Monday, December 31, 2007

Halftime Update

Air Force leads Cal, 21-14, at halftime of the Armed Forces Bowl.

The Falcons went up 21-0 by scoring on their first three possessions, but Cal rallied behind backup quarterback Kevin Riley, a freshman.

To be honest, I’m pretty impressed and surprised that Cal mounted a comeback.

The Golden Bears entered the game having lost six of their previous seven, including three in a row. I figured if Air Force built an early lead Cal would put a stamp on this game and mail it in.

But the Bears haven’t. Riley has looked very good, as have his speedy receivers, and the Cal defense seems to have woken up.

Air Force will get the ball first in the second half. If the Falcons can mount a scoring drive, they might be able to re-establish control. But if they are forced to punt and Cal gets a chance to tie the game early in the third quarter, look out.

Game Time

I am looking live at the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium, just a few minutes before game time.

It’s sunny – a bit chilly (game-time temperature 51 degrees) and windy.

Air Force’s captains are Chad Hall, Drew Fowler, John Rabold and Sean Carney. Fisher DeBerry is the honorary captain.

On the east side of the stadium, across from the press box is a sea of Air Force blue – and not so many Cal fans. Definitely will be a pro-Air Force crowd.

Air Force won the toss, deferred and will kick off.

I’ll check back in at halftime.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rusty BlogDog

When Air Force takes the field for Sunday’s Armed Forces Bowl, it will be playing for the first time since its Nov. 17 game against San Diego State.

That’s a 43-day layoff.

Pretty long. But nothing compared to what the BlogDog has endured.

He made his last pick the day before the San Diego State game (Nov. 16). He attempted his next pick on Christmas night. That’s 38 days between picks. But in “dog years,” that’s 266 days.

Two hundred sixty-six days!!! Practically an entire offseason.

The rust was evident. In front of a crowd of about 15 friends and family members, BlogDog showed no interest in making picks. Time and again, he walked right past me and the pieces of paper I was holding (one with the Air Force logo, one with the Cal logo).

I decided not to take that as an indictment of the Armed Forces Bowl. I think the crowd, the fatigue from a trip back to the East Coast and, of course, the rust all played a part.

I traveled to Fort Worth the next day, and the BlogDog stayed behind with the BlogWife at my in-laws’ house. I left the prediction in their hands/paws. Three days later, BlogDog begrudgingly made a pick.

(For readers who have had a long layoff between BlogDog posts, here’s a quick refresher: Since I am not allowed to predict the outcome of Air Force games, my dog, Norm, does it. Typically he chooses between mini-replica helmets of the two teams. But this time he picked between the Air Force logo and the Cal logo. It’s best-of-five. If Norm picks one team three times in a row, he’s thinking blowout. If he goes for one team three times and the other team once, he’s thinking it will be about a 10-point game. If it’s three times to two times, he’s thinking barn-burner.)

According to the BlogWife, Norm went to Air Force twice in a row, then Cal, then Air Force. Not fully understanding the principles of the “best-of-five” series, the BlogWife had Norm pick again, and he picked Cal, even though Air Force had locked up the overall pick.

When I pointed this out to her, she told me I was lucky that she didn’t make Norm wear his “Ho, Ho, Ho” bandana or his Reindeer antlers for the photo below.

Good point. That might have taken away some of the credibility Norm has built in his outstanding rookie season.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Norm’s Pick: Air Force 38, Cal 30
Norm’s Record: 8-4

BlogDog shakes off the rust and picks the Falcons

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Practice Report - Saturday

Air Force held its final practice in preparation for Monday’s Armed Forces Bowl today at TCU.

The Falcons used TCU’s indoor facility for about an hour and a half in the morning. The tempo of practice was high, but there was little contact and players had dialed it back a tad.

Players said they will be ready to go Monday after what will have been a 43-day layoff since the Nov. 17 regular-season finale against San Diego State.

