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Thursday, October 17, 2002
Updated: October 18, 12:54 PM ET
Falcons, Irish are season's most pleasant surprises

By Chris Fowler
Special to ESPN.com

When the two most pleasant surprises of the season's first half kick off the second semester of College Football '02, in quite possibly the last battle of unbeatens this regular season, that's good stuff.

Notre Dame got a total of three points in the preseason AP poll. Air Force got nothin' from nobody. Fisher DeBerry and Tyrone Willingham are among the top five head coaches in the country at the moment, and both are strong candidates for coach of the year.

Whose mojo and moxie will win out? The Cardiac Cadets have made decisive game winning plays in the final series three times so far (vs. New Mexico in OT, at Cal, and at Utah). Notre Dame has ... well you know the ways they've won.

Chance Harridge directs a potent AFA attack.
I can't wait for our second GameDay show from the Air Force Academy. Last year's, when Army visited, was more a tribute to the soldier/student/athletes of our service branches. We still feel the same admiration. But Saturday's visit is for the weekend's most compelling game.

Gimme that pure blue sky, crisp air, and breathtaking mountain view. My heart leaps when I drive onto the grounds of the Academy. West Point on-the-Hudson is beautiful, dripping with old-school history. Annapolis has charm (and some great bars). But I'll take the Rampart Range and evergreen trees framing the steel and glass of the Air Force chapel any day.

And I'll certainly take the Falcons over the Cadets and Midshipmen these days. Air Force looks like a good football team. I don't mean they play well. They do, of course. But I mean they now look like a Division 1-A outfit now. They are not as impressive on the hoof as a Tennessee or Texas (let's be real), but from watching tape and then practice this week, I was impressed by the obvious upgrades in strength, speed, and athleticism.

Quarterback Chance Harridge is quick, if not stopwatch speedy. He runs the option at a nice tempo and has piloted the flexbone to consecutive turnover-free games -- an obvious key when playing takeaway-crazed Notre Dame. Harridge hasn't completed more than six passes in any of his six games, but his throws have been timely and efficient. However, he will certainly need more than six completions against Notre Dame's stout crew. (Because if that's not the case, it'll be a real long night for the boys from South Bend). More passing is just fine with Harridge, by the way.

Check out the very good story on him by Ted Miller on this site.

The Falcons O-line is also playing superbly now (they wanted some pub from ESPN, too), and the backs are a young, quick group. Air Force's red zone performance is the envy of any team: 38 chances (a ton in six games), 28 TDs, seven field goals, three "empties." In goal-to-go situations, The Force has 19 touchdowns in 22 tries! That's the military efficiency that was missing last season.

Kicking game
Air Force has a very solid kicker (Joey Ashcroft, whose uncle John is the Attorney General) and improved special teams. Since '97, only the mighty Virginia Tech special teams have blocked more kicks than the Falcons' 78.

Last year's squad was unsound by DeBerry's standards. Air Force allowed opponents to score in the following ways: blocked punt, punt return, kickoff return, interception return, and fumble return! I have not asked our research ace Chris Fallica, but it is my humble guess that no other team in the nation last season allowed so many creative touchdowns. The charity hasn't been there in 2002, but then they haven't yet faced the Irish, have they?

The weakness may still be punt and kickoff coverage. That is an area Notre Dame can exploit. A huge return Saturday night could turn the game.

Defense
The Air Force defense runs well and swarms into the backfield from defensive coordinator Richard Bell's unorthodox 3-3-5 scheme. It's the first year for this wrinkle, and opposing offenses are clearly confused by exactly where and when the Falcons will send pressure. A blitz is on about 85 percent of the time, with inside linebackers walking up into gaps and often coming unblocked, hitting backs nano-seconds after the handoff.

The Falcons are still not big (no Air Force defense ever will be), but they are deceptively physical. Just as importantly, they play with what Bell (an ol' southern lunch pail coach) says is a nasty, ornery, don't take nothin' from nobody attitude.

