by John Vannie
Air Force returns to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday to play the Fighting Irish. The Falcons are 7-3 on the season, but lost to Navy 31-20 in October. First year coach Troy Calhoun has taken over at the academy for Fisher DeBerry, who retired last year after 23 years on the job. Notre Dame will face an option offense for the second consecutive week, while Jimmy Clausen has reclaimed the starting quarterback position for the Irish.
Calhoun is an Air Force graduate who started at quarterback for the 1986 Falcons. This is his first head coaching position, although his coaching resume includes extensive experience in college and the NFL. During the past four years, Calhoun worked as Assistant Head Coach for Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos and was the Offensive Coordinator for the Houston Texans in 2006.
The Irish will try to shake off last week’s embarrassing loss to Navy and concentrate on stopping the Falcon attack. Calhoun’s offense has gained nearly 400 yards per game, and the mix between run and pass is slightly more balanced than Navy. The defense also appears to be better statistically, but Air Force has played a weaker schedule than the Midshipmen. Meanwhile, Corwin Brown’s unit needs to tighten up considerably and become more aggressive this week.
Notre Dame is running out of time to get a couple of wins under its belt and generate confidence within the ranks of its young players. Clausen in particular would benefit from a successful outing, but ideally he should throw the ball no more than 15 times. Once again, the Irish will enjoy a physical advantage over an opponent, but the Falcons will not be intimidated after watching last week’s film.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Air Force’s Defense
It will be interesting to watch Clausen play a game in which he does not have to run for his life on virtually every play. The freshman will be able to hand off to James Aldridge and Armando Allen for positive yardage, and Irish fans also hope to see more of Robert Hughes this week. Another freshman who has been missing in action for the past few weeks is wide receiver Golden Tate, who inexplicably disappeared after a breakout performance against Purdue.
Air Force employs a 3-4 defensive alignment and its down linemen are similar in size to Navy. One difference is that Navy’s 6’3” 285-pound nose tackle Nate Frazier caused the Irish problems while the Falcons’ Jared Marvin is not as disruptive at 5’11” and 265-pounds.
The senior-laden back seven constitutes the strength of this defense. Inside linebackers Drew Fowler and Aaron Shanor account for most of the tackles along with strong safety Chris Thomas, a talented sophomore who has also broken up seven passes. Outside backers Hunter Altman and John Rabold lead the team with nine sacks between them.
The Falcons have 14 interceptions this season and are led by cornerback Carson Bird, who has six. Free safety Bobby Giannini is a quality athlete with good size and range. Notre Dame is most likely to attack cornerback Garrett Ryback when it attempts play action passes or, heaven forbid, is forced to throw the football.
The Irish should be able to control the game on the ground, and I expect Coach Charlie Weis to stay with the run until the cows come home. Air Force is stronger against the pass than Navy, and they have 21 sacks to their credit against six for the Middies coming into last week’s game.
Air Force’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Senior quarterback Shaun Carney leads the Falcon attack, but 5’8” wingback Chad Hall is their most dangerous player. Hall leads the team in rushing with 1150 yards and a seven yard average. He is also the leading receiver with 41 catches. Receiver Mark Root, brother of former Notre Dame and Florida State player Matt Root, is second with 24 receptions.
Another difference between the two academies on Notre Dame’s schedule is Air Force does not use the fullback frequently in its version of the option. Calhoun will mix things up to attack the perimeter, and will probably be emboldened after watching Navy’s successful thrusts last week. Carney is statistically an efficient passer at 63%, and tight end Travis Dekker is a highly regarded threat.
Notre Dame must be more aggressive this week and try to force turnovers and negative plays. Trevor Laws was not a factor against Navy by virtue of Paul Johnson’s excellent game plan, but he should lead the Irish counter attack this week. Two key players that are still not 100% healthy are David Bruton and Maurice Crum. Both are needed in order to keep the Falcons from making this a close ball game.
Success or failure could also rest in the hands of the Irish cornerbacks, who must do a better job of containing Hall than they did against Navy’s Reggie Campbell. Calhoun will try to force Notre Dame to make tackles in the open field, as this has been a weakness for the Irish all season. Linebackers and corners have all too often tried to reach out and arm tackle as opposed to squaring their shoulders and demonstrating sound form. This practice is not going to stop anyone regardless of size.
Hall is also the sole punt returner and shares the duty on kickoffs with freshman Reggie Rembert. Air Force has been better than its opponents in terms of kick and punt coverage, but Notre dame should be able to generate positive yards with Allen and Tom Zbikowski.
Kicker Ryan Harrison has connected on three field goals of more than 50 yards this season during games played in Colorado, including bombs from 56 and 57 yards. Harrison also handles the punting chores, averaging slightly less than 42 yards per attempt. Notre Dame’s kicking situation is still very shaky after last week’s game in which Weis called for a fake and a pass in two obvious field goal situations.
Despite some similarities to Navy, Air Force will present different challenges for the Irish defense. Notre Dame must contain Hall and apply pressure to Carney in the backfield. They could find themselves in trouble again if they are unable to cause more than one turnover. Offensively, the Irish must respect the Falcon secondary until they commit the safeties to the running game.
Most importantly, the Irish players need to have fun playing the game. Fans have seen only brief glimpses of a fired up team this season, most notably at Purdue and UCLA. It would be better late than never to see a long run by Allen, a seam pass to John Carlson and a play-action bomb to Tate. A score on a return by the special teams would be an added bonus.
Air Force will make a few plays and refuse to go quietly, but they do not have sufficient firepower to stay in the game until the end unless Notre Dame commits costly errors or plays without passion. The Falcon offense will move the ball between the 20’s but should not be able to score in the red zone on the Irish with the same ease or frequency as Navy.
The questions that will help determine the winner are as follows:
– Will the Irish ground game force the Falcons to change its defensive alignment?
– Will the Irish defense be able to neutralize Chad Hall?
– Can Weis limit Clausen’s passing attempts while increasing his productivity?
– Will Notre Dame be able to contain the defensive perimeter and tackle effectively?
– Can Notre Dame avoid obvious passing situations on third down?
– Will the Irish defense force turnovers and negative plays?
– Can Notre Dame make a field goal?
Notre Dame and its fans have suffered enough this season. Air Force is well coached and will be highly motivated, but they have fewer weapons than Navy. The Irish need to convert their scoring opportunities, but this could be another gam
e when punter Geoff Price can impersonate a Maytag repairman.
NOTRE DAME 38 AIR FORCE 20