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Don't judge AFA too soon


Air Force football followers have been enjoying life this week, relishing the Falcons' impressive 23-3 road victory at Wyoming.

And why not? Wyoming was favored to win by a field goal, and the Cowboys came in with much more experience as well as a significant opening victory over Ohio (the same bunch that took a 14-12 lead over Ohio State into the fourth quarter a week later). Also, Wyoming was hungry to avenge a controversial (from that side, anyway) defeat last year in Colorado Springs.

Instead, the Falcons came up with a superior defensive performance, turning a 3-3 halftime standoff into a convincing win to go 2-0 for the young season. But before AFA fans start expecting great things in 2008, they might be smart to hold off.

Granted, it's tempting to compare thumping Wyoming with Air Force's first road game of last year, a huge 20-12 conquest at Utah that more than any other single game propelled the Falcons onward to their 9-4 season.

But that would be overreacting. Wyoming wasn't as good as expected, and sophomore quarterback Dax Crum succumbed to frustration when he wasn't able to solve Air Force's opportunistic defense. More notably, the AFA offense struggled all day, excepting one 74-yard option run by sophomore Kyle Halderman, which set up the touchdown that put the Falcons in control. Take out that play, and Air Force totaled only 187 rushing in 62 snaps, or an insufficient 3.0 yards a carry.

Senior quarterback Shea Smith, facing his first difficult test in his second outing as a starter, made too many wrong decisions on options, and his passing produced only three completions for 15 yards. And that was against a defense intent on stopping the run, and vulnerable to the pass.

Air Force escaped this time. But without developing much more confidence and success throwing the ball, the Falcons won't go very far in the weeks ahead. It didn't help, either, that junior backup quarterback Eric Herbort quit the team last week after entering preseason drills No. 1 on the depth chart, then slipping behind Smith. The timing was unfortunate, because Herbort probably would have gotten a shot at Wyoming when Smith kept having troubles. The coaches weren't ready to put in promising freshman Tim Jefferson for that kind of situation.

Instead, now the Air Force staff has to give Jefferson some decent playing time this week against Houston (1:30 p.m., Saturday, CBS-College Sports), preferably not in a mop-up role during the game that has been moved to Dallas.

Then Sept. 20 brings Utah to Falcon Stadium. That's a scary proposition for Air Force, having no backup quarterbacks with varsity experience under pressure, especially considering that head coach Troy Calhoun's offense is geared more to balance and taking advantage of defenses.

It's actually a break to be playing Houston, which just gave up a whopping 699 yards in a 56-37 loss at Oklahoma State. That doesn't mean Air Force will handle the Cougars, who went 8-5 and played in the Texas Bowl (a 20-13 loss to TCU) last year. Their wide-open offense is fully capable of outscoring Air Force if the Falcons aren't able to control the ball and make enough big plays.

Then again, using the quicker Jefferson might help Air Force against an opponent like Houston, which has plenty of team speed but has been inconsistent.

Otherwise, Calhoun might want to approach Herbort about reconsidering his decision to focus on academics.

It's true that Air Force's defense looks fine, able to compensate for a slower-jelling offense. But Calhoun's equation for a winning year has to include an offense that shares the load and keeps the defense from wearing down too soon. In other words, either Smith has to start running the show more effectively, making the right choices and throwing better, or perhaps Calhoun will have to throw Jefferson into the deep water and hope for the best.

Otherwise, with Brigham Young, Utah and TCU all 2-0 and looking formidable, the Falcons will have a hard time rising above fourth in the Mountain West Conference.

Sports Shot

Excellent hire Colorado College hockey coach Scott Owens filled his vacant assistant spot with a great catch, luring much-respected Mike Guentzel away from Don Lucia's staff at Minnesota.

Week 1 surprise Denver never expected to be the only AFC West team at 1-0, with a chance now to go two games up on San Diego.

Cable addition Comcast now has the Big Ten Network on channel 181, including live games each week but you must subscribe to a reasonably priced "sports tier" to get it.

Don't miss it Lots of good games Saturday, topped by a much-anticipated showdown, Ohio State at Southern Cal, 6 p.m., ABC.

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