This is a game Notre Dame should win easily if the game was played on paper. Of course, the game isn’t going to be played on paper, which means the Irish will be in for a battle this afternoon.
Air Force presents a number of challenges for Notre Dame on both sides of the football. Not only does Air Force run a difficult to defend triple option offense, the Falcons are also athletic on the offensive side of the football. There are at least five players on the Air Force offense that are capable of ripping off big gains against even the best of opponents.
Defensively, the Falcons are not nearly as talented as they are on offense, but they have enough players to give the Irish fits when combined with their aggressive and multiple defensive looks. Air Force does throw a lot of different looks up front at an offense, but their secondary will play a lot of games and show a number of presnap looks. The versatility in looks in the secondary and the multiple pressures they bring from its 3-4 defense makes the Air Force defense potentially dangerous.
An offense has to be disciplined and aggressive if it wants to effectively move the ball against the Falcons.
Notre Dame has a chance to have a big day today against the Falcons, but they will have to execute at a high level on both sides of the football, protect the football, and be disciplined.
Here are the keys to an Irish victory:
OFFENSIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL
This will continue to be a key for the Notre Dame offense until they prove its turnover issues are a thing of the past. Against Purdue the Irish had their first game of the season with zero turnovers. Despite this positive development, turnovers remain an issue. Rees had two would-be interceptions dropped by Purdue defenders. One would have likely resulted in a Purdue touchdown, which would have completely changed the makeup of that football game. He still has to be more consistent and make better decisions with the football. This is especially true in the end zone. Air Force is a much better football team than Purdue, and turnovers will have a negative impact on this football game and could turn what should be a big win for the Irish quickly into a loss. This goes for the rest of the offensive skill players, who have done well the last few weeks in protecting the football. If Notre Dame protects the ball against Air Force they should be able to score a lot of points.
2. START FAST
Notre Dame has done an excellent job outscoring its opponents in the first quarter. Since the South Florida game, the Irish have outscored their opponents 42-6 in the first quarter. Air Force has outscored its first four opponents 42-24 in the first quarter. This is not a football team you want to get behind, because you might never recover. Notre Dame also cannot allow Air Force to gain a lot of momentum defensively. While the Falcons are not as athletic as Notre Dame’s first five opponents, they are as physical and aggressive as any team the Irish have faced this season. When they start off fast they build a lot of momentum and start playing harder and harder. They are like sharks that smell blood, when they get a lead the Falcons have the ability to bury an opponent. At the same time, when things start going downhill for them defensively, they have a hard time putting out the fires. If Notre Dame starts off fast and can build a big early lead, Air Force will have a very hard time staying in this football game. Starting fast is also important for Tommy Rees, who has similar issues as a quarterback the Air Force defense has. When Rees gets into a funk he has a hard time getting out of it. He will be able to make enough plays to win games, which we have seen, but he has yet to show the ability to get out of his early struggles and start rolling until late in the game. If that happens against Air Force his team might not be in position for him to win it late. When Rees starts off hot he can be very good and dangerous against this type of football team. Notre Dame also needs to get Michael Floyd involved early and often. If he can make a number of plays early in the game and forces the Falcon defense to spend a lot more attention on him, it opens up the rest of the offense in a big way.
3. BE PHYSICAL
Notre Dame has a significant size advantage over the Air Force front seven. The Falcon defenders are strong and tough players, but so are the Notre Dame linemen. This should make Notre Dame’s size advantage a positive in this game. Kelly’s offense had a similar size and strength advantage a week ago against Purdue, and they used that to dominate the Boilermakers en route to 551 yards of offense and 38 points. The Irish offense used their size and strength advantage in the run game and the pass game. Notre Dame gashed Purdue inside and out, and used that run threat to set up its play-action game and screen package. Notre Dame needs that same kind of dominance today against Air Force. If the Irish come out with that same level of aggressiveness, physicality, and execution Notre Dame Stadium will be a rocking place to be today. Notre Dame should also be able to wear Air Force down in the second half if they can come out aggressive early. This could also be the difference between winning and losing if the game is close in the second half. If the Irish line does not come out and play with that type of intensity, Air Force is the kind of team that can give the Irish fits. The other problem is once you allow a team like Air Force to start winning the battle up front, it can be difficult to recover and regain the advantage. We will know just how far this offensive line has come by their performance this afternoon against the Falcons.
