by John Vannie
Notre Dame will visit the Air Force Academy on Saturday to take on the dangerous but somewhat inconsistent Falcons. Fisher DeBerry’s 4-4 team has taken highly regarded Tennessee to the wire before losing 31-30, but they have also lost to lowly San Diego State and were clobbered by BYU. Nevertheless, the Irish cannot afford to overlook a highly motivated option team that possesses the ability to throw the football.
While Navy’s aerial threat was diminished when Brian Hampton was injured, Falcon quarterback Shaun Carney is capable of keeping Notre Dame off balance by mixing in the pass. He has a trio of productive running backs led by wingback Chad Hall, the team’s leading rusher, halfback Ryan Williams, who ran for 98 yards against the Vols, and fullback Jacob Kendrick. Carney can also throw the deep ball to favorite targets Victor Thompson and Spencer Armstrong.
The Air Force attack is particularly successful on third down with an enviable 58% conversion rate. They also take care of the ball, hold a six minute advantage in time of possession and do not commit many penalties. In other words, they are a disciplined, well-coached team.
As is usually the case with service academies, the offensive and defensive lines rely on quickness and technique rather than size. Senior left tackle Robert Kraay is an exception at 6’8” and 295, while strong side end Gilberto Perez is leader of the defense. Each has been selected to play in a post-season all-star game.
The Irish defense should be prepared for the option from the start, since they are only two weeks removed from the battle with Navy in which they had to make several in-game adjustments. The Falcon attack is similarly dangerous, although Navy has a bit more speed. The consequence of losing the battle on first down will be the same as in Baltimore, where Navy was able to sustain long drives and mix in big plays before Notre Dame’s staff plugged the leaks.
When Notre Dame has the ball, it should enjoy success on the ground against the smallish Falcon defense. This was also the theory against Navy, but the Irish ground game was not as dominant as expected in the red zone and on third down. Fans who can watch the game on TV will also hope to see James Aldridge and Munir Prince play meaningful minutes with the first team, as opposed to mop-up duty where everyone in the stadium knows the play call.
Junior linebacker Drew Fowler is a tackling machine for Air Force in its 4-2-5 defensive alignment, while free safety Bobby Giannini covers a lot of ground. He is flanked by two corners and a pair of tough combo (safety/linebacker) players in John Rabold and Julian Madrid. The most interesting matchups on Saturday may be Rabold on John Carlson and Perez lined up opposite Notre Dame’s Sam Young.
Defensively, the Irish back seven must fill the lanes and close off the outside option threat. Tackles Derek Landri and Trevor Laws are playing outstanding football of late, so the fullback dive should not burn Notre Dame very often. The key to a strong performance will be the play of safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski, who have had their ups and downs this season.
On special teams, Senior Zach Sasser proficiently handles punts, kickoffs and field goals for the Falcons. The kickoff coverage team is exceptional, while punt coverage is mediocre. Notre Dame needs to improve the former, although it would not be a good sign if they are receiving multiple kickoffs after Falcon scores. Besides, the rarified air should increase the likelihood of a touchback.
The primary goals for Notre Dame are to win the game and stay healthy. It would be a bonus if Brady Quinn can pad his passing statistics, but a dominant performance by the offensive line and a 200+ yard rushing total would be preferable.
On defense, Irish fans would love to see Rick Minter’s unit dictate the flow of the game from the start instead of backpedaling until halftime. The statistics don’t lie, however, as Notre Dame has surrendered 133 of 199 total points in the first half this season. The Irish also do not force many turnovers with only a 1.3 per game average compared to 2.0 last year.
Notre Dame will probably frustrate the faithful for 20 minutes before settling down and putting away the Falcons. Quinn is simply a difference maker not only in terms of his passing, but also with his overall game management. Victor Abiamiri continues to lead the defense with a solid pass rush and stout play against the run, but big plays downfield still keep Irish fans awake at night.
NOTRE DAME 37 AIR FORCE 17