Air Force is, no doubt, the worst team the Irish will play this season. Purdue has struggled since Notre Dame faced the Boilermakers in West Lafayette last month, but Air Force (1-6) is currently riding a six-game losing streak.
The Falcons have not won since a 38-13 season-opening victory over Colgate from the Patriot League. They were off this past weekend, but suffered a 27-20 loss to San Diego State their last time out after blowing a 21-6 fourth quarter lead in that game.
Like Notre Dame, Air Force has a question mark at quarterback this weekend due to injury. Starting QB Karson Roberts suffered a concussion in that loss to the Aztecs nearly two weeks ago and his status for this week's game is still up in the air. Freshman Nate Romine filled-in for Roberts after the injury and would be the go-to guy running the Falcon's option offense if Roberts cannot play.
"We're really preparing for the option scheme," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week when asked how the uncertainty at the quarterback situation might affect his preparation this week. "I think that's absolutely, for us, the most important element. The quarterback certainly is part of that scheme, so when we look at both of the quarterbacks that have played in the last game it really, for us, is not as important as preparation for the scheme."
The Air Force option is averaging 268.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the nation currently (Army's option attack leads the nation at 340.1, while Navy is 6th at 304.2). Roberts has played in all seven games this season and has totaled 206 yards on 40 carries with two touchdowns. Romine has played in four games and has just 44 yards on 13 carries with one TD.
Jaleel Awini actually started the season at quarterback, but he was kicked off the team and left for a violation of academy standards after Air Force's fourth game. Awini rushed for 220 yards and what remains a team-high four touchdowns in the four games prior to his dismissal. His 275 passing yards also remains a team-high.
"I think (with) Awini there (was) definitely more diversity to their offense," said Kelly. "But I think there's more option base in their offense right now. I think you go back to what you do when there's a little bit more inexperience at the quarterback position, just as the same would be for us here at Notre Dame."
Roberts is just 14-for-30 (46%) for 207 passing yards with three touchdown passes and two interceptions this season. Romine is 6-for-16 (37%) for 126 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The bulk of his passing yards came on a 71-yard touchdown pass to leading receiver Sam Gagliano (11 receptions for 215 yards) against the Aztecs. It is one of Gagliano's two TDs this season. Gagliano also has 13 carries for 119 yards (9.2).
Fullback Broam Hart (6'0, 220 pounds) leads the Falcons with 386 rushing yards (4.3). He has three touchdowns. Running back Jon Lee is next with 350 yards and three touchdowns and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Anthony LaCoste has 283 yards and three scores.
Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has traditionally taken the drop linebacker off the field and replaced him with a safety when facing option offenses over the past three seasons. His past drop linebackers have not had near the speed and athleticism as Jaylon Smith though.
"We're putting a couple of packages together for (Smith)," Kelly said on Tuesday. "Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles. They're a bit different than say Navy in terms of their formation, so Jaylon Smith will be on the field quite a bit for us."
Air Force's 24.7 point offensive scoring average is at least average, but the Falcons are surrendering nearly 38 points a game this season, which is good for a lowly ranking of 113th out of 123 teams in the NCAA rankings. They allow 221 rushing yards (No. 111 national ranking) and 267 passing yards (No. 102) for total yards allowed of 488 per game and a ranking of 116th nationally.
Those numbers have hardly come against college football juggernauts either. In addition to the win over Colgate, the losses have been to Utah State, Boise State, Wyoming, Nevada, Navy and San Diego State.
The Falcon defense only has six sacks and opponents have converted 64-percent of their third down chances in seven games this season. Linebacker Joey Nichol (6'1, 230 pounds) leads the Falcons with 68 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Safety Christian Spears (5'9, 185 pounds) is second with 52 tackles.
Kicker Will Conant has made all 19 of his extra points this fall. He is 9-for-11 on field goals, including two kicks from 52 yards away. Conant is a perfect 5-for-5 on field goals between 20 and 39 yards. His misses have been from 44 and 50 yards.
Punter David Baska is averaging 41.9 yards on 20 punts. Opponents have had to punt to Air Force just four times in seven games. Gagliano has averaged 4.5 yards on his two returns, while Garrett Brown has lost two yards on his two punt returns.
"What we love about (facing the service academies) is the academies and the mission of the universities," Kelly said on Tuesday. "The honor, the tradition, the code (and) what it represents - the academics, the kind of young men that will be represented on the football field. All those things make for that Saturday on that football field a great collegiate environment when both these teams play."