This fall the Irish and Falcons will meet on the gridiron for the 30th time in a series that began in 1964. Here's a summer preview of Notre Dame's first visit to Air Force since 2006:
AIR FORCE FALCONS
Location: Colorado Springs, CO
Head Coach: Troy Calhoun (7th year)
2012 Record: 6-7
2012 S&P Ranking: 96
'12 S&P Offense: 89
'12 S&P Defense: 110
'12 FEI Rating: 96
Troy Calhoun took over Air Force in 2007 and immediately injected life in to a program that hadn't won 9 games since 2000. He also broke Navy's 7-year winning streak with the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 2010 and took it home again in 2011. However, after winning at least 8 games in each of his first 4 seasons in Colorado Springs, the Falcons have taken a step back in recent years and are just 13-13 since 2011.
Last year they opened with a 49-21 win over Idaho State then played Michigan very tight in a tough 6-point loss at the Big House. That was followed up with a pretty devastating 3-point loss on the road against UNLV. They did get back to 2-2 on the season after jumping early on Colorado State and cruising to a 42-21 win.
Frustration ensued against Navy where the Falcons gave up a late 4th quarter touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie the game and then fumbled in overtime to allow Navy a game-winning touchdown on the play. However, they did string together 3 straight wins over Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada to get to 5-3.
The remaining 5 games on the season would largely be a disaster though. 5 turnovers helped Army to a 20-point win and ending a 6-game skid against Air Force. That was followed up by a 19-point loss to San Diego State. A 21-7 win over Hawaii would be their last of the season and they finished 2012 being blown out by Fresno State and Rice.
Q&A with Jeremy Mauss from Mountain West Connection:
1. Air Force is losing 4 out of their top 6 rushers from a year ago. Is there a bigger issue on offense for a program that has run for over 4,000 yards each of the last two seasons?
One would think that losing their top rushers would have an adverse effect on a team, but at Air Force they seem to just plug in the next guy and rarely skip a bit. However, of those four that are gone from last years team, the big loss is Cody Getz. He would have been near the top of the nation in rushing last year if not for an ankle injury that hampered him from about mid-season and beyond. He was a dynamic runner with three games of 200-plus rushing yards in his first five before the injury got to him.
Getz is a huge loss, but the Academy will stick in the next guy and the results will still probably be that Air Force is going to be a top-five rushing outfit this year---which is pretty much the norm over the past decade. Another reason for Air Force not likely taking a step back is that from 2011 to 2012 the Falcons were facing a similar situation where they lost three of their top six rushers, and Getz came out of nowhere from earning 102 yards in 2011 to 1,248 in 2012.
2. Can you talk a little bit about presumptive new quarterback starter Kale Pearson? His stats from 2012 are not very impressive---does he offer more talent than Connor Dietz, or do you see this position taking a step back?
Pearson's stats from 2012 are not that great because he saw limited action, and that only happened in blowout games. So, it is hard to judge how good he was last year since his playing time came with nothing on the line. However, being a sophomore and the starting quarterback at the Air Force Academy is rare. Former quarterback Tim Jefferson played in 46 games as a quarterback and started his final two-plus seasons. However, he was pushed by Dietz every spring of every year.
Pearson's experience at quarterback is limited as he played wide receiver throughout high school, up until is one year under center when he was a senior. His athleticism makes him very well equipped to run the Falcons run-option offense, yet his throwing needs to improve. If he can have the presence in the pocket to throw when needed and complete the few passes a game then he will be fine. The Air Force offense wants to suck the defensive backs in and then go over the top for a few big plays a game. That is the real question mark on Pearson. With that, I could see the quarterback position taking a step back due to Pearson's lack of experience of playing the position.
3. Air Force is known to run a varied offense that spreads the ball around to a bunch of different players. Which returning player do you think will have the biggest impact for the Falcon offense?
There is no doubt that Ty MacArthur will be the team's impact player. He plays the z-receiver slot position. That spot in the Falcons offense has that player put in motion, placed in the backfield and essentially all over the field to get him the ball on the ground or through the air. In the passing game look for MacArthur to get involved on quick slants and bubble screens, and then use his speed to beat the first tackler. He also may see some more time in the return game in the fall, too. Last fall, MacArthur averaged 10.8 yards every time he touched the ball.