“We’re looking good,” Air Force senior running back/receiver Chad Hall said. “And now we get to rest for a day and a half before the game.”

“Our guys will be ready to play,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “We’ll crank up, we’ll go, we’re just going to have to execute.”

Calhoun’s biggest concern remains adjusting to game speed and Cal’s speed early in the game – “That’s going to be a shock to us,” he said. He also is worried about ball security – “how well you hold onto the ball when you’re getting drilled.”

On-field notes: With linemen Peter Lusk and Caleb Morris both back to practice this week, and with Chad Smith seemingly running at full speed, Air Force is as close to healthy as it has been since the start of the season.

Senior outside linebacker Julian Madrid, who put off knee surgery to return to the field this year, said his injured knee is not giving him any trouble. He also said he’s putting off surgery until April to get some skiing in. …

Calhoun said senior tailback Jim Ollis and junior receiver Ty Paffett are two players on offense who emerged and impressed him late in the season. He praised sophomore strong safety Chris Thomas and senior inside linebacker Aaron Shanor on defense.

“Shanor has played really well at linebacker,” Calhoun said. “The last couple of ballgames he’s been outstanding.”

Off-field notes: When asked what they’ve enjoyed most about the bowl experience, most players have said spending time with their teammates.

“The funnest thing is being with the guys at night and here at practice,” senior inside linebacker Drew Fowler said. “You want to say it’s a normal practice, but it’s still different knowing you’re going back to a hotel. It’s like one big house that we’re living in. … I woke up on the 26th, and I was all mad because I got that normal, sick feeling. It felt like I was just going back to Colorado – my bags were packed. But once we saw everybody I had to tell myself, ‘We’re going to have fun, we’re not going back to school.’” …

The weather has gotten progressively better as the week has gone on. Today at Cal’s practice temperatures were in the 50s, and the sun – absent most of the week – finally made an appearance.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Practice Report - Friday

Air Force’s practices have been well-attended by potential future players from local high schools.

Today I heard about two other likely future Falcons who weren’t there. You may recognize the last name they share.


Yep, senior tailback Jim Ollis has two younger brothers, and both seem headed to the academy, according to their parents, Bruce and Jane, with whom I spoke at practice today.

Austin Ollis is at the academy prep school. He’s built about like his older brother and, like his older brother, can play both quarterback and running back. Jordan Ollis is a junior at Polk High in Columbus, N.C., where his brothers went and where his father coaches football. Like his older brothers, he’s a three-sport athlete (football, wrestling, baseball). But he’s a bit bigger – about 5-foot-10, 215 pounds. He played fullback this past season, but might move to quarterback as a senior.

According to Bruce and Jane, both Austin and Jordan are tough kids thanks to the brotherly influence of Jim.

On-field notes: Air Force’s practice was enthusiastic and high-energy for a third straight day. While the Falcons wore shorts, there were still plenty of pads popping throughout the session. The junior varsity players who made the trip did some extra work after the main practice and got after each other. …

The rust seems to be fading. Fewer dropped passes, fewer fumbles today.

“We were better ball-handling-wise than we were two days ago,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “And you just don’t have busts assignment-wise. We’ve got guys that are glued in to what we’ve asked them to do on both sides of the ball. … We’ve been a little crisper, and yet we never turn a practice away, so we’ll utilize tomorrow too.” …

The receivers played another round of their modified Harlem Globetrotters circle (see Thursday's post for an explanation). It was cut short when the receivers had to join a full-team drill. The final four were Chad Hall, Ty Paffett, Mark Root and Josh Cousins. …

Off-field notes: Air Force players looked sharp in the black-and-white warm-ups they wore to the team luncheon at the Texas Motor Speedway. … At the lunch Calhoun and Cal coach Jeff Tedford both received cowboy boots with the Armed Forces Bowl logo. … The approximately 42,000 tickets sold for the game beats the previous high of about 38,000 for the 2003 game between TCU and Boise State. … Calhoun said he’s been pleased with how his players have conducted themselves off the field. “We’ve done very well, and yet I don’t think we should brag about that,” he said. “That’s one of those things that I think we should do.”

