got to try to go where we close some of the gap between us and TCU.”

Final note: BlogDog will make his TCU-Air Force prediction later tonight.

Monday, September 10, 2007

To the victors.....

Air Force senior linebacker Drew Fowler was named the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the week Monday for his performance in the Falcons’ 20-12 victory over Utah.

Fowler recorded a game-high 14 tackles (six solo), and 10 came in the second half.

He saved his best for the most important play of the game. With the Utes facing a fourth-and-goal from the Air Force 1-yard line with just more than a minute to play, Fowler burst through a gap to grab Utah’s Darryl Poston, and teammate Hunter Altman came over top to finish the job and preserve the Falcons’ victory.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Final thoughts on Utah

That was a hugely important, confidence-inspiring victory for Air Force on Saturday. After falling short in close games so many times during the last three seasons, the Falcons badly needed to succeed in crunch time, just to show themselves they could do it.

A day after the game, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun remained pleased with what he saw.

“You flip that tape on, and there are guys flying around,” Calhoun said. “There are guys that are sore today.”

They’ll need to heal quickly as TCU – probably the best and most talented squad Air Force will face in the regular season – rolls into town this week for a Thursday night game. The Horned Frogs led Texas at halftime Saturday night before losing, 34-13.

“The first half, they were the better team,” Calhoun said of TCU.

Some lingering thoughts from the Utah game …

- Calhoun was asked Sunday about two costly 15-yard penalties the Falcons picked up against Utah – an illegal block call that negated a nice run by Chad Hall and a personal foul against Travis Dekker late in the game that pushed the Falcons from the Utah 7-yard line back to the 22.

“We’ve got them on tape, you can take a look at them,” Calhoun said.

Asked if that meant he questioned with the calls, Calhoun replied, “You can take a look at them if you want.”

- Why did Air Force keep the ball on the ground so much after the first quarter?

Field position for one. The Falcons started six drives inside their own 25-yard line, including two at the 2-yard line and one at the 1-yard line. Another factor was the standout play of the Air Force defense, which made taking chances on offense less appealing. In addition, the Falcons’ receivers were not getting off press coverage and creating enough separation, Calhoun said.

But most importantly, it came down to this – Utah wasn’t stopping the run. On the Falcons’ first drive of the second half they went 13, 8, 10, 7, 4, 7 and 4 yards, all on the ground, for a touchdown. On their final drive they went 17, 5, 7, 16, 2 and 11 before stalling.

“To move it like we did, that’s pretty indicative that we did some pretty good things up front,” Calhoun said.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Halftime thoughts

If Air Force loses this game, the Falcons will look back in disgust at several miscues and missed opportunities in the first half.

The game is tied, 3-3, after a first half in which Air Force held the ball for 19:30 of the first half and ran 44 plays to Utah’s 31.

Among the first-half errors:

-Kicker Ryan Harrison missed a 48-yard attempt with less than a minute left in the half.

-After Garrett Rybak’s interception gave Air Force the ball at the Utah 48-yard line late in the first quarter, Air Force lost 6 yards and punted. A penalty for an illegal chop block negated a big gain that would have given Air Force a first down deep in Utah territory.

-The Falcons turned the ball over at midfield when quarterback Shaun Carney, on an option right, appeared to pitch the ball to the wrong back. Carney pitched it to Savier Stephens, and the ball bounced off Stephens’ facemask and was recovered by Utah. Chad Hall was a step behind Stephens and looked like he should have been the player to receive the pitch.

Additional pregame notes

Some additional notes from pregame warm-ups.

-Air Force players are wearing white pants with no stripes, white jerseys with silver numbers outlined in blue and their black shoe/black sock combination.

-Coaches are back in their all-black ensembles.

-Utah players are in red jerseys and red pants with black shoes and black socks.

-Nice stadium. Beautiful view of the mountains to the east from the press box.

-One other thing about the stadium (which seats 45,017). There looks to be no more than 15 yards between the sideline and the stands, so the fans will be right on top of the action. It will be interesting to see how Air Force does with communication in this environment.

-If you were to draw up a middle linebacker, he’d probably look like Utah’s Joe Jiannoni. Six feet tall, 235 pounds, wearing No. 44. And he has a Mohawk.

-Tommy Grady, who will start at quarterback for Utah in place of the injured Brian Johnson, looks like he has NFL tools in warm-ups. He looks all of 6-foot-7 and 235, and his arm strength is impressive.

McCarthy to start

Greetings from the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

The big news, an hour before kickoff, is that senior Kip McCarthy will start at tailback for the Falcons. McCarthy, who picked up a career-high 129 yards last weekend, missed practice Monday and Tuesday with bursitis in his right knee. He went through limited work Wednesday with a brace and practiced Thursday with a brace.

On Wednesday, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said senior Jim Ollis and freshman Savier Stephens would get the majority of the Falcons’ carries and that one of them probably would start.

But McCarthy will get the nod. However, he likely will not get as much work as he did last weekend when he carried the ball 22 times.

