And in that corner… The Air Force Falcons

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Credit Brian Kelly for this: He knows just how dangerous this Air Force football team is. The Irish hadn’t hit the showers after beating Purdue before Kelly and his coaching staff mentally had the team thinking about Troy Calhoun‘s squad, a testament to just how important this football game is.

If Notre Dame handles its business, it walks into the bye week 4-2. Sure, it’s not the lofty number of wins that it had hoped to have, but rattling off four-straight victories after a catastrophic start to the season is the best case scenario for an Irish season that absolutely hinges on the post bye-week match-up with Southern Cal.

But before the Irish can regroup, they’ll face one of their most difficult opponents on the season in Air Force. With an offense that’ll tax the Irish schematically more than any other, Calhoun and the Falcons are well on their way to their fifth straight season of eight wins or more. Coming off a season-defining victory over Navy in Annapolis, the Irish head to Notre Dame Stadium looking to pull a stunning upset and turn a promising Irish run into another potential doomsday scenario.

Covering the Falcons’ beat for the Colorado Springs Gazette, Frank Schwab was kind enough to answer a few questions for me as Irish fans turn their attention to visiting Air Force.

I asked, he answered, you guys read. Fun times.

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Inside the Irish: This Air Force team came into the season with elevated expectations. Four games in, have the Falcons played up to them?

Frank Schwab: Tough to say because the month of September was so odd, with a bye and two FCS opponents. They really only played one meaningful game, and got blown out by TCU. Then the Navy game is another oddity – for about 50 minutes the Falcons dominated that game. And they haven’t won in Annapolis since 1997, so that was a big surprise. But then they give away an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter and have to pull it out in overtime. So even within that game you’re left wondering how good Air Force really is – although I lean on the side of the Falcons being pretty good, because any win for them at Navy is impressive and TCU is simply an awful matchup for them. We’ll find out, though, as October plays out, where their season is headed. It’s a tough month for them (at Navy, at Notre Dame, vs. San Diego State, at Boise State, at New Mexico).

ITI: That game with Navy was pretty incredible, and the ending had Navy crying foul. Irish fans took great pleasure in seeing Navy — always though of as getting a free pass from the refs — get flagged for something pretty blatant, and then having the nerve to complain about it. Is the Navy game the one Air Force circles on the schedule? Where does the match-up with the Irish fit in on the Falcons’ schedule?

FS: Navy has absolutely become the top game on Air Force’s schedule, because before 2010, Navy beat the Falcons seven straight times. That didn’t sit well with Air Force fans. And that rivalry has been heated with close games. So absolutely that game is the top one on the schedule for Air Force. The Notre Dame game is also big, but for totally different reasons. This is the Falcons’ shot at knocking off a big-name nationally-ranked team on network television, and they like that opportunity. Notre Dame doesn’t have the blood feud type of feelings that Navy does, but it’s still a huge game for Air Force.

ITI: You had an interesting exchange with Brian Kelly when discussing Air Force’s offense. Do you see it as an “option” offense? What do you think the biggest challenge Air Force’s offense presents to the Irish defense?

FS: It really isn’t an option offense anymore, at least in the same way Army and Navy run an option offense. A lot of what the Falcons do is with the zone-blocking scheme, stretch plays where the tailback or fullback takes one cut and goes. Tailback Asher Clark has a chance to become Air Force’s all-time leading rusher by the end of this season – something that was unheard of in the Fisher DeBerry Wishbone days. Troy Calhoun is a pretty creative coach, and loved the zone scheme from his days as an assistant with the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan. This is a very multiple offense that has to be very tough to prepare for. They’ll run a ton of plays out of a bunch of formations. Very tough to predict.

ITI: It seems like Air Force has been decimated by injuries. How much will that hurt them this Saturday, especially along a defensive front that’s already struggled against the run?

FS: The defensive line will really be on the spot. The Falcons are down their two best defensive linemen – Zach Payne and Ryan Gardner. The line did hold up well against Navy, I thought they played very well. But Navy doesn’t bring the size Notre Dame has on the offensive line. It’s going to be very difficult for Air Force to break even in that matchup. I’d assume the Irish will run the ball plenty on Saturday.

ITI: We know about Tim Jefferson and Brady Amack had a ridiculous day last week. Give us one player on offense and one player on defense that we’ll likely know after Saturday.

FS: Offensively, it’s Clark. He has played very well this season but hasn’t had a game yet where he gets 18-20 carries and is asked to move the chains. That game is coming; it might be this week. He’s a pretty tough runner who knows how to find the hole and hit it. And he needs to have a good game to help keep Notre Dame’s offense off the field for as long as possible. On defense, watch cornerback Anthony Wright. Wright was an all-conference preseason pick, and I’d be surprised if the Falcons don’t use him to shadow Michael Floyd. Wright is the typical Air Force find – he’s a very good athlete and a heck of a cornerback, but was overlooked by every BCS school, probably because he was a little short and played quarterback in high school. I do think he will hold his own against Floyd, and folks watching the game will be pretty impressed with his skill set.

ITI: Troy Calhoun has done some pretty impressive things since coming to Colorado Springs. What has he meant to the Air Force football program?

FS: When Calhoun took over the program, it was slipping. DeBerry is a hall of fame coach but the Falcons were pretty average by the end of his time at Air Force. The Falcons were very happy Calhoun came to succeed DeBerry – he was an offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans and the Falcons wondered if he was too far along on that career path to come back to college. Calhoun has been the kind of coach who, if he decides to stick around for the majority of his career, will probably have a statue outside Falcon Stadium someday. He is a good football coach and represents the Air Force well – he really believes in its mission and knows there’s more to coming to AFA than being a football player. Air Force AD Hans Mueh said there isn’t a better fit between school and coach in college football than Air Force and Troy Calhoun. He might be right.

ITI: Notre Dame is a heavy favorite in Las Vegas. What does Air Force need to do to win this football game?

FS: I think Air Force needs to definitively win in two areas: special teams and turnover margin. The Falcons’ special teams have been pretty good, although they haven’t had a big day returning kicks yet, but that should be coming because kickoff returner Jonathan Warzeka is really good. Then we all know Notre Dame’s issues with turnovers earlier in the year. Air Force has always thrived off takeaways, and they’ll need a few on Saturday.

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Special thanks to Frank for taking the time from his daily beat to answer a few questions. For more coverage leading up to the game from an opposing viewpoint, check out Frank’s work at the Colorado Springs Gazette and follow him on twitter at @GazetteAirForce.