- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Air Force defensive lineman Gilberto Perez made no mistake about the focus of the Falcons football team this season.

“That is what our motto is this season,” he said. “‘Return to Dominance.’ It starts this week.”

Perez and the rest of this year’s senior class were either seniors in high school or at the Air Force Prep School in 2002 when the Falcons defeated Navy and Army for the sixth consecutive season and ensured the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy would remain in Colorado Springs for the 13th time in 14 seasons.

But Air Force came up short by three points against Navy in 2003. And three points short in 2004. And three points short in 2005. Then Air Force lost to Army last year for the first time since 1996.

After years of being the unquestioned kings of academy football, the Falcons have had two losing seasons, and more importantly, fallen behind Navy. Their first chance to restore the previous order comes this Saturday, when Air Force (2-1) plays host to the Midshipmen (4-1) at Falcon Stadium.

“After holding the trophy for so long, it is one of those issues where it’s like, ‘OK, it has been gone long enough. We need to get it back,’” senior defensive back Chris Sutton said. “Any time Air Force and Navy play it is a big game. Our fans are really getting into it, more than in past years.”

While junior Shaun Carney is in his third season as the starting quarterback and could still own many Air Force program records when his career is over, the Falcons have re-committed to the running game this season. The Falcons are third in the nation in rushing yards (behind Navy and West Virginia) at 290.0 per contest. Three players — running backs Chad Hall and Ryan Williams and Carney — are in the top 50 in the nation in rushing yards per game.

The Air Force defense has also greatly improved. The Falcons are eighth in the nation in rushing yards allowed and fourth in turnover margin.

“I am really pleased with how the defense has played. We’ve played with an attitude and effort and a lot of passion,” Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry said. “Now whether that will be good enough on Saturday or not we’ll have to see.”

While the Mids have defeated Air Force by a combined nine points in the past three meetings, the past two have been particularly stinging defeats. Carney was brilliant two years ago and led the Falcons on a 12-play march to tie the game 21-21 with a little more than two minutes to play, but Navy came right back and won with a 30-yard field goal.

Last season the Falcons controlled play for most of the game and led by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. But the Mids got a long touchdown run from Reggie Campbell and then a shanked punt set up a 46-yard field goal in the driving rain by Joey Bullen for one of the most improbable endings in the series history.

“It is always a hard fought game,” Perez said. “It seems like we keep getting up early, but we keep letting them back in the game and they win it at the end. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot at times, but I think this is a different team.”

This is the last chance for Perez and the rest of the Falcons seniors. Since DeBerry took over the Air Force football program, no senior class has ever not won the CIC trophy at some point in their careers. Not only is it an opportunity to erase three years of sour memories, it is a chance to turn the momentum in this intense rivalry.

“As long as I have been the head coach here that has been the No. 1 goal of our program is to win the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy,” DeBerry said. “We were able to keep it for a while, but we let it get away and Navy has had it for a few years. Now we’re trying to regain it and bring it home.”

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