McCarthy currently is on the field with a brace on his knee. He seems to be moving well.

Updates from Rice-Eccles

Check out the blog for pre-game and halftime updates from Air Force's game at Utah today.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Pensive BlogDog

As explained in a post last Friday (check out “The debut of BlogDog” in the archives), my dog, Norm, will be predicting the outcome of each Air Force game this season.

The BlogDog made a triumphant debut, correctly predicting a Falcons victory over South Carolina State.

But it got much harder this week, as BlogDog went back and forth – quite literally.

To review, I hold up a mini-replica Air Force helmet and the mini-replica helmet of the opponent they are facing that week. Whichever one Norm goes to first (best three out of five times) is the one he thinks is going to win.

If Norm picks the same helmet three times in a row, he’s thinking blowout. If he chooses one team three times and the other team once, he’s thinking the game will be decided by about seven to 10 points. If he chooses one team three times and the other one twice, he’s predicting a close game.

Here’s how it unfolded this week. Norm went to the Air Force helmet first, then the Utah helmet, then back to Air Force, then back to Utah. Then, on the deciding vote, with his prediction on the line, he went to …

His tennis ball.

But from the tennis ball – eventually – he went to the Air Force helmet.

So here’s how I’m interpreting it. … BlogDog is thinking a close game. And going to the tennis ball before casting his deciding vote was a sign. Norm and I watched the Federer-Roddick U.S. Open match the other night and the first two sets went to tiebreakers. Because Norm went to the tennis ball on his deciding vote, he thinks the Air Force-Utah game will be decided by the football equivalent of a tiebreaker. … Overtime.

Norm’s pick: Air Force 20, Utah 17 (OT)
Norm’s record to date: 1-0

Above: BlogDog makes his pick.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

AF Mailbag: Why disguise?

Round 2 of The Gazette's Air Force Mailbag ...

Q: I just read your article “He’s Not Satisfied,” and you mentioned that (Coach Troy) Calhoun seemed displeased about “the poor disguising of blitzes and coverages by the defense – specifically the safeties.” Since I wasn’t able to watch Saturday’s game, could you expand on that? Chris Thomas led the defense in tackles … it doesn’t sound too bad for a first-time starter, at least on paper. However, without the benefit of watching the game first-hand, I realize that stats don’t show the whole picture. What’s your take?

A: Well, first of all, having been around coach for more than a month of practices, I think part of this is just coach’s nature. He always wants more. Case in point: When he was asked about TE Travis Dekker on Saturday (after Dekker caught three passes for 64 yards and a score), Calhoun said some nice things but also brought up the fact that Dekker had an assignment "bust" on one play. So I think the disguising of blitzes and coverages was not awful – it just needs improvement.

And the Falcons' disguise needs to be very good for defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense to work. In DeRuyter’s scheme, one of the four linebackers is coming on a blitz about 95 percent of the time (sometimes more linebackers will come, sometimes defensive backs will come). Not only does this give Air Force a de facto fourth lineman, but it gives it the element of surprise. From one play to the next, an offense has no idea where that 'backer is going to come from -- as long as that 'backer disguises his blitz.

So basically, according to ILB Drew Fowler, players need to change up their pre-snap activity. Sometimes they need to jump around and run up to the line and feign a blitz. Other times they need to fake like they’re dropping into coverage and then bolt into a blitz at the last minute. Sometimes they need to act like they’re blitzing and then blitz.

“You don’t want to become predictable,” Fowler said. “Sometimes you want them to say, hey, ‘They’re bouncing around, they’re going to come (on a blitz).’ Well, maybe they get used to that and all of a sudden you bounce around and then drop back into coverage. You’ve got to kind of play it to where it gets them thinking, ‘Well, they’ve done this before and they haven’t come, and yet they’ve done it before and they’ve come.’”

As for safeties, sometimes they will fly into a zone at the snap of a ball on anticipation of a certain play. The better they disguise this, the less chance the quarterback has of reading the coverage. And the better the chance Air Force comes up with an interception.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Calhoun Press Conference Recap - 9/4

Below are some of the highlights from Air Force coach Troy Calhoun’s press conference Tuesday afternoon along with some other random thoughts.

-Calhoun’s opening remarks: “Utah, this is a good football team. I think what you can tell right away … this is a talented squad, a group that won eight games last season and candidly was the only team that really pushed BYU to the hilt last season. They lost their quarterback, who was a very good player, Brian Johnson, and yet, again, last year he’s a guy that did not play a snap for them. We’re going to face a darn good team, and yet we’re to a point where I think it will give us another indication as to where we are as a football team and where we are as a football program. We need to go out on the road. Because I think you find out a little about your squad from a maturity standpoint whenever you do play an away game.”

-Utah’s Brian Johnson, who was named to the preseason All-Mountain West Conference first team, was injured in the Utes' opener last week. He won’t play against Air Force. Calhoun was asked how much an injury to a quarterback can hurt a team.

