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Air Force presents unique challenges

Jared Green
Thursday September 19, 2002

The Cal football team is a shocking 3-0 to start the season. The Golden Bears just took down Michigan State, considered by many to be a favorite to win the Big Ten. This Saturday they play a service academy team, not exactly a traditional football powerhouse. So why do the Bears sound so worried? 

“This is going to be our toughest game of the season,” defensive tackle Daniel Nwangwu said of Cal’s date with Air Force Academy on Saturday. “They have a great attack, and we’re going to have to practice hard to be ready for them.” 

Air Force is the only speed-option team in the nation, almost a relic of football’s past. They run three players out of the backfield, use just one wide receiver and have the heaviest run-pass balance in college football, keeping the ball on the ground 83 percent of the time so far this season. Quarterback Chance Harridge has completed just eight passes in two games, but the Falcons have gained 368.5 rushing yards per game, top in the country. 

Nearly all of the Falcons’ offensive plays start with the fullback plunging into the line. If he actually has the ball, the play stops there. But if Harridge fakes the handoff and sprints out along the line of scrimmage, that’s when things get interesting. The play usually turns into a simple option run with one of the wingbacks ready for a pitch, a play the Bears had trouble defending against New Mexico State two weeks ago.  

Although Harridge is averaging more than four yards per carry, forcing him to keep the ball might be the best option for the Bears. Leading rusher Leotis Palmer averages eight yards every time he touches the ball, while four other Falcons are above seven yards per carry. Then there’s the rare pass play when Harridge steps back and hopes the defense has become so fixated on stopping the run they’ve forgotten about the receivers. Two of Harridge’s eight completions have gone for touchdowns, a ratio that would make any offensive coordinator happy. 

Cal middle linebacker Marcus Daniels will be the key to stopping the option. He has to read the fullback and decide whether to plug the middle or pursue to the outside. One wrong decision by Daniels could mean a long gain for Air Force, and he knows it. 

“They want to influence the linebackers. That’s what their offense is all about,” Daniels said. “We have to stay disciplined on every play. it’s tough to do. If you over-pursue you open the gate for a big play.” 

But there’s a fine line between discipline and hesitance. The main difference between last year’s porous Cal defense and this season’s world-beaters has been confidence and swarming to the ball, a style that has served the Bears well so far. 

“The worst decision is indecision,” Daniels said, repeating the defensive coaches’ mantra for the season. “If you make a mistake, make it full speed.” 

Air Force also offers a unique look on defense, with a rare three-man front and five linebackers who blitz in different combinations on just about every play. The shifting defense and varied looks make it tough to prepare for the Falcons. 

“Sometimes they rush three, sometimes they rush six,” Cal quarterback Kyle Boller said. “You never know who’s coming. You just don’t see this kind of defense too often.” 

The Falcons’ defensive style is a necessity due to the academy’s strict fitness regimen, which keeps the players from bulking up to the usual gargantuan proportions of the average college defensive lineman. The biggest on Air Force’s front line is noseguard Nicholas Taylor, who weighs in at 265 pounds, 20 pounds lighter than any Cal offensive lineman. 

But what the Falcons lack in size they make up for in fitness and desire. Their pursuit is unmatched in the college game and every player can run. 

“They’re not very big, but they’re extremely quick,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said of the Air Force defense. “They have unbelievable intensity out there. There will be times when they make plays on defense.” 

Not too many times, the Bears hope.