Ty MacArthur. [Gregory Shamus, Getty Images]
He is very similar to Chad Hall (Air Force 2005-06) who played the same position as MacArthur, and in his senior year had over 2,000 yards with just over 1,400 of those on the ground. MacArthur is not a clone of Hall, and those numbers will be hard to match. However, he is a player that will see a lot of touches for Air Force.
4. The Falcons gave up at least 28 points in every loss last year but are returning a fair amount of defenders. Do you expect a much improved defense?
Air Force can only hope. Their defense has gone downhill ever since Tim DeRuyter left as their defensive coordinator back in 2010, and has yet to recover. In 2012, the Falcons pass defense was near the bottom of the barrel among FBS teams, but they do return eight defensive backs off of last years team so the hope for Air Force is that their pass defense will improve. However, even though there is experience returning it was bad experience, but perhaps an offseason of more learning will get that unit to become maybe average among of FBS.
One big loss on the defense is losing both starting defensive tackles and both inside linebacker spots. Those four spots combined for 207 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. The big loss is Austin Niklas who had 101 tackles and eight for loss. The middle of the defense will be hurt, and that can allow for teams with good running backs to plow up the middle with possible ease. They also lost Alex Means who was the teams second leading tackler with 78 tackles, plus had 12 for a loss to go along with four spots.
The outside of the defensive front seven is the stronger. Alex Hansen is the best that the Falcons have on the outside, and possibly the defense, he is quick and can get to the backfield. Last year, he did so 13 times with nine tackles for a loss and four sacks. The other defense end Joseph Campaign should see an increased amount of playing time. He recorded just 16 tackles but 3.5 were TFLs and 2.5 were sacks. If he can somewhat keep up that production will being a full time starter then the outside will be a true strength for Air Force.
Their defense in general has not been great in a few years. The way they can possibly improve is to create a few more turnovers and give their offense a chance,
5. Troy Calhoun was 34-18 during his first 4 years at Air Force but is just 13-13 over the least 2 seasons and 2-4 overall in bowl games. Is he on the hot seat at all? What are the expectations heading in to this fall?
He is nowhere near the hot seat. Calhoun would have to have multiple years of winning just three or four games before he would be let go. However, he does have some high expectations to live up to since he turned down Colorado and the Denver Broncos. If he has that much confidence in others in his coaching abilities to stay at his alma mater, then he better show it on the field.
As for expectations this year, a bowl game is the lowest of those and should be achieved each and every year. He has led the team to six straight bowl appearances, yet he needs to start winning those games. One reason could be that give teams a month to prepare for the option and it becomes more manageable to defend.
As for this year, their schedule is set up to succeed as they get all their tough games at home and miss San Jose State completely. They travel to Boise State, Navy and Nevada, and that is it for tough road games. However, they bring a new quarterback, a slew of new running backs who should be fine but still new and their defense should be better but nothing to write home about.
They will make a bowl game and probably upset one or two teams on the schedule -- not likely Notre Dame, but I think it will be close than some think. Six wins is the baseline, but I would say they can pull off seven or eight wins.
PROJECTED 2013 FALCON DEPTH CHART
BOLD denotes returning starter
DISCLAIMER: There may be no roster more difficult to predict than Air Force. As a military school they do not offer scholarships and therefore are not bound to any NCAA limits. That leaves us with a recorded 172 players recruited by Air Force in their 2009-2013 classes but still just 65 players listed on their not yet updated 2012 roster. So that's a lot of players who never make it Colorado Springs and even more who disappear to play JV before moving up to Varsity.
Kale Pearson, Jr.
Dano Graves, So.
Ben Okun, Fr.
Pearson will be replacing 2012 starter Connor Dietz and there is zero experience behind him for 2013. Pearson saw extended action last year in the Army, Fresno, and Rice games but threw 4 interceptions with no touchdowns on just 29 passing attempts and averaged under 2 yards a carry on the ground.
Jon Lee, Jr.
Dakota Diessner, Fr.
Bryan Driskell, Fr.
Air Force loses its top running back (Cody Getz, 1,248 yards & 9 TD in 2012) and their 3rd leading running back (Wes Cobb, 530 yards & 9 TD) leaving last fall's second leading rusher Jon Lee as the lone halfback with experience.
Lee was fairly productive in 2012 with 545 yards on 88 carries, and added 122 yards as a freshman in 2011.
Broam Hart, Jr.
The Falcons lose 2-year starter Mike DeWitt who totaled 800 rushing yards for 2011-12 but backup Broam Hart and his 40 career carries (29 in 2012) return this fall.