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Practice Report - Thursday

It still is pretty chilly in Fort Worth, but that didn’t seem to bother Air Force one bit at its practice today.

The Falcons went for nearly two hours in full pads at TCU, and while the session included contact and plenty of intensity, the players seemed to be having an awful lot of fun too. There was laughter, cheering, smiles and a high tempo throughout the session.

That seems like the right mix for a bowl game. It’s a contest, to be sure, but the bowl experience is meant to be a reward for a good season. Finding the right balance between work and fun is a crucial element of these games. Air Force is doing a good job of finding that balance. So far.

On-field notes: Air Force went “live” – full speed with full contact – during several drills including kickoff coverage. Players flew down the field and there were a bunch of big collisions. Junior Ty Paffett made a particularly nice stop on one long kickoff. …

As I noted for tomorrow’s edition of The Gazette, rust was most noticeable in dropped passes. There were a handful early in practice by defensive backs and offensive players. …

Speaking of receivers, they went through a couple of pretty cool drills that, according to receivers coach Mike Thiessen, are designed to make them catch with their hands instead of cradling the ball to their bodies.

In one, the players laid flat on their backs and then leaned up slightly to catch balls that Thiessen rocketed at them. In the other, one player would stand behind a partner and wrap his arms around the partner’s waist. Thiessen would throw the ball at the player in front, and the player behind would have to catch it.

But my favorite drill the receivers have is a kind of modified Globetrotters circle. The receivers stand in a circle and throw the ball to each other. When a player drops the ball – or if one makes an off-target throw – he is eliminated. This, of course, leads to behind-the-back passes, no-look flips and all other sorts of surprise tosses. Fun to watch. …

Got a quick peek at Cal today. Only the first 10 minutes of the practice were open, so I didn’t see a whole lot, but I’ll say this – the players pass the eye test. They are big and very athletic. I understood immediately why they were No. 2 in the nation after five games. But it made me wonder even more why they collapsed so dramatically. I know they had injuries, but it had to be more than that.

Off-field notes: All the Falcons were clean shaven after getting that order from Calhoun. … The Falcons had dinner last night at Reata, a restaurant downtown that the locals say is very good. … Haven’t had too much time to check out the city, but the downtown area seems to have potential. Lots of restaurants, bars and people walking around. … Tomorrow night there will be a Madden Football Tournament (that’s a football video game for those that grew up without Segas and PlayStations) at a local establishment. I hear 10 players from each team will play in the tournament, but I’m still trying to find out who the Falcons are trotting out there. I wouldn’t be of much help. My video game prowess ended with Nintendo and Tecmo Bowl.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

AFB Practice Report - Wednesday

Some Air Force players looked a tad different Wednesday.

It was evident when they took their helmets off after the team’s practice at TCU, the first of four there in preparation for Monday’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

A bunch of the Falcons – always clean shaven at the Air Force Academy – were sporting some facial hair.

Junior receiver Ty Paffett had the beginnings of a goatee, junior outside linebacker Hunter Altman looked like he’d put the razor down for a few days and senior quarterback Shaun Carney had a beard.

But not for long.

When asked after practice when he would have to shave his beard, Carney said: “About five minutes. I told (Air Force coach Troy Calhoun) it took me 23 years to grow it. But it’s got to go.”

On-field notes: Calhoun was pleased with Wednesday’s session, which lasted about an hour and a half. Coaches were intense, demanding several times that players increase the pace of practice and getting after them for the inevitable sloppy mistakes they made after five days off. …

Senior guard Caleb Morris, who missed the Falcons’ regular season finale with a knee injury, was playing with Air Force’s first offensive line. Senior tailback Chad Smith, who severely tore his groin in the regular season finale, seemed to be running full speed.