Dick Butkus and wild boars
I've written before here about inside backer Anthony Schlegel, the first sophomore captain in Academy history. He wears No. 51 in honor of Dick Butkus. Folded carefully in his wallet is a piece of hotel notepaper containing a personalized autograph from the linebacking legend. The paper is ripped a bit at the folds, and Schlegel's meaty linebacker paws handle it tenderly when he's asked to unfold it.

He also carries a signed, laminated Butkus football card to the locker room each game. He hands it to an administrative assistant, who in turn delivers it to Coach Bell before kickoff. Only Bell is trusted to keep the card safely in his pocket during games. After, Schlegel gets it back.

It's refreshing to see a college player who shows interest and reverence in the greats of the past. Schlegel talks with awe about the NFL films footage of Butkus with hands gnarled and bloodied, steam from his mouth coming through the old cage facemask. He's also got a ton of respect for modern monster Ray Lewis, whom he says plays like Butkus with more speed. It's no surprise that he's also a big Brian Urlacher fan. But all Anthony's discussions of great middle backers start and end with Butkus.

If he keeps playing like he is, Schlegel may get to meet his idol again, in Orlando, as a finalist for the Butkus award. He had 17 tackles against Utah, 10 versus Navy, and eight tackles (two for loss) with a pick in the destruction of BYU. Some teammates credit his energy and relentless fire for the second half shutout (24-0) in the huge comeback at Utah.

But Schlegel's not quite the hunter of wild boar he claims to be. That's according to his best buddies (they call each other "brothers") on the Falcons defense. Schelegel paints a picture of shirtless rampages through the West Texas brush, chasing down 300-pound hogs and finishing them with a knife. Teammate Trevor Hightower (a fellow Texan, as most of the defense seems to be) calls "bull" on the pig stories.

He told me it's not that savage. And besides, none of Schlegel's teammates have actually witnessed any conquests. They're skeptical. Even Schlegel himself admits the last time he went hunting, he came back with no pig, but did catch a nasty case of poison ivy from a losing battle with some thick brush.

Fact or semi-fiction, Schlegel (when pushed) will compare hunting down wild hogs to chasing down ball carriers. The difference, he says: you can't stab a running back when you catch him. No, Anthony, that would cost you more than 15 yards. He seemed to lament that reality.

His teammates laugh at the madman image, though. Hey, the guy taught Sunday school to third graders while he attended the Academy's Prep School. Sometimes, he'll pick out one of his ex-students in the stands as they holler, "Mr. Anthony."

Fellow Falcons say Schlegel's a nice, often goofy guy. Apparently, he walks around wearing cammos cut off into shorts and a size small-to-medium t-shirt to show the bulging pipes with matching barbed wire ink. Is that regulation?

Schlegel told me that on a 1-10 scale of military spit and polish (one being Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy," 10 being the recruiting poster boy), he is a mediocre five -- and that was being kind to himself. Shirts are not always ironed to military standards. Demerits used to pile up faster than he could count, until wily coach Fisher DeBerry took him for a little ride to visit with his military supervisor. Reality of academy life was emphasized. Since the meeting, Anthony's demerits have slowed to a comparative trickle, while his tackles have piled up instead.

If you watch Notre Dame-Air Force Saturday night on ESPN (and you should, buddy, if you're a fan), keep an eye out for the guy in Butkus' number. We've got a Schlegel feature on GameDay, too.

Falcons favored
It surprised me a bit to see the Air Force a field goal favorite over Notre Dame. Vegas' view is much different than the pollsters.' They rank the Falcons just 18th in AP, 11 spots below Notre Dame. The Air Force players were stunned, too.

It would've been a 1000-1 in August, but Air Force and Notre Dame could be the regular season's final collision of unbeatens. The only other potentially perfect match up is V-Tech and Miami, and that's way down the line in December, with the Hokies and Hurricanes needing to win 11 games between them to set it up.

