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Notre Dame vs. Air Force Preview: Irish Look to Flex Defensive Muscles Against the Flexbone

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Air Force (+15) at Notre Dame

After a three year absence, the Air Force Academy is playing Notre Dame once again.

Although many think Notre Dame schedules the academies all the time, this will only be the third game between the Falcons and Fighting Irish over the past nine years.

In November 2006, Notre Dame made the trip to Colorado Springs and calmly rolled to a 39-17 victory on the strength of three first quarter touchdown passes by Brady Quinn.* That was the seventh of an eventual eight wins in a row that season, which propelled Notre Dame to a BCS bid.

*This game had a really weird box score...Notre Dame was outgained by 22 yards, finished 3 for 7 on third down, had 2 PAT's blocked, another PAT missed, while Quinn "only" threw for 207 yards.

The last meeting between these two teams a year later during the forgettable 2007 season was the ultimate stomach punch for Notre Dame.

A week after losing to Navy for the first time in decades, the Irish would be humiliated 41-24 by the Falcons during Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium, dropping the seasons' record to a dismal 1-9.

Notre Dame would go on to win the last two games of the season and salvage some shred of dignity, but many postulate that the Irish under Charlie Weis never quite recovered from the 2007 season---partly due to Air Force's domination in South Bend.

Now, the Falcons come flying back to the House that Rock built, intent on stealing another win from the Fighting Irish.

How Has Air Force Been Doing This Year?

The expectations were pretty high this year in Colorado Springs, and so far the season has been going well but likely a very slight disappointment.

The Falcons opened the season at home against FCS South Dakota, controlling the game, while opening a decent sized lead after the first half. However, they were sloppy in the second half, allowed South Dakota 368 total yards at 5.3 yards per play, while only winning by 17 points.

The following week was a big one for Air Force as they welcomed conference rival TCU to Colorado Springs after the Frogs were coming off a deflating road loss at Baylor to open their season. The Falcons had an eye on the Mountain West title and sought only their second win over TCU over their past nine meetings.

However, it was not meant to be as TCU jumped out to a 21-0 lead early and coasted to a comfortable 35-19 victory.

After a bye week to recover, Air Force spanked FCS Tennessee State by 39, but again also gave up 24 points to a vastly inferior opponent, as well as 394 yards at 5.6 yards per play.

Last week, the Falcons were able to redeem their season with a win over heated rival Navy, making it two straight victories over the Midshipmen after suffering seven straight losses from 2003 to 2009.

It was also Air Force's first win in Annapolis since 1997 (0-3 in Annapolis up to last week, but 2-1 at a neutral site against Navy.)

The Falcons got out to a quick 21-3 lead in the game, but allowed Navy to crawl back in it with a field goal to make it 28-20 late in the fourth quarter. The Middies subsequently recovered on onside kick, scored a touchdown and converted the 2-point attempt to tie the game.

In overtime, Navy scored first but was called for a taunting penalty, causing the PAT to be backed up by 15 yards. Air Force then blocked the kick, scored on their possession and nailed the PAT to take the win after nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Notre Dame Defense vs. Air Force Offense

There are a few reasons why Air Force was expected to be very good this season, and one of those is their offense. The Falcons are coming off a season last year where they finished second in the country in rushing (306 yards per game) and this year Air Force is third in the country averaging 364 yards per game on the ground.

What's more, AFA welcomes back quarterback Tim Jefferson---the school's all-time wins leader at his position and currently third in the country in wins as well.

When most people think of Air Force they think option offense, but the Falcons are much more than that. They really are a jack-of-all-trades type of offense that utilizes a ton of different formations and plays.

You could say Air Force's base offense is the flexbone, but then they are just as likely to line up in shotgun 4-wide, in I-formation, or with the quarterback under center and a lone fullback behind him in any given series.

So while they run some plays exactly like Navy, the Air Force Academy is really more multi-faceted and relies on a larger selection of plays to move the ball down field and score points.