Off-field notes: Air Force players left the locker room at TCU after practice on Wednesday pulling new rolling travel bags adorned with the Armed Forces Bowl logo. According to players, each also got a watch, a ball and a Slingbox, a product that gives them the capability of watching television on any computer or mobile device that has an Internet connection.

Players have been impressed by the treatment they have received at the bowl.

“It’s been amazing,” senior cornerback Garrett Rybak said. “This is just really cool to get treated like we’re getting treated – I feel like I don’t deserve it.”

Paffett said Calhoun has not installed a curfew for players.

“No, he let us curfew ourselves,” Paffett said. “We’ll get to bed, though, I think we know what time we need to be back.”

Greetings from Fort Worth

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted – some projects and a trip back home for the holidays have kept me away. But that’s no excuse. So I’m back with a vengeance for Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl Week.

Here’s the plan – daily updates on everything from the weather to the town to the teams. I’ll definitely post something after each practice. And, yes, the BlogDog will make a pick.

I flew into Dallas/Fort Worth Airport late this morning. It was raining and chilly – 45 degrees or thereabouts. It’s warmed up a bit since then.

Noticed some flags advertising the bowl on my way out of the airport, as well as some ads inside the airport. More than 42,000 tickets had been sold as of a couple of days ago, according to bowl officials, so the game should be pretty well attended.

I am off to practice and will post later this evening.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Jake's Take

No, not mine. Jake Burtschi’s.

Burtschi, who helped spearhead Air Force basketball’s renaissance, graduated last year. But he is back at the academy, coaching at the prep school.

Burtschi – who played in more games (125) than any other player in academy history and is the school’s all-time leader in steals and 10th-leading scorer – attended the Falcons’ 65-53 victory over Norfolk State on Thursday night. It was the first game he’s watched in person, as he had been in Europe playing with the All-Air Force basketball team.

After the game, he shared his thoughts with me on the 2007-08 Falcons.

Jake Schaller: What’s your assessment, overall, of your old team?
Jake Burtschi: Not bad. A little slow out of the gates, they take a little bit. They’re kind of like a diesel engine, it takes a little bit to get going, but once they do, they can be an explosive team. They’re still young, but they’re not bad. They’ve still got some growing to do, but hopefully by about conference time they’ll really be clicking and things will be rolling along.

JS: How do you see the offense running? Seems like it isn’t as smooth as it was last year – maybe because these guys didn’t play together as much as you guys did.
JB: That is one thing, that’s a big thing. Especially (against) a zone. Because I think man-to-man was working pretty well, they were getting shots. But whenever (Norfolk State was) in a zone, sometimes they were stagnant. That just comes from time, being with one another, knowing where guys are going to be at all times, knowing their tendencies. That’s just one thing that’s kind of involved. But hopefully a couple more weeks, couple more games, they start getting the feel for one another. They haven’t had the luxury, like we had the last year, to have guys that have been together for four years. But they’ll start clicking soon.

JS: Talking about the slow starts, I’ve mentioned to some people that this team seems like it needs a Jacob Burtschi personality to get it fired up.
JB: (Laughing) I don’t know if they need a Jacob Burtschi. That’d be more of a head case, if they got anything. No, I mean, it’s tough, that was just my personality, that was how I played. I think some guys are trying to figure out their roles still on the team. I think that kind of personality, that type of hard-nosed mentality, is going to come out in some of the guys soon. That’s the biggest thing, they’re just still trying to find their roles on the team. But I think come conference time you’ll kind of find out who the spark is going to be, who’s going to do those certain little things.

