With the Irish in an early 0-2 hole this season, most Notre Dame fans assumed the Irish would right the ship. But history didn’t necessarily share that rosy outlook. Seven Irish teams have stumbled out of the gates in their opening two games. Only two of the teams have come back to have winning seasons, with one coming in 1896 when the Irish rallied to a 4-3 record.
Yet Notre Dame’s Saturday date with 3-1 Air Force, set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, gives the Irish a chance to get back “on schedule” heading into the bye week. Sure, 4-2 wasn’t the start optimistic Irish fans were looking for in the six-game gauntlet the Irish had to face to open the season, but four-straight wins gives the Irish momentum heading into a much needed bye week before a certain team from Southern California comes to visit. But before any attention is turned to that October 22nd showdown, Brian Kelly‘s squad needs to take care of business for the fourth week in a row.
The match-ups looks ugly on paper. Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage, with its starting five of Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever out-weighing the Air Force defensive front by an average of sixty pounds a man. Almost just as incredibly, the Irish starting defensive line outweighs the Air Force offensive line by 35 pounds.
Of course, Air Force will never be a paper champion and the Irish have shown that being a prohibitive favorite doesn’t mean anything if you’re prone to making big mistakes. And the multiplicity of Air Force’s offense, a unit that stretches the Irish defense more than any other team on the schedule, makes Saturday afternoon’s game a riveting chess match.
But before we get to the game, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Air Force at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)
1. Air Force’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s rush defense: Something’s got to give.
Pop quiz: Of the top twenty defenses in the country against the run, there’s only one team that’s yet to play a Non-AQ or FCS opponent: Notre Dame.
That’s what makes the Irish rush defense all the more impressive. It’s also what makes the showdown between Air Force’s run game, putting up 364 yards a game and ranked 3rd in the country, so absolutely intriguing.
The catalyst for it all is senior running back Asher Clark. The All-Mountain West running back has averaged 5.7 yards a carry the last two seasons, but has taken his game to the next level this year, averaging 9.3 yards per carry this year on 41 carries.
We’ve already charted it out, but the guys at One Foot Down did some nice work off of my breakdown. Irish opponents are running for just 36.5% of their average rushing yards. If Air Force only runs for 132 yards on Saturday, expect the Irish to win pretty convincingly.
2. “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.”
Saturday afternoon will be a special one for Don and Kim Niklas. They’ll watch their son Austin, a junior linebacker for Air Force battle their son Troy, a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. With the brothers competing against each other for one of the first times in their lives, it’s not surprising that Austin is getting tactical.
“I’ve been trying to call him, but he hasn’t been calling me back,” Troy said.
The two brothers certainly are contrasts in styles. Lightly recruited out of Orange Country powerhouse Servite High, Austin took a late recruiting visit to Air Force and committed just before signing day. Troy was the Los Angeles Times’ defensive lineman of the year, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete had his choice of schools around the country before pulling the trigger for the Irish.
While Troy certainly traveled the more heralded path to college, it’s pretty clear that he’s continued to look up to his brother, even if that’s physically impossible for a guy now four inches taller.
“Every time I see him, I remember how proud I am to be his little brother,” Niklas said. “I know he busts his butt every day. I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force and for choosing to serve our country. Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day – it is the Air Force Academy and it’s not easy to play football and have a large course-load.”
(If you don’t know the quote, shame on you.)
3. Expect to see a change of pace quarterback get into the football game.
Brian Kelly gave a good scoop to his radio show listeners on Thursday night when answering a now weekly question about his still unused quarterbacks sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.
“We’re going to employ a special package with somebody, but I’m not going to tell you who,” Kelly said. “It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix. We’re going to let you come to the game Saturday and see for yourself.”
If the Irish do finally turn to one of their dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see a dose of running from either Hendrix or Golson. And after spending spring, summer and fall camp with the two quarterbacks, Kelly has tailored his game plan to finally allow one of them to see the field.
“They have some outstanding skill-sets but they don’t have the whole offense down,” Kelly said. “So what we’ve decided to do is not give them the whole thing. We’ve really tried to segment out some things that they can handle because when you put them in you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”
If you’re taking odds on who the quarterback’s going to be, Kelly may have already given that answer away.
