Notre Dame will need to avoid mental mistakes if it wants to keep its BCS hopes in tact this weekend when it travels to Colorado Springs. Air Force features a dynamic wishbone package on offense. The defense uses several combinations designed to keep offensives out of rhythm. While the Irish are a double-digit favorite (as well they should be), Air Force possesses the potential to pull off the upset. He is a look at how these two teams will match-up:
Notre Dame Rushing vs. Air Force Defense
The Irish will need to establish the ground game early in order to control the clock. Walker has been steady as of late, now averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Irish fans have also seen more of Aldridge and Prince, which takes some of the load off of Walker. Notre Dame needs enough here to keep the Air Force defense honest. If they can move consistently on the ground, it should dramatically open up the passing game.
The Falcons will flip between 4-3 and 3-4 defensive sets. They are currently giving up 132 yards per game of the ground, which is decent but not great. They have done extremely well in the red zone where opponents are getting into the end zone less than half the time. This will be a key battle to watch as the Irish rand among the nation’s best in red zone efficiency. Another factor that will not be completely clear until game time is the health of this unit. We do know that they have been banged up in recent weeks, and at least two starters have been lost for the season. DT Jake Paulson returned last week and should start. Junior LB Drew Fowler leads the team with 74 tackles.
Notre Dame Passing vs. Air Force Defense
Brady Quinn is starting to put up numbers that are forcing pundits to give him a second look in the Heisman race. TE John Carlson has become a major threat throughout this season. Add in Samardzija and McKnight and this unit may be too much for Air Force to handle. The Irish now rank 5th nationally, averaging over 307 yards per game through the air. BYU’s John Beck was able to carve up the Falcon secondary two weeks ago on 23-31 passing, for 258 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. If the offensive line can provide Quinn with decent protection, he will put up big numbers.
Air Force’s defense works on a similar system to BYU’s 3-3-5. They list only 2 linebackers on the official depth chart. The “3-4” set will involve dropping the Falconback John Rabold and the stud Julian Madrid down into linebacker positions. As a result, Madrid has managed 4 sacks. Madrid and LB Joey Keller have also combined for 8.5 tackles for a loss this season. Notre Dame’s line will need to be able to pick up on these schemes in order to protect Quinn. If they can, one or more of the Irish receivers will be left in single-coverage.
Air Force Rushing vs. ND Defense
While this is the second time in 3 weeks that the Irish will see a wishbone offense, the Falcon’s run a much more complex system than the Midshipmen. QB Shaun Carney averages over 65 yards per game on the ground. He will be joined in the backfield by Wingback Chad Hall who is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, as well as the slotback platoon of Justin Handley and Beau Suder. The Falcons will also use co-starters at fullback—Jacob Kendrick and Ryan Williams—averaging 4.4 and 4.8 yards per carry respectively. This unit ran for 281 yards during a near upset of then #11 Tennessee in Knoxville. They control the clock incredibly well, and have shown a willingness to be aggressive. Air Force is ranked 1st nationally in 3rd down conversions and have converted 8 of 12 on 4th down.
The good news for the Irish is that they have played this style of offense recently. Also, the front seven has been consistent for most of the season. Other than backup LB Anthony Vernaglia being out, the rest of the two-deep depth chart will be healthy. They showed great patience and an ability to string-out the option against Navy. The absence of a significant passing attack will also help. Air Force will not allow itself to be shutdown on the ground, but Notre Dame should be able to do enough to at least slow it.
Edge: Air Force
Air Force Passing vs. ND Defense
There is not much to say here. Air Force is 118th nationally in passing. Carney has only attempted 70 passes all season long, completing just over half. As for Notre Dame, their defensive backs have proven to be playmakers. The Falcons will not pose much threat to beat the secondary downfield, which should allow them to step up and help contain the rushing attack.
Edge: Notre Dame
Air Force has been able to capitalize on big turnovers. A fumble returned 99 yards for a touchdown sparked last week’s rout of Army. The Falcon’s are ranked 11th nationally in turnover margin, and over the last few seasons have been second only to Virginia Tech in blocking kicks.
For Notre Dame, Tom Zbikowski finally broke a punt return for a touchdown last week. Big plays on special teams for the Irish could break the game wide open. Air Force will not be able to overcome defensive or special teams touchdowns by the Irish. If the Falcons can slow the Irish in the red zone, Gioia could be relied on heavily (especially early in the game).
Notre Dame will be focused and ready for this game. Thursday’s upset of Louisville has now almost guaranteed that a one-loss team will be playing for the national title. For Notre Dame to seriously re-enter that conversation, they need to start winning like everyone expected them to win all season—big. Air Force is certainly a threat. The longer they are allowed to hang around in this game, the more likely it will be that they can pull off the upset.
Final Score: Notre Dame: 38 Air Force: 24