JS: How’s the prep school doing?
JB: They’re doing well. They’re 12-8. We’re lacking size, a 6-foot-6 guy is our center, but he’s mainly a 3-point threat. We’re small, but the guys are really resilient. They’ve got a lot of heart, and they battle. Like this past weekend we were down 18 with 3 and a half (minutes) to go, and we cut it to 3 with 30 (seconds) to play. Ended up losing by 4, missed a big shot at the end. Just a great group of kids, never a head case down there. It’s been a joy coaching them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bird, Hall Honored

Air Force senior cornerback Carson Bird and senior running back/receiver Chad Hall were listed as honorable mentions on the Sports All-America team.

Bird led the Mountain West Conference and ranked fourth in the nation in interceptions with 0.55 per game (six in 11 contests). He tied for second in the league in fumble recoveries (0.27 per game) and tied for third in passes defended (1.0 per game). He led Air Force in takeaways with nine, including an interception with 49 seconds left in regulation against TCU to force overtime. Air Force ended up winning that game, 20-17 in the extra session.

Hall, who was listed on the team as a running back, led the Mountain West Conference and ranked 16th nationally in rushing (117.9 yards per game). He also led the league and ranked tied for third nationally in all-purpose yards (208.7). He is the only player in the country to lead his team in rushing yards (1,415), receiving yards (488) and all-purpuse yards (2,504).

Hall earlier was named to the All-America third team.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Keeping Calhoun

With Air Force coach Troy Calhoun being mentioned as a possible candidate for openings at several colleges, the academy is doing its best to keep the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year at his alma mater.

According to sports information director Troy Garnhart, Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh and Calhoun are discussing potential contract improvements.

Southern Methodist contacted the academy for permission to speak to Calhoun about its coaching vacancy, and multiple media outlets reported that Calhoun was a candidate for the Duke job. Calhoun was not interested in the SMU job.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Night Football

Remember the scene from "Invincible" – the football movie staring Mark Wahlberg – when Wahlberg and his friends play in the rain on a muddy field at night using their car lights to light the field?

That’s what the latter stages of Air Force’s Friday practice looked like. Save for the car lights.

From the parking lot east of the field – maybe 30 yards away – you couldn’t see any players. But you could hear them hooting, hollering and loving every minute of practice.

Calhoun has said all season that one of the things that sets the 2007 team apart is the players’ love for the game. They even love practice, he says. That was apparent on Friday night as they battled the cold, a steady, sleety rain and darkness.

But nobody complained or batted an eye when Calhoun told the players they'd be outside in 30-degree temperatures and freezing rain.

“They just said, ‘Pad up, and here we go,’” Calhoun said. “That’s just our guys, attitude-wise. They’d rather be outside.”

“It was fun,” senior inside linebacker Drew Fowler said. “Just to get out here and play. It was kind of like backyard football there.

“It got tough there at the end. Everything was blending in with everybody.”

Not tough enough for Calhoun. “I wanted it to be a little darker,” he joked.

“As long as you’ve got some decent footing, I want to practice outside. I just think you get so much more done, and I think the elements are real in football. This isn’t a sport that you only play when it’s between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. I just think you’ve got to train that way.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

All-MWC All About Falcons

Air Force’s dramatic turnaround season was rewarded Tuesday when the Mountain West Conference revealed its postseason honors.

First-year coach Troy Calhoun was named the conference coach of the year, and four Air Force players were named to the all-conference first team, including senior running back/receiver Chad Hall, who was named the conference’s offensive player of the year. The selections were made by the league’s nine coaches and a panel of media.

Senior center Blaine Guenther, senior outside linebacker John Rabold and senior cornerback Carson Bird all also were named to the first team, giving Air Force its most players on an all-conference first team since 1998 when five Falcons made the All-Western Athletic Conference first team.

Senior inside linebacker Drew Fowler, a first-team selection in 2006, and sophomore offensive lineman Nick Charles were named to the all-conference second team, while senior quarterback Shaun Carney, junior tight end Travis Dekker, junior defensive end Ryan Kemp and sophomore safety Chris Thomas received honorable mention honors.

