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BYU battles for second

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Sporting identical 2-1 records in Mountain West Conference play, BYU and Air Force are entrenched in a race for second place behind league-leading Utah.

Neither team can afford another loss, which means Saturday's showdown (1 p.m., Ch. 14) at Falcon Stadium carries major implications.

"Obviously, it's a very important football game to both BYU and to Air Force," said Falcon coach Fisher DeBerry. "It looks like right now that everybody is scrambling for second place in the conference so every game of these next five we have left will be very important. Hopefully, our team will be up to playing our best football. I think we're getting better in each ball game and hopefully that will be good enough to help us down the stretch."

The Falcons have 11 freshmen contributors on their roster (the most during DeBerry's 21-year tenure) and leading that group of first-year players is starting quarterback Shaun Carney. He's so new to the program that he isn't even listed, or mentioned, in the Air Force media guide.

Going into the 2004 season, the Falcons were faced with the challenge of having to replace two-year starter Chance Harridge. The top candidate to take his spot, Adam Fitch, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon injury in his right foot during spring ball.

Months later, during fall camp, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Carney won the job and became the first freshman QB since Dee Dowis in 1986 to start any game for the Falcons.

Of course, he has gone through the expected growing pains. Yet Carney, who hails from North Olmsted, Ohio, and played last season at the Air Force Academy Prep School, has been impressive. While he averages 61 yards per game rushing, his real strength is his arm.

Through six games, he has completed 70 percent of his passes (61 of 87) for 841 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. In his last four contests, Carney has connected on 42 of 57 passes for 613 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

BYU coach Gary Crowton said Carney is a better passer than past Air Force quarterbacks he's seen.

"He's younger, so he makes a few mistakes at times, but he throws well," Crowton said. "He's an accurate passer. The biggest difference is his passing and accuracy. He throws the ball like he's not a freshman at Air Force. He's still learning the triple option, but he does it well, and he'll get better and better at it. They've got a good one there."

DeBerry calls Carney "a tremendous competitor." And, though he's a freshman, Carney knows all about the importance of Saturday's game against league rival BYU. He understands the recent history of the two programs.

The Cougars humbled the Falcons three years ago in Provo, 63-33. But the Falcons have won the last two meetings — 52-9 in Colorado Springs in 2002 and 24-10 in Provo last year.

"I know it's not just another game. Players I knew before I came here told me that this is a rivalry," Carney told the Denver Post. "I'm learning more about the rivalry all the time, but I've learned it's not just another Mountain West Conference game."

Sounds like Carney is a fast learner on and off the field.

ANOTHER FRESHMAN STANDOUT: BYU's media relations department is promoting the accomplishments of freshman receiver Austin Collie by sending e-mails to media outlets around the nation. Collie leads all freshmen in receiving yards (437) and receptions per game (5.3). He has hauled in four touchdown catches, all of which have been 40 yards or more.

THE BLUE AND THE GRAY: Air Force backup quarterback Andy Gray is a native of Phoenix, Ariz., but his parents, Jon and Diane, now make Salt Lake City their home. Three of Gray's siblings live in the Provo area and, as the youngest of six children, he is the only child not to attend BYU. He served a two-year LDS Church mission to South Africa.

Gray and Cougar starting quarterback John Beck competed against each other in high school in Arizona. Gray played for Deer Valley High School while Beck played for Mountain View.

FIVE MORE YEARS: DeBerry, who is in his 21st season at the helm, agreed to a five-year contract extension on Sept. 9. He is the winningest coach in service academy football history. Air Force has not experienced a losing season since 1993.

Cougars on the air

BYU (3-4, 2-1) at Air Force (3-3, 2-1)

Saturday, 1 p.m.

TV: KJZZ, Ch. 14

Radio: KSL 1160AM

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com