*Wide Receiver 1
Ty MacArthur, Sr.
*Wide Receiver 2
Colton Huntsman, Jr.
Christian Gann, Jr.
Ty MacArthur returns as a starting wideout and led Air Force in 2012 with 24 receptions and 411 yards but their next three leading receivers are all gone leaving a lack of depth at this position.
Huntsman totaled 4 carries and 4 receptions last season while Gann was limited to just 2 receptions.
Marcus Hendricks, Jr.
Nate Dreslinksi, Jr.
Backup Austin Briehl is gone but 2012 starter Marcus Hendricks is back following a 7-catch season and 2 touchdowns. Like the other skill positions Air Force will have to rely on unproven players at tight end to build depth.
Evan Kaufman, Sr.
Colin Marquez, Fr.
Drew Kerber, Sr.
David Jones, Jr.
Austin Hayes, Sr.
Michael Husar, Sr.
David Lore, Jr.
Moshood Adeniji, Sr.
Jerry Henry, Sr.
Mike Sutton, Fr.
Air Force is losing both starting tackles from a year ago, although Jerry Henry did make 3 starts last fall. The projected left tackle Evan Kaufman has not made a start yet in his career.
The interior is in better shape even with the loss of 2nd team All-Mountain West guard Jordan Eason and his 25 career starts. Drew Kerber is back after starting all 13 games last season.
Michael Husar was the starter at center for the first game last year but tore his ACL and MCL. The interior shuffled around a bit and Austin Hayes made 6 starts at center. Due to more injuries David Lore was able to make 6 starts at right guard in 2012.
Joe Champaign, Jr.
Riley Cannon, Jr.
Nick Fitzgerald, Jr.
Alex Hansen, So.
Air Force loses starter Nick DeJulio and backup Cody Miller but a nice corps of players return for 2013. Joe Champaign is back at defensive end after 24 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks a year ago. On the inside junior Nick Fitzgerald returns after totaling just 20 tackles with 1 sack in 2012.
Troy Calhoun. [Tim Heitman, USA Today Sports]
Alex Hansen is a bright spot on the defense after a strong freshman season where he put up 36 tackles, 9 for loss, and 4 sacks as Jeremy noted above. As usual for a service academy at this position there is little proven depth behind the starters, so Air Force will have to turn to young players to fill out the depth chart.
It's a pretty solid front of returners coming back nonetheless with the starters weighing 240, 265, and 240 pounds. They also return 7.5 of the team's 17 sacks from last fall in this unit alone.
Jared Jones, Jr.
Miles Fisher, Jr.
Spencer Proctor, Jr.
Patrick Healy, Fr.
Steven Sumpter, Jr.
Kyle Williams, Fr.
Joey Nichol, Jr.
The linebacker unit took a huge hit this off-season as 5 regulars are gone including the team's top 2 tacklers from 2012 in Austin Niklas (brother of Troy) and Alex Means.
Jared Jones is the lone returning starter after racking up 45 tackles, 3 for loss, and 1 sack in 2012. The rest of the listed depth chart here at linebacker only combined for 24 tackles last season so depth is a concern. A pair of true freshmen in Patrick Healy and Kyle Williams should immediately see the field this fall.
Steffon Batts, Sr.
Dexter Walker, So.
Chris Miller, Sr.
Gavin McHenry, So.
Connor Healy, So.
Miles Fisher, Jr.
Christian Spears, Jr.
Jamal Byrd, Jr.
Both corners and 3 starters overall return in the Falcon secondary. Christian Spears led this group last season with an impressive 91 tackles, while Steffon Batts totaled 77 tackles, and Chris Miller chipped in 56 tackles.
The backups at corner saw some action last year so the depth looks good there. Connor Healy looks to start at strong safety while Miles Fisher could cross-train there or at outside linebacker.
It's never easy to tell how well a service academy is going to do in an upcoming season because there isn't much to go on by the way of recruiting. It's much more difficult to know where and when impact players are going to pop up. That said, returning starters is typically a strong correlation for a military school and in that light this doesn't look like it's going to be a good Air Force team in 2013.
Few weapons returning on offense with a green quarterback isn't going to mix well with a defense that has not played well in recent years and has to find a lot of answers in the front seven. This looks like a Falcon program that is another year or two away from being able to contend with Notre Dame.
Predicted Game Day Spread- Air Force (+23.5)