Up front AFA is returning three starters from last year in junior left tackle Jason Kons, senior center Michael Hester (rumored to be questionable for the game due to injury), and senior right guard A.J. Wallerstein, while also bringing back junior left guard Jordan Eason who has significant experience. Wallerstein is the best (and biggest-6'4" 285 pounds) of the bunch, while senior right tackle Kevin Whitt is the only true new starter.

Some will harp on Notre Dame's size advantage, although I think it's overplayed, but the Air Force offensive line averages 6'3.5" and 259 pounds---or a little taller and barely heavier than Irish linebacker Manti Te'o.

Air Force has a new starter at tight end in Joshua Freeman, and he's currently second on the team with 7 receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown.

At receiver, the Falcons return senior starter Jonathan Warzeka---he led Air Force with 406 receiving yards last year and is a big threat with the ball in his hands in the return game. He currently has 87 receiving yards in 2011, to go along with 54 rushing yards, and a 32-yard touchdown pass.

Also at wideout Air Force has junior Mikel Hunter with a lot of experience (leads team with 156 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns), and senior big-bodied (6'5") Zack Kauth who is also playing well.

In the backfield AFA returns senior running back Asher Clarke, the team's biggest playmaker outside of QB Jefferson. Clarke had over 1,000 yards rushing last year and has racked up 382 yards so far this year with a very impressive 9.32 average.

Junior Mike DeWitt is inexperienced and coming off an injury from last year, but has a solid 180 yards on 29 carries this year as an often-used backup. At fullback, junior Wes Cobb has been struggling a little bit with only 105 yards on 32 carries.

So can Notre Dame stop this Air Force offense?

I don't think you can ever fully stop them, but I think the Irish will be able to contain Air Force with some success.

Their offense begins and ends with quarterback Tim Jefferson, so he must be the focus of Notre Dame's defensive attack. He reminds me of a bigger, yet less explosive version of South Florida's B.J. Daniels---he's not a huge threat on the ground or through the air, but he can do both well enough to hurt you for four quarters.

Two big keys for the Irish defense will be to limit big plays, and as an extension, stuff Air Force's ground game in between the tackles. If Notre Dame can do both of these things it has the potential to be a comfortable victory.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Air Force Defense

As would be expected, Air Force has some trouble on defense and is much better in pass defense than in comparison to stopping the run.

Coming into this game, the Falcons rank 113th in rushing defense giving up 227 yards per game, while they are 22nd in pass defense giving up only 182 yards per game through the air.

The latter stat is pretty solid (although team's simply aren't throwing a lot on Air Force to begin with because they are giving up so many yards on the ground---8th fewest pass attempts against in the nation), although the Falcons have given up at least 180 yards or more on the ground to every opponent this year, and that includes two FCS teams.

Coming into this season Air Force had 8 starters returning, but they have been hit by a rash of injuries since September started. Senior defensive lineman Ryan Gardner is out with a knee injury, as is fellow senior linemen Zach Payne. At outside linebacker senior Pat Hennessey had a pin inserted into his broken thumb, was supposed to be out long-term, but tried to play last week against Navy. He remains questionable.

Now, the Falcons are rolling with three defensive linemen (senior Harry Kehs, junior Nick DeJulio, and senior Ben Kopacka) who did not start last year. They are undersized and average 6'3.5" and 245 pounds.

At linebacker, senior middle linebackers Jordan Waiwaiole (led team in tackles last year with 96) and Brady Amack (leads team in tackles this year with 43) are big playmakers. They are flanked on the outside by less experienced players in junior Alex Means, and sophomore Jamil Cooks.

In the secondary, Air Force has two returning starters that are seniors in corner Anthony Wright, and safety Jon Davis, while sophomore safety Anthony Wodding also returns. The other corner position has been hit by injury and is currently being manned by senior Josh Hall who has been a backup for a couple years.