At the radio show, Kelly declined to mention what quarterback was spending time playing Tim Jefferson this week, citing the fact that the quarterback who did that spent all his time with the scout team and didn’t work with the No. 1 offense, making him unlikely to see the field. But earlier in the week, Kelly mentioned that Everett Golson was turning heads playing Jefferson against the number one defense.
Unless Kelly’s really coy, expect to get your first dose of Andrew Hendrix on Saturday.
4. The special teams needle points strongly in Air Force’s direction.
If there’s a facet of the football game where the Irish are dangerously out-matched, it’s in special teams. The Falcons third-segment might be one of the strongest in the nation and should stretch the Irish in an area where they’ve struggled to do just about anything right.
Looking for reasons to worry? Notre Dame has struggled kicking field goals and Air Force has already blocked three kicks this year. Air Force is averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and the Irish are a woeful 117th defending them. Add to that wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka already has two 100-yard kickoff returns to his name, and Kelly needs his whole coaching staff to pick up the slack.
“I think we all know on the other end which players have to play better,” Kelly said. “But we have to coach better too. This is not just on Mike Elston. He can’t run that whole group by himself. He’s got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it and they have to coach better, and we have to get more out of our guys.”
From a personnel standpoint, both Elston and Kelly hinted that changes are coming. The Irish will be looking to add better speed and talent to help spring a punt return and also have been looking for alternatives in their anemic punt return game.
“We’ve got a couple other people lined up along with John Goodman,” Kelly said. “There’s a good chance you’ll see a couple of different guys out there for punt return.”
5. A week after Ricardo Allen took his shot, Anthony Wright is up to challenge Michael Floyd.
Troy Calhoun’s too smart of a coach to announce it, but expect senior cornerback Anthony Wright to follow Michael Floyd around the field this Saturday. While it didn’t work for Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, Wright feels like he’s game.
“He’s a great player,” Wright told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “But I’m a great player, too.”
At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Wright doesn’t profile well in his quest to cover Floyd, who presents another match-up nightmare for Air Force. But it’s hard to find anybody that can physically match-up with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd, a guy that absolutely had his way in both the passing and running game last Saturday against one of Purdue’s most talented players.
“If I’m matched up against him, I’m going to try to be the best corner in the country on Saturday, against arguably the best receiver in the country,” Wright said.
How Air Force tries to take Floyd away could be the early story of the game. When tasked with getting Floyd involved in the game plan early, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees look early and often for Floyd, using the senior receiver in different ways and finding him on the second play of the game for a long touchdown reception.
Floyd’s not the only guy capable of catching passes for the Irish, who also have mismatches in guys like Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. It’s just up to them to keep pace with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver.
6. The Irish’s ability to play a two-gap defense is a thing of beauty.
With Louis Nix in the middle, and defensive ends like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson (who is a game-time decision on Saturday after taking off his walking boot), the Irish are capable of playing a true two-gap defense, something that Troy Calhoun really admired.
“What’s hard to find and see in college football in this day and age are bodies big enough against these offensive lines to stand up and play two-gap defensive football and yet they do it,” Calhoun said of the Irish defense. “I think by and large, when you look at the NFL and you look at college football, there are so few teams that truly try to play at least 30 snaps a game in two-gap defense. I think more people are inclined to line a guy up and say I have this gap, in between the guard and the tackle or the center and the guard,and I’m going to nest in there and I’m going to find a way to generate penetration, I’m not going to get cut off, I’m not going to get reach. It’s amazing what they do with the two gap scheme, not only with their defensive ends but their outside linebackers. It goes back to having talented players, and they’re briefed and they’re prepared.”
Of course, just because the Irish can play a two-gap front doesn’t mean they’ll do it against Air Force. The amount of responsibility that falls on young players like sophomores Nix and Prince Shembo and freshmen Troy Niklas, Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch might make holding the point of attack while reading the offense difficult.
Kelly has already mentioned that Johnson is shifting inside on the defensive line, making you think a guy like Darius Fleming might line up opposite Lewis-Moore in a four man front. If the Irish do, they’ll need to make sure the Irish play sound option principles while keeping their defensive backs ready for the play-action passing game, something Jefferson has been incredibly efficient with.
Don’t think for one minute that the Air Force coaching staff hasn’t seen the tape of Gary Gray struggling to get his head around in single coverage. Expect a deep shot early on Gray, and it’ll be up to the senior corner who has been in good position throughout his struggles, to adapt his technique and look back for the football.