by Mike Coffey
While John Vannie recovers from his surgery, we’ll be featuring some guest journalists for the pre- and post-game writeups. This week, we’ve got long-time poster GarbagePlate taking a stab at the Falcons of the Air Force Academy.
Fresh off a hard fought victory over archrival USC, Notre Dame (5-2) heads to the Rockies this weekend to face a struggling Air Force (1-6) squad in Colorado Springs. Kickoff is scheduled for an unusual time (3:00 MDT locally) and the game will be shown on an obscure network (CBS Sports Network). For those with DirecTV, CBS Sports Network can be found on channel 221, while Dish subscribers can tune into channel 158. CBS Sports Network is also available on most cable networks (Click here to find the channel), although viewers may need to purchase a special sports package to receive the channel.
These teams have played intermittently since 1964, but there are no games on the horizon after this year’s contest. Notre Dame leads the series 23-6, including a 12-2 record at Air Force with both losses coming in the midst of a four game Falcon winning streak during the Faust era. It is unclear whether Brian Kelly will implore his troops to avoid staring at the mauve walls of Falcon Stadium as Faust reportedly did, though Kelly’s purple facial hue could conceivably resurface and lull the visitors into passivity. In any event, Notre Dame has dominated this series and they are a prohibitive favorite to add another tally to their side of the ledger.
Air Force is led by head coach Troy Calhoun, who quarterbacked the Falcons from 1985-1988 and served as an NFL assistant for the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans before taking over at his alma mater. Calhoun has led the Falcons to six consecutive bowl games and won two Commander-in-Chief Trophies, but his team has fallen on hard times in 2013, particularly at the quarterback position. The Falcons lost starting quarterback Kale Pearson to injury in the first game of the season and his replacement, sophomore Jaleel Awini, was subsequently suspended from the team for a reported failure to meet academy standards. To make matters worse, third string QB Karson Roberts sustained a concussion in the Cadets’ most recent game against San Diego State, which forced true freshman Nate Romine into the lineup. Likewise, the numbers have not been pretty for the Falcon defense: 116th in total defense, 111th in rushing defense and 122ndin pass efficiency defense. One can only imagine that Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are salivating over that last number with visions of crisp spirals filling the fresh mountain air dancing in their heads.
For Notre Dame, Tommy Rees is dealing with a neck injury caused by a vicious hit in the second half of last week’s win at USC, but he is expected to return and the Irish are otherwise relatively healthy. Moreover, the Irish are coming off big wins against Pac-12 opponents and they seem poised to put together an extended winning streak as they enter the softer portion of their schedule. The Irish offense has continue to find itself unable to get untracked, but the defense, led by stalwarts Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, appears to be rounding into form after a shaky start.
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE vs. AIR FORCE DEFENSE
As noted above, the defense has been a horror show this year for Troy Calhoun and second-year defensive coordinator Charlton Warren. Warren seeks to confuse defenses with frequent blitzing out of a base 3-4 defensive scheme, but his ability to attack opposing offenses has been severely constrained by his undersized and underwhelming front seven. The starting nose guard, Dana Luebbe, weighs a mere 265 lbs and the Falcon linebackers mostly hover in the 215-220 lb range, with Joey Nichol serving as the thumper at 230 lbs. This lack of bulk, among other issues, has been a significant problem for the Falcons’ rushing defense, which has yielded an average of 221.3 yards per game on the ground.
Unfortunately for Air Force, the pass defense has not been much better, as the Falcons have been shredded to the tune of 267.4 yards per game, including 389 yards by Nevada’s Cody Fajardo. Although the secondary is certainly at fault, they have also been hindered by a complete lack of pass rush. In fact, Air Force only has 6 sacks this season and just 1.5 of those sacks were generated by defensive linemen. Still, to my knowledge, there is no truth to the rumors that the National Park Service forcibly removed all tackling dummies from the practice fields in Colorado Springs during the recent government shutdown.
Given the brutal statistics, it has not been easy to find many bright spots along the defense. Nonetheless, Nichol, a junior inside linebacker from Austin, Texas, is a solid, instinctive player who has notched 68 tackles in 7 games. In addition, fellow ILB Spencer Proctor, who has been cleared to play after a recent concussion, has also shown a knack for the ball, as evidenced by his two sacks and 47 tackles. In the secondary, promising sophomore safety Dexter Walker has earned a growing share of playing time by forcing two fumbles, recording 2.5 tackles-for-loss and breaking up two passes. Free safety Christian Spears, despite being only 5’9”, leads the way with two interceptions for the beleaguered Falcon defense. Air Force has forced just 8 turnovers in 7 games and they have allowed opponents to score at an 86% clip in the red zone (although Notre Dame’s red zone offense could be a welcome tonic for this malady).
Even if Rees is unable to play, the Irish should be able to name their score against the undermanned Falcons. In recent weeks, Cam McDaniel has emerged as the feature back for the Irish offense, but George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle should have a chance to pad their statistics in this game as well. This also appears to be a prime spot to find some valuable game repetitions for true freshman Tarean Folston, who has been missing in action since his brief exciting cameo against Oklahoma. With respect to the passing game, the Irish receivers will almost certainly have plenty of space to get open against the overmatched Falcon secondary and Rees (or Hendrix) should be able to sit comfortably in the pocket with little pressure. Even assuming that Rees is able to play, it is hard to imagine a better opportunity for Andrew Hendrix to build some confidence after a tough performance last week, especially considering Hendrix’s stellar outing against Air Force in 2011.