Some preseason mags had the Falcons as low as 80th out of 117 teams. Boy, they must be wearing out the already tired "no respect" refrain, right? Beating their chests after each win and shouting to the legions of doubters, "WHADDAYA THINK NOW?!"

Uh, not exactly, sir.

Even when prodded, you can't induce the Falcons into any venomous speeches about spitting in the pollsters' eyes for their disrespect. They're not singling out Street and Smith or Kenneth Massey's computer or anything else for external motivation this season. They don't need to. How refreshing.

In a season in which top teams in huge games have singled out P.A. announcers and retired coaches (not to mention end-of-pregame show prognosticators) as key motivational forces, it's good to the Falcons' own pride and goals are more than enough for them. Just because Florida took huge offense to the head coach's name being pronounced "Zuke" during the warm-up at Tennessee, don't think the Falcons need to hear Fisher "do-beer-eee" said to get them stoked. Ex-Falcons head coach Bill Parcells (he coached Air Force in 1978) will not need to tell Dan Patrick's radio audience that he doesn't believe Air Force is "man enough" to stop Notre Dame.

I don't even think Mr. Corso wearing a the leprechaun's hat, Paul Hornung's Heisman ring, or Ty Willingham's boxers under a plaid kilt borrowed from the Irish Guard on Saturday morning would raise their blood pressure at kickoff one bit. Hmmm. Corso in a kilt? May be the ratings boost we're always seeking.

By the way, it's now essential for a huge portion of viewers to tune in to GameDay to see whom Mr. Corso is picking ... against. Hey, that's all you can ask for, that a prognosticator be consistent, one way or the other!

Other Falcons
The media has discovered Bowling Green, Ohio. The "other" unbeaten Falcons are ranked for the first time in 17 years. At age 38, Urban Meyer is now a hot coach. Quarterback Josh Harris is a trendy Heisman finalist darkhorse.

So how come coach Meyer labels BGSU a "bad program?" He used that label this week, honest. What he means is that his team is good, but the overall strength of the program is not. The Falcons are so paper thin, with injuries piling up to key starters, that open auditions have been held in recent weeks, the campus combed for able bodied men fit to fill out the special teams, etc.

This is unusual stuff for a team ranked in the top 25, folks. Decimated last Saturday, the Falcons used two blocked punts to outlast Central Michigan, 45-35. In the fourth quarter, three freshmen were manning the secondary and a few more the front seven! Meyer had simply run out of strong side linebackers!

Western Michigan is not that imposing a team, but the Broncos do pitch it around pretty well and were very stubborn in losses to Michigan, Purdue, and Virginia Tech. Harris needs to plan to keep running and throwing for big numbers.

The rivalry finale with revenge-minded Toledo looks like the toughest MAC game. A road game at South Florida (which just beat Southern Mississippi) will provide the most athletic challenge to Bowling Green. It'd be fun to see the Falcons arrive to the MAC titles game unbeaten, facing powerful Marshall.

Curry Kirkpatrick was part of the press posse there this week. His feature on the Falcons will be a part of GameDay Saturday.

Ramblings
Speaking of the Herd, did you catch Byron Leftwich's first half stats in the woodshed job with Buffalo? How about 447 yards, four touchdowns? In a half! Leftwich has been somewhat forgotten in the Heisman hype for Seneca Wallace.

That'll build to an avalanche if Wallace can engineer a win in Norman Saturday. The trophy can just be mailed to Ames if the Cyclones beat OU AND Texas the next two weeks, then follows with wins at K-State and Colorado in November.

Are you kidding me, Big 12? That schedule is an absolute joke. It's patently unfair to saddle Iowa State with four road games against the cream of the conference in five weeks, sandwiched around a home date with Missouri. Yeah, and that's just a little breather, too, right?

Like many conferences, the Big 12 uses computer programs to spit out schedules. God, another thing we can blame computers for. But that product of dubious programming needs to be humanly (and humanely) corrected. It would have been if the team in question was Nebraska or Texas. Bank on it.

