(Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
The Air Force Falcons continue their tough October stretch Saturday against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, IN. The game, as are all Irish home games will be broadcast nationally on NBC at 1:30pm MT. Notre Dame surpassed the .500 mark last week with a win at Purdue, 38-10, its third straight win after opening 0-2. Air Force is fresh off its first win at Navy since 1997. This will be the 29th meeting all-time between the institutions with the Irish owning a 22-6 record. In the last meeting in 2007, Troy Calhoun's first year as head coach at Air Force, the Falcons defeated the Irish 41-24 in South Bend.
The overwhelming key to this game will be what can Air Force do to contain Michael Floyd? The senior wide out is the Irish's biggest weapon on offense having made 47 catches for 561 yards and 3 touchdowns through the first five games. Surprisingly though, Floyd was limited in wins over Michigan State (6 receptions for 84 yards) and at Pittsburgh (4 for 27 yards), failing to reach the end zone in either game. Senior defensive back Anthony Wright, Jr. will be tasked to limit Floyd's production this week. Wright, a pre-season all-Mountain West selection must be able to disrupt Floyd by being physical at the line of scrimmage at the snap. But the Air Force coaching staff has shown they don't want to let their secondary get beat deep and have been playing them 5 to 10 yards off the line, especially so against TCU in their week 2 loss. They will have to switch from that game plan to be successful this week.
To help Wright and the rest of the defensive backs out, the Falcon defense must be able to get pressure on sophomore starting quarterback Tommy Rees. If given time Rees can pick apart a defense, as he did against the Boilermakers last week completing 24 of 40 passes for 254 yards and 3 touchdowns in little more than 3 quarters of action. Purdue was unable to get any pressure on Rees. Air Force will have to show they can beat the Irish offensive line and force Rees into making poor decisions. Air Force will undoubtedly have to have linebacker Alex Means involved to get this done. The junior is tied with Zach Payne as the team leader in sacks with 2. Payne, however, was lost to an injury against Tennessee State and will not be available. Means also leads the team in tackles for loss with 4. The Falcons must also get the sure tackling that finally arrived in last weeks overtime win at Navy in order to beat the Irish.
On the offensive side of the ball, look for the Falcons to mix in some more passing attempts for quarterback Tim Jefferson. The senior is coming off perhaps his best game in his four year career as a starter. Jefferson was 9 of 10 for 136 yards and a touchdown against the Midshipmen last week, garnering him MW offensive player of the week honors. His 70.2% completion percentage this season is the highest of his four years ar Air Force, and his 184.9 quarterback rating would rank him third in the country if he were to have had 9 more pass attempts through the Falcons first four games. Jefferson is getting more and more comfortable reading defenses and finding his open receivers. Look for him to take advantage of the Notre Dame secondary that has allowed 230 yards passing per game this season.
I also think that time of possession will be a factor this week. Troy Calhoun has to be concerned with the fact that his defense, although it played well against Navy, was on the field for more than 40 minutes last week. That can not happen against an opponent who is just hoping to wear them down with their size advantage. Look for the Falcons to play ball control offense, mixing in screen passes to wide receivers Zack Kauth and Jonathan Warzeka to help spread the Notre Dame defense out and open running lanes for running back Asher Clark, and fullbacks Wesley Cobb and Mike DeWitt. After all, this is an Air Force offense that prides itself in running the football.
Air Force will not be intimidated by the history and mystique that is Notre Dame football. This team has had to play at Oklahoma, TCU, and BYU in the past few years; all places that are known for having intimidating crowds or historic stadiums. If the Falcons can execute their game plans offensively and defensively, they should be able to win any game they play. They almost pulled that off last year at Oklahoma. No doubt, the coaching staff has reminded them of that fact this week in practice. They came close to knocking off the Sooners falling 27-24. Bob Stoops stated after that game he never wanted to see Air Force again on their schedule because of how difficult it was to prepare for them. Brian Kelly may be saying the same thing this year having never faced the Falcons before. Air Force is a unique team, and Calhoun knows it and will try and take advantage of that unfamiliarity.