NOTRE DAME DEFENSE vs. AIR FORCE OFFENSE
As usual, Air Force relies primarily on a triple-option offense, although they have been more diverse this year. Karson Roberts, a sophomore quarterback out of Houston Clear Lake High, has appeared in all seven games and averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his first year of action. Roberts has not distinguished himself as a particularly adept passer, but the threat of play action makes him somewhat dangerous. Notwithstanding Roberts’s concussion in Air Force’s most recent game against San Diego State, he has been practicing this week and is expected to play after having received 16 days rest. Otherwise, the Falcons will turn to true freshman Nate Romine, who threw for a long touchdown pass in relief of Roberts. After the SDSU game, Calhoun offered the following lukewarm praise for Romine: “I thought he had good poise for a guy who really hasn’t had a bunch of snaps and a guy who needs to have a little more thickness to him. You could tell he had a little fun playing football and that’s OK.”
Irrespective of whether Roberts or Romine is playing, Air Force offensive coordinator Clay Hendrix will turn to his running game to move the ball offensively. The Air Force offensive linemen, however, like their defensive counterparts, will be forced to grapple with a substantial weight deficiency against the comparatively mammoth Notre Dame linemen. As an example, sophomore left tackle Matt Rochell will be giving up over 50 pounds to Stephon Tuitt and even 20-25 pounds to his younger brother, Isaac, who will see spot duty at defensive end for the Irish. To counteract this disadvantage, the Falcons will employ cut blocks from the offensive line, as well as precise execution from their quarterback and their stable of running backs, led by veteran fullback Broam Hart. Along with the 220 pound Hart, who has averaged over 55 yards per game, the Falcons lean on tailbacks Jon Lee (50 yards per game) and Anthony Lacoste (40.3 ypg). Lee, in particular, has been a stalwart at 6.9 yards per carry for the 12th ranked rushing attack in the nation, but he has also missed time with an injured elbow. When Air Force elects to pass, they usually look for pint-sized veteran Sam Gagliano, who leads the team in receptions with 11, along with bigger targets Jalen Robinette and tight end Garrett Griffin. The Falcons’ top returning receiver entering the season, Ty McArthur, left the Boise State game on September 13th with a concussion and, unfortunately, has not yet been able to return to action. McArthur has not been missed in the red zone, where the Falcons have scored at an impressive 95% rate.
Assuming that the Irish are able to play with discipline against the option and corresponding misdirection plays, they should be able to slow the Falcons’ rushing game notwithstanding Louis Nix being slightly banged up. Air Force’s offensive coaches will probably seek to run the ball at young Jaylon Smith, but the freshman foiled similar plans by Arizona State and snared an impressive interception against USC. Similarly, the Falcons should attempt to attack the edges of the Notre Dame defense in an attempt to take advantage of the lack of lateral quickness from the Notre Dame inside linebackers. This approach can be thwarted by disruptive play from the Irish defensive line and sound tackling in run support by safeties Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley. It is not clear whether Elijah Shumate will return at safety for Notre Dame, but he certainly should not be needed this week for the Irish to win.
Despite myriad other shortcomings, Air Force has been competent on special teams in 2013. The Falcons rank 41st in kickoff return average with Lacoste averaging 22.1 yards per return and kicker Will Conant has connected on 9 of 11 FG attempts, including two kicks from beyond 50 yards. Conant has also been perfect on extra points and punter David Baska has averaged 41.9 yards per punt. Punt returns are inconclusive because opposing offenses have almost never been bothered with the inconvenience of punting (20 punts in 7 games, only four of which were returned).
Notre Dame has been solid in the return game this year, but the Irish rank 113th in net punting. Of course, if Kyle Brindza finds himself punting more than twice or thrice on Saturday, then the real issue for Notre Dame will be its sputtering offense, not its punt coverage. Instead, Brindza, like most kickers facing Air Force, should receive plenty of chances to hone his extra point accuracy.
This has been a lost year for Air Force, which has struggled with serious talent deficiencies and costly attrition. As the Falcons appear to be headed for their first losing regular season under Calhoun, their best shot to salvage some respect is to topple the heavily favored the Irish at home. You can, therefore, expect that the Cadets will be fired up to play on Saturday.
The Irish have started slowly in several games this year, but they can crush the Falcons’ spirit by jumping to an early lead. Air Force is not equipped to win an offensive shootout, especially considering its precarious quarterback situation and its run-based offensive scheme. Furthermore, the Falcons are prone to being worn down by a much bigger and stronger opponent. Even though the Air Force pass defense has been rendered toothless by an underwhelming secondary and non-existent pass rush, Notre Dame needs to impose its will on the Falcons via the ground game rather than being lured into the tempting trap of pitching the ball all over the yard. Moreover, a comfortable Irish lead will enable some of the younger players to gain valuable experience in a road game.
In keeping with Vannie’s time honored theme, here are some key questions:
1. Will Air Force be rusty after an extended layoff?
2. Will the Irish crack the 200 yard mark on the ground?
3. Will the Notre Dame defensive backs tackle effectively in run support?
4. Can Air Force hit some big plays over the top in play action?
5. Will Andrew Hendrix bounce back from a rough evening?
6. Will the altitude affect Notre Dame?
7. Will Air Force take any cheap shots at the Irish?
8. How much will I drink throughout the day?
Air Force might benefit from their additional rest and relaxation, as well as home field advantage and the potential atmospheric edge that comes from being familiar with mile-high living. More importantly, however, the Falcons are severely undermanned against an Irish team that appears to be hitting its stride at the right time of the year.
I expect Air Force to come out swinging, but Notre Dame will start clicking offensively and will force one or both of the young Air Force signal callers into several mistakes in the option game and passing game. Notre Dame will pull away from the Falcons and hopefully parlay its experience against the option to score a similarly comfortable win next week against Navy’s vaunted veer attack.
Notre Dame 44 Air Force 20