Calhoun, who earlier in the day was named the American Football Coaches Association 2007 Region 5 Coach of the Year, is the first Air Force coach to win a conference coach of the year award in his first season and the second coach at the academy to earn such an honor. Former coach Fisher DeBerry won three.

Calhoun, who replaced DeBerry and took over a team that had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, constructed a staff of assistants with academy ties, altered the team’s offensive and defensive philosophies, put a premium on in-season strength and conditioning and re-energized a program that had stumbled to a 4-8 mark in 2006.’

The result was a 9-3 record – the second-largest turnaround in academy history – a second-place finish in the league and the first invitation to a bowl since 2002.

“Really as a coach, your feet are on the ground and you realize it’s earned by staff members, the administration, players and coaches,” Calhoun said. “Whenever you identify a coach, it’s a reflection on an entire school, especially here at the Air Force Academy.”

Hall became the sixth Air Force player – and first non-quarterback – to win a conference offensive player of the year award.

He made the all-conference first team as a running back, but he made his contributions all over the field. The 5-foot-8, 180-pounder from Atlanta was the only player in the country to lead his team in both rushing yards (a league-high 1,415) and receiving yards (488). He also set academy records for all-purpose yards in a game, career and season in 2007, averaging a conference-high 208.7 all-purpose yards per game.

Guenther, who moved from tackle to center, was the lone full-time returning starter from the 2006 offensive line. He helped pave the way for the nation’s second-best rushing attack (298.5 yards per game).

Rabold ranked second in the conference with 16.5 tackles for losses and led the conference with four fumble recoveries. Bird led the conference and ranked seventh nationally with six interceptions and ranked second in the conference with three fumble recoveries.

UNLV linebacker Beau Bell was named the conference’s defensive player of the year. Utah place kicker/punter Louie Sakoda, one of a league-high 10 Utes on the all-conference first or second teams, was named the special teams player of the year for the second consecutive season. And BYU’s Harvey Unga was selected as the conference’s freshman of the year.

Calhoun Honored

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was named the American Football Coaches Association 2007 Region 5 Coach of the Year today – and that might be just the first award he receives on the day.

The Mountain West Conference will reveal its all-conference teams and individual awards later today, and Calhoun – who in his first year engineered a five-game turnaround – is expected to run away with that honor.

A year after going 4-8 in Fisher DeBerry’s final year at the academy, Air Force went 9-3 in the regular season, its best since 1998, and will face Cal in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 31.

The AFCA recognizes five regional coaches of the year in each of the association's five divisions: Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), Division II, Division III and NAIA. The winners are selected by active members of the association who vote for coaches in their respective regions and divisions.

The AFCA will announce its five 2007 National Coach of the Year winners at the 2008 AFCA Convention in Anaheim.

The other Football Championship Subdivision winners:
Region 1: (tie) Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia) and Jeff Jagodzinski (Boston College)
Region 2: Sylvester Croom (Mississippi State)
Region 3: Ron Zook (Illinois)
Region 4: Mark Mangino (Kansas)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

So Who's it Going to be?

Good question.

Saturday’s upsets threw the BCS into the kind of turmoil the system’s critics have been predicting for years, and Air Force's opponent in the Dec. 31 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl still is uncertain.

While everything hinges on tonight’s BCS selections, here’s how things look for the Falcons.

There are 10 BCS teams – six conference winners and four at-large selections. The at-large selections would seem to be an additional SEC team (Georgia), an additional Big 12 team (Kansas), Hawaii and then either an additional Pac-10 team (Arizona State) or an additional Big Ten team (Illinois).

If Illinois is pulled into the BCS, there will be enough bowl eligible Pac-10 teams to fill out the conference's bowl tie-ins. That would mean a Pac-10 opponent for Air Force – most likely reeling Cal.

If Arizona State is pulled into the BCS, Air Force would probably face a Big Ten team – possibly Purdue.

We’ll wait and see what happens tonight with the BCS selections.