Overall, I have been fairly impressed with Air Force's run defense despite their bad numbers. Or should I say, they seem to play better against the run than their numbers show. They flow to the ball with speed and tenacity and play very aggressively.

However, what's also clear is that they are very susceptible to getting worn down and tired as the game wears on---so look for Notre Dame to turn up the heat on the ground in the second half.

If Notre Dame sticks with the running game they should have increased success, but it wouldn't surprise me if Air Force makes a bunch of plays early on that contain Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. We make a big deal out of the size advantage enjoyed by the Irish offense, but our experience with the service academies shows that we can struggle blocking the quicker, smaller defenders.

Conversely, Air Force has quality pass defense numbers and the secondary is supposed to be the unquestioned strength of their defense, but they have only played one decent passing team (TCU) and I didn't think they looked very good defending the Horned Frogs.

Casey Paschall and TCU passed early and often, moving the ball up and down the field to open up a big lead, finally ending the day 20 of 25 for 206 yards to go with 2 touchdowns and no picks.

Air Force likes to sit back in a zone defense and protect the long pass, but TCU was able to hit a lot of short-to-intermediate routes all day long.

There will be a lot of talk about Notre Dame taking advantage of Air Force's weak run defense, but I think Tommy Rees will have a big day if he plays smart, and takes the easy underneath throws when it is so obviously available.

Prediction

As always, the military academy is going to feel disrespected in this game, and the spread doesn't help matters for Notre Dame in that regard either.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of respect for Air Force from me, our staff at One Foot Down, and throughout the Notre Dame fan base. Make no bones about it---this is a very good football team coming to South Bend this Saturday.

Troy Calhoun (despite apparently being allergic to sideburns) is a great coach and has had a nice 4-plus year run at his Alma Mater. He is 37-19 at Air Force, and this might be his best team yet.

Air Force is 12-5 dating back to the start of the 2010 season, and that includes a 3-point loss to Oklahoma, a 2-point loss to San Diego State, a 5-point loss to Utah, and a couple games in which they were soundly beaten by TCU. No, they aren't a great team but this is very far from a walk over game, and I think no one inside the Notre Dame community needs convincing of that fact.

As has already been pointed out, Air Force is not strictly a triple option team---or at least it is not their bread and butter. In a lot of ways that makes Notre Dame's life easier this weekend, but it also does make it tougher in some ways.

When you look at Navy, they have the fullback and quarterback doing the vast majority of the running. Right now the Midshipmen's QB & FB account for 57.4% of their team's rushing yards this season, while Air Force's duo account for only 21.4% of the ground attack.

In watching Air Force against TCU this year, the Falcons came across to me as a much more non-academy offense than I suspected. They still have plenty of option concepts and their formations make it appear like they are playing like Navy, but I don't see the precision and dogged determination to grind out yards like we see every year with the Midshipmen.

Air Force is more bent on letting quarterback Tim Jefferson make plays through the air and on the ground, spreading the ball around to all of the offensive playmakers through reverses and trick plays, and taking advantage of big 20+ gains.

One aspect of this Notre Dame defense that has improved under Bob Diaco is not giving up the big play, so the Irish should be very ready for any long passes Air Force will throw down field. But will that worry of a long pass play make Notre Dame less aggressive against the Falcon running game?

Hopefully we'll see a nice balance between the two, but I think Air Force is going to be able to move the ball on a consistent basis. I foresee their straight ahead run game being contained early and often, but I bet they have more success getting Jefferson, Asher, and others out in space after faking something in between the tackles.

Offensively, Notre Dame must put points on the board, and have successful drives on nearly every possession. This is a game where the Irish should put up big numbers and make it very hard for Air Force to come back and stay in the contest.

Be prepared for some frustration watching the Notre Dame defense, but just enough skill and execution from the Irish offense to take home a close win.

Notre Dame 33

Air Force 26