In case you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, NBC’s Mike Mayock is a pretty busy guy. Between his duties at the NFL Network, calling home Notre Dame games, Thursday night NFL games, and breaking down tape of just about every draft prospect in college football, the guy doesn’t have a ton of time for things like catching up on primetime television or working on his short game.
So when Mike gave me a few minutes of his time this week to talk Air Force, I did my best to do a lot of listening and scribble down as much as I could on my legal pad.
Here are three things Mayock’s looking for in Saturday afternoon’s game between Notre Dame and Air Force.
The special teams match-up is intriguing.
If you’re looking for a place where Air Force is going to have to make an impact, look no further than special teams.
“If you saw the Air Force-Navy game last week, there was all sorts of craziness,” Mayock said of a rivalry game that saw a fake punt, a blocked field goal and a successful two-point conversion to force overtime. “David Ruffer is only three of seven on the year after only missing one kick last year. If someone can make the big play, it needs to be Air Force, where they can potentially win the game on special teams.”
When I asked Mayock about the Irish’s shoddy special teams play, especially the mediocre punt return game, Mayock had no problem identifying the problem. Probably because he’s been the problem.
“I was John Goodman 30 years ago,” Mayock told me. “I shouldn’t have been a punt returner at Boston College. But I was the returner for security reasons. Coaches get very nervous with ball security on special teams. Goodman has great hands, but not the ability to make people miss.”
Both Goodman and his blockers share the responsibility for the mediocre return situation.
“My Boston College teammates knew I wasn’t going anywhere,” Mayock explained, comparing the lack of blocking he got to the struggles the Irish are getting trying to hold up gunners up punt cover teams. “The flipside of that is Devin Hester’s teammates flying around the field. They know if they get one block he might be gone.”
Mayock seemed pretty certain that once Theo Riddick coughed the ball up early and made mistakes that turned the South Florida game, Kelly was complacent just making sure the team holds onto the football.
Troy Calhoun has the capability of doing what Navy did to the Irish last year.
In many ways, Calhoun’s Air Force squad presents a much more challenging test than Navy does. And while we’ve discussed it a few times this week, it’s just because their offense is so diverse.
“It’s almost a misnomer calling Air Force’s offense a triple option,” Mayock told me. “It’s the most multiple offense of the academies. Troy Calhoun was an NFL offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans. He coached with Denver. He’s a zone blocking guy out of the Mike Shanahan system, and he built in the option, spread and zone read.”
Add to that a quarterback that can do more than just run the triple option.
“Tim Jefferson is a very good runner and throws well enough to keep you honest,” Mayock said. “He’s throwing for 11 yards an attempt — which is a really good number — and completed 69 percent of his throws.”
Last year, the Irish had no answer for a few exotic wrinkles in the Navy option attack. While the Irish corrected things against Army, this is Diaco’s biggest test against an option-principled offense.
It’s a story of what could have been for the Irish.
Even Mayock understands how close the Irish are to being one of the top ten teams in the country.
“Without the turnovers and lack of stability at quarterback, Notre Dame is probably an undefeated football team,” Mayock told me.
Having a minus-nine turnover differential and struggles behind center are uncharacteristic of Brian Kelly’s football teams. That said, it looks like the mistakes have stabilized for the most part, and we’ll see this afternoon if the first two games were flukes or if the Irish are simply a sloppy team that makes too many mistakes to be taken seriously.
While Air Force hasn’t been a traditionally tough game for the Irish, it’s a huge litmus test heading into the off-week for the Irish.