First semester flops
The flipside of Notre Dame, Air Force, and Bowling Green are Florida, Syracuse, and BYU.

Florida is struggling more than I ever imagined they would in Ron Zook's debut year. Taken to the Swamp's woodshed from tough, well-coached but basically one-dimensional LSU? The Gators are breaking down in all areas.

For an offense with Rex Grossman to score seven points in the last 90 minutes of football (including a scoreless drought of 51:38 spanning two games) is mind-boggling. Rex is one of my favorite players, but he's developed some bad habits. He's clearly pressing, forcing things. He's not close to being on the same page as his receivers and his apparent lack of confidence in his O-line (can you blame him?) has him consistently throwing off his back foot, or "bailing out," to use slang. He's even doing this when he's not in danger of being sacked.

Syracuse left its squashed heart on the turf of Jordan-Hare Stadium a few weeks ago. A 2-10 season is a real possibility. Anything better than 4-8 is a pipe dream, the way the Orange looked in a loss at Temple. Buzzards are circling the Carrier Dome.

BYU looked good in smacking Syracuse in the opener, but just finished a brutal four-game road swing at 1-3, thanks only to the biggest comeback win in its' history at Utah State. The ESPN2 humiliation at Air Force was stunning, prompting a celebration by fans of the Cougars' rivals in the Mountain West (and even the old WAC foes). At 3-3, with a schedule that's softening up now, the Cougs can still rebound. Let's see if the QB change helps.

Other midseason gripes
1. The officials. Wow, it's been the worst season I can recall for the poor zebras. Calls are being blown weekly, exposed by clear evidence from TV replays. Many conferences have featured poor calls, but it's gotten really bad in the Big Ten. I can't really blame Joe Paterno for complaining, although I think it would probably be a good idea to move on now.

2. JoePa's postgame crankiness. I respect Paterno immensely, but I cannot understand his reluctance to accept the time-honored tradition of the postgame media routine. He bolted at Michigan after about 2:30, and made all Penn State players off limits. A columnist who complained in print about it was treated to a hot glare from Joe at Tuesday's media rehash.

Hey, I know it's gotta be gut-twisting to lose two overtime games in three weeks, but these guys are adults, at least legally. They can go to war, drive an Escalade, and a good chunk of them can even legally chug beers at the Rathskeller. They can handle a few questions from a mostly sympathetic media corps, too. Putting on a brave face, handling situations with grace and poise and being accountable are those parts of being an adult. Players become public figures when accept scholarships to play in front of 105,000 people and all those revenue-generating TV cameras. Anyway, I guess Joe will now glare at me next time I see him.

3. Speaking of sheltering players ... I was a bit disappointed that Mack Brown is still protecting Chris Simms from questioners who bring up his big-game struggles. Mack cut off the questioner, who was asking a fair question and not in antagonistic manner.

Simms does not dodge the tough questions, answering honestly and maturely for a guy who knows he will be barbequed in the papers and talk shows the following week. By the way, the focus will again be put on Simms for Texas' failure in Dallas. As regular readers know, that surprised me. I thought he and Texas would play much better.

For a third year, they were out-everythinged by Stoops' troops. As for criticism of Simms, some of it is deserved, sure. Simms did not play nearly well enough to help his team win. But, as always there's a bunch of blame to spread around the Burnt Orange nation.

I was a bit mystified to read the quotes of Texas' Roy Williams, who actually said, "We lost to Oklahoma. Big deal. It's not like we lost to Baylor." Big deal, Roy? Last time I checked, the battle of unbeaten arch-rivals was a pretty big deal. The Sooners sure seemed to think so. And as for losing to Baylor ... that might be preferable. You're remembered for the big ones. What do you think more casual fans recall: that Oklahoma beat Texas last year, or that OU lost to Oklahoma State?

Three gripes are enough, for now. Time's up. Hope you will join us on College GameDay from the Air Force- Notre Dame game Saturday.

Chris Fowler is host of ESPN College GameDay