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John Blanchette: Both Air Force, Washington State offenses prove balance is more about perception that percentages

PHOENIX – The solution to anything in sports is more of something, or less.

Life, too. After all, how many celebrity tell-alls do we have to endure where the secret to happiness is revealed to be Balance – less of the ego nutrients of stardom and excess, more of the grounding provided by family and an embrace of the simple things? Achieved with the aid of live-in nannies and private jets to sidestep the stress of another backup at TSA screening, naturally.

But back to sports and the Cheez-It Bowl.

Where balance has come to die.

The arrival of the Air Force Academy in Washington State’s field of vision is a timely dose of something that isn’t quite irony. You’ll remember that in their last episode, the Cougars reacted in ever-more redundant fashion against a Washington defensive alignment daring them to run the football. Dare ignored, the Cougs chucked it 62 times and lost to rival Washington by the usual three touchdowns.

Yet now comes along an opponent who exceeds even the Cougs in one-track excess, albeit in reverse proportion.

But do you suppose in defeat that Falcons coach Troy Calhoun engenders the same barstool and chat room despair as Wazzu’s Mike Leach? Even with Air Force’s beloved triple-option Flexbone offense pushing 40 years old, does anybody hit Calhoun with, “Coach, why can’t you pass it even a little more?”

“Hey, if you watched one of our practices,” he insisted, “you’d think we throw the heck out of it. We’re invested in the passing game. We just don’t do it that often.”

Sounds like the way the rest of us are invested in the honey-do list.

Only joking. The Junior Birdmen are too good at it to not be invested.

Balance, you see, is in the eye of manipulator.

The Falcons might rush for nearly 300 yards a game, but they also lead the nation in passing efficiency. Averaging nearly 25 yards per reception helps. Senior Geraud Sanders, in fact, is the national leader in that particular department.

On the other side, Wazzu’s Air Raiders top the nation in passing yardage, of course. But every time he runs the ball, Max Borghi gains more ground than all but eight other college backs, something not lost on the teeth-gnashers among Cougar devotees.

Think he might do OK in the Flexbone?

“We were hoping maybe he could wear a lightning bolt on his helmet,” allowed Calhoun, whose school is 100 minutes down I-25 from Borghi’s home.

Likewise, imagining Sanders in Wazzu’s lineup can be tantalizing – enough so that he sometimes does himself.

“I was in a spread offense in high school,” said Sanders, a Texan who originally committed to Northwestern. “We threw the ball 50 times a game. It would be cool to catch 15 balls a game.

“But it’s just as cool to block for your running back, knowing it may be what let him score. Even when you catch balls for touchdowns, you didn’t do it by yourself. And when it is time to throw, there’s a high chance the ball is going to come to me, so I’m going to make a play on it because you don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”

Said Falcons safety Jeremy Fejedelem, “Geraud would be one of their top receivers, if not their top receiver.”

But it’s still a fact that Sanders is at home in an offense that runs the ball 85% of the time, just as the Cougars air it out 79% of the time. It’s a choice, based on philosophy and evening the playing field.

“If you go back and look, 50 years ago, the Air Force Academy was one of the leading passing teams in the country under coach (Ben) Martin,” said Calhoun, once a Flexbone quarterback at the Academy. “Because you had to be. At a service academy, you had to do something that was a little unique. And quite frankly, you have to in some degree in a Corvallis or a Pullman.”

The triple option arrived in the years after Ken Hatfield succeeded Martin – with a year of Bill Parcells in between, trivia buffs. Why that reverse evolution?

“Once the rules changed and you could extend your hands and weren’t required to block solely with your forearms, the game went one direction,” Calhoun said, “and we had to go another.”

But in that time, the Falcons have had eight seasons of 10 wins or more, and averaged more than seven wins a season – just as Leach has the Cougs averaging nearly eight wins en route to five straight bowl games.

So a happy contrast for a mostly afterthought bowl game – though Leach isn’t necessarily buying this duel of offensive extremes.

“They have more in common than they’re different,” he said. “Both attack the whole field. Both put it in all the skill players’ hands.”

Both give balance a decent burial. Could be a fun funeral.