This is the sixth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. You can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Purdue.
Get ready for a trap. Under head coach Troy Calhoun, Air Force has turned into a formidable foe, and those looking at the Falcons as just a “service academy” would do themselves a favor and get out of the time machine, if Navy didn’t already knock them out of it. It’s been an unprecedented four-year run in Colorado Springs as Air Force welcomes back 14 starters from a squad that won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for the first time in eight years. Offensively, the Falcons return most of their skill talent on a unit that was the NCAA’s No. 2 rushing attack. Defensively, eight starters come back to a group that was among the best in the Mountain West. Last year’s Falcon’s had nine wins and lost close games to Oklahoma, San Diego State and Utah. (TCU beat Air Force 38-7.) There’s plenty of optimism for the 2011 season, though a challenging schedule might make it hard to get to nine wins again.
Last time against the Irish
Rock bottom for Notre Dame. After tying the game 10-10 in the second quarter, the Falcons, led by quarterback Shaun Carney and running back Chad Hall, bulldozed the Irish, winning 41-24, dropping the Irish to 1-9 on a 2007 season that’s the worst in school history.
The Falcons put together 285 yards of rushing and continually harassed quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who returned after missing two games with an injury.
“I really just don’t know what happened,” linebacker Maurice Crum said after the game. “It’s happening, but I just think it’s a dream and I’m going to wake up some day.”
If there was a silver lining, it was the play of Clausen, who threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
“I’d say if there’s one thing you walked out of that game saying, ‘We’ve got ourselves a quarterback,’ ” head coach Charlie Weis said. “He was slinging it pretty good.”
Degree of Difficulty:
Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Air Force as the eighth toughest opponent on the schedule.
8. Air Force
7. South Florida
4. Michigan State
Containing the Air Force rushing attack will be the main focus of Bob Diaco and the Irish defense, as the Falcons averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry last season, racking up over 300 yards on the ground a game. Senior Asher Clark returns, after running for over 1,000 yards on 5.7 yards a carry. He’ll be backed up by a capable duo of Darius Jones and Cody Getz. But if the Irish are going to contain the Falcons, they’ll need to slow down quarterback Tim Jefferson, a guy that may be one of the most under-the-radar players in the country. Jefferson ran for 15 touchdowns last year. He threw for ten more, finishing with a QB efficiency rating that was second-best in school history. He’ll welcome back the majority of his receiving corp and four offensive linemen that played a lot of football.
The Falcons had a top-30 defense in terms of points given up, but they were bad against the run, something defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt will attempt to fix with multiple fronts. He’ll have a nice crew of linebackers back at his disposal, led by Jordan Waiwaiole and Patrick Hennesseey. Also returning after a season-and-a-half of injuries is Ken Lamendola, who led the team with 118 tackles in 2008. Three starters return in a very good secondary, but the Falcons will have to replace Reggie Rembert, one of the best players in recent Air Force history. They’ll still have safety Jon Davis, who finished second on the team in tackles. Cornerback Anthony Wright Jr. has ten career interceptions, joined by Anthony Wooding on the back line. The trio returns to the No. 2 ranked passing defense in the country.
How the Irish will win:
If you’re an optimist, you can point to the Irish’s improvement against against the option with their impressive shutdown of Army in Yankee Stadium last year. Following a similar blueprint, the Irish play a suffocating defense, and physically dominate quarterback Tim Jefferson and running back Asher Clark.
While Air Force will want to control the clock as much as it can, they can’t control Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, as the physicality of the Irish offensive line is too much for Air Force’s undersized defense. Forced to put eight men in the box to stop the run, Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd become uncoverable as well, and the Irish roll into bye week thanks to a dominating defense and an offense that’s finding its stride.
How the Irish will lose:
If the Irish struggle off the bat containing Air Force’s option, look out. With Jefferson at the helm of an experienced offense, the Irish can do nothing to stop the Falcons’ power running game… or the clock. Even if the offense can move the ball against the Falcons, they’ll need to have a razor thin margin for error, as the nation’s best rushing attack will be on display in Notre Dame Stadium.
Forced to play catch-up, the Irish passing offense plays right into the hands of the Air Force defense, and even though the Falcons struggle getting to Dayne Crist, the Irish quarterback won’t find anyone open against a zone defense that seems to multiply defensive backs.
There’s absolutely nothing to like about this football game for the Irish. If they win, they should — it’s against Air Force. If they lose, it’ll throw the Irish into a tailspin heading into their date with USC.
Ultimately, the one saving grace for the Irish is they’re actually getting Air Force at a good time in their schedule. Coming off a date with Navy, the Falcons will play the Irish and conference rival San Diego State before taking on Boise State, a four game stretch that’ll define Troy Calhoun’s season.
It’s hard to say Air Force is the swing game of the season, but if the Irish can stay clean through Air Force and make it to the bye week, they’ll have all the momentum in the world going into a primetime affair with Southern Cal.