“I think it can,” he said. “And yet as you go through August practices, we tell our guys all the time that we’ve got to practice two-deep. And basically up until you get about 10 days out from your opening ballgame, you’ve got to get two-deep ready – I think especially at quarterback. That’s a great training time for him. So it’s not like he’s been out of the fold. (Utah backup Tommy Grady) is a guy, I’m sure, that they’ve had well-prepared to step in there are any time, and a guy that’s a very gifted passer, very gifted player. This is a guy that was one of the top players coming out of high school.”

-For the second time this week, Calhoun praised kicker Ryan Harrison’s tackle against South Carolina State. On one of his sky kicks, the South Carolina returner broke Air Force’s contain and went 45 yards. It would have been longer, but Harrison took him down with a perfect form tackle.

“The play he made in the open field on the return – which should not have been a return – showed that he’s more than just a guy that’s going to wear short socks,” Calhoun said.

According to junior outside linebacker Hunter Altman: “Ryan’s just an amazing player. He’s more gifted than any kicker I’ve seen.”’

-A couple of weeks ago I passed along Scott Peeples’ description of the Air Force offense (the ax vs. hatchet analogy). Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had a pretty good one yesterday.

“It’s like a blend of what they used to do with some West Coast flavor with some spread stuff,” he said.

-Watch out for Wyoming. The stats from the Cowboys’ game against Virginia should be scary to Air Force fans. Wyoming rolled up 471 yards of offense (218 on the ground, 253 through the air) and limited Virginia to just 110 total yards, including seven on the ground.

McCarthy likely out

I’ll add a much longer post tonight with thoughts from Troy Calhoun’s press conference today, but this news couldn’t wait. As you’ll be able to read in tomorrow’s edition of The Gazette, and on the Web site, Falcons starting running back Kip McCarthy likely will not play Saturday in the conference opener at Utah.

McCarthy tweaked his right knee in the first half of the Falcons' game against South Carolina State and missed practice Monday. Calhoun, who called the injury bursitis, thought McCarthy likely would be back today. But the swelling was worse than coaches thought.

Calhoun did not totally rule out McCarthy playing, but it sounded as if he’ll miss the game and probably miss next week’s game against TCU. Calhoun did not think the injury was serious enough to keep McCarthy out for an extended period of time.

The injury might open the door – finally – for Jim Ollis.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

They needed this one

As you’ll read in Monday's edition of The Gazette, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has a laundry list of things upon which his Falcons have to improve before facing Utah on Saturday.

Typically, this is what happens when coaches get a chance to watch film of a game. There always are plenty of problems spotted – even in blowouts.

Calhoun said that even before watching the game tape, he "had a gut feeling that it certainly wasn’t a Mona Lisa.”

It was a start, though. And getting a victory in the opener was critical for this Air Force team, no matter the opponent.

Sometimes, when teams go into tailspins, players forget how to win. That might sound silly, but it’s true. In the same way that winning breeds winning and inspires more and more confidence, losses breed more losing and fertilizes doubt. Instead of expecting something good to happen, players wait for something to go wrong.

Case in point: losing to UNLV last season. Had Air Force played the Rebels early last year or even mid-way through the season, the result would have been different. But coming into that game on a slide and one week after losing as time expired to Utah made the Falcons vulnerable.

With one victory, maybe Air Force has built up a little confidence. The Falcons certainly will need it for the four-game stretch that awaits them. At Utah, home against conference favorite TCU, at defending conference champion BYU, at rival Navy. Considering the ugly way in which Notre Dame lost on Saturday, I would argue that these next four games are the Falcons’ toughest of the season.

There still will be seven games left after September, but the rest of this month will tell a whole lot about how the Falcons’ season will unfold.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Halftime from the press box

To paraphrase Brent Musburger: I am looking live at Falcon Stadium.

And things look pretty good for Falcons from here. They’re up 24-3 and in complete command.

You couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. A half-hour before kickoff it was 77 degrees with a slight breeze and almost nothing but sun. At halftime, it’s still gorgeous. However, there’s apparently a chance of thunderstorms coming later this afternoon.

Other opening thoughts:

-Major style points to the coaches for their all-black Johnny Cash ensembles. Blaine Guenther said it best when he claimed the coaches, “look like Mafia henchmen.”

-Another style thought: Air Force went without stripes on the players’ helmets. It’s the first time they’ve gone with just lightning bolts since 1979. I was on record from early in the preseason that the helmets look sharp this way. Not that anyone listens to me, but …

-Ryan Harrison looks as good as advertised. His first two kickoffs sailed into the end zone and resulted in touchbacks. And his 48-yard field goal looked like it might have been good from 60.

-Carson Bird, back in the starting lineup, made two big plays in the first half. He picked off a pass tipped by Drew Fowler and also pounced on a fumble caused by Austin Randle.

-The tight end is back in the Air Force arsenal. Travis Dekker has caught three passes for 64 yards and a touchdown so far. He had four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown all last season.