4. BIG DAY FOR THE BACKS
Notre Dame running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are playing at a very high level and have made a lot of plays against quality defenses. That needs to continue this weekend. Air Force has struggled to contain teams on the ground. Each of Air Force’s first four opponents has rushed for at least 184 yards against the Falcon defense. For Notre Dame to roll like it should, they have to keep this trend going. The Irish line should be able to open up run lanes for the Notre Dame running backs, who must execute precisely and decisively. If they can the Irish should have a big day on the ground. Wood and Gray will be in for a more physical game this weekend, as Air Force is a much more physical and aggressive football team than Purdue. They have to be careful protecting the football in space. Air Force has a number of defensive players capable of delivering crushing blows that can pop the ball out. Notre Dame should also be able to utilize its backs in the pass game. Air Force brings a lot of pressures from one side of the field, which leaves the Notre Dame backs in position to pick up pressures against the blitz. These situations could also be opportunities for big plays for the Notre Dame backs. If Notre Dame can design and call some well-designed check downs and screens against these pressures there will be a lot of green in front of them. When Air Force blitzes, they leave a lot of room between the pressure players and the secondary. If Wood or Gray are able to catch the ball in this kind of space it could result in a huge play for the Notre Dame offense.
DEFENSIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. ASSIGNMENT DISCIPLINE (Option, Pass, Reverses, Tricks)
There are three important keys to stopping the triple option. The first is the need to be assignment correct. It is easy to say in articles or in a press conference, but it can be difficult for defensive players to do on gameday against this type of offense. This is an offense that creates impatience on the part of defensive football players. There is a reason option teams like Air Force are able to run for over 300 yards a game despite the fact teams know what is coming. Against Air Force, it takes only one player on one play to be incorrect for the Falcons to get a score. This makes discipline vital in this football game. This is not just important against the option looks. Air Force likes to run a number of counters off of the option game that will gash a defense that doesn’t remain assignment correct. The Falcon offensive coaches will not hesitate to run a reverse against a defense that is over-pursuing on the backside. If the inside linebackers think the quarterback has the ball and head that way, instead of taking the fullback (if that is his responsibility on that play), it will be a big play for the offense. If he thinks the fullback has the ball instead of the quarterback so he attacks the fullback (if his responsibility is the quarterback) it will be a big play for the offense. If safeties or cornerbacks start overcommitting to the run, quarterback Tim Jefferson will throw it over their heads. The same is true for the linebackers. Playmaking is not nearly as important in this game in regards to sniffing out plays and attacking the football. In this game, making a play is staying within the system, executing your assignment, and making the play when you arrive where you are supposed to be. Just as important as remaining assignment correct is executing assignments with physicality and force.
2. CONTROL THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE – RUN AND PASS
The second key to containing an option offense is controlling the line of scrimmage. To win this football game, the Notre Dame defensive line has to be physical against the Air Force offensive line. This is not about penetration, it is about coming off the ball hard, coming off the ball aggressively, getting a push against the opponent, and controlling the assigned gaps. Winning those battles on a consistent basis will make it hard for Air Force to get into a good rhythm with its run offense, especially the option. Notre Dame did not do this in its loss to Navy last October. The key here is forcing Air Force to get off the track they want with their backs and quarterback as well as forcing Jefferson to make decisions quicker than he would like. This increases the opportunities for mistakes and potentially turnovers in the run game. The only chance Notre Dame has at limiting Jefferson's ability to take over the game is to control the line of scrimmage. Controlling the line of scrimmage in the pass game is also important. Jefferson’s worst game of the year was against South Dakota, and the reason was South Dakota was able to get penetration when Jefferson dropped back to pass. When Jefferson was pressured he made mistakes and errant throws. Both of his interceptions on the season came in that game with pressure bearing down on him. He also had the ball knocked out of his hand twice on pressures in the pass game against South Dakota. If the Irish linemen can get after Jefferson when he does drop back to pass they should be able to limit his effectiveness. When he has time to get comfortable in the pocket he is dangerous.
3. TACKLE WELL ON SPACE
This is a pretty easy point to make, but an important one. The third important factor to stopping the option is tackling well in space. Running the option allows an offense to get players in space against opponents. In order to prevent big plays and yards after contact, wrapping up is going to be important. Often times defenders are forced to run downhill at running backs and wide receivers, which can increase the chances of missing tackles. Notre Dame’s defenders have to be able to wrap up and bring down Air Force ball carriers in space.
4. NO LONG SCORES
Notre Dame absolutely must limit Air Force’s big plays, especially the big plays for scores. If Notre Dame can prevent Air Force from scoring touchdowns from over 15 yards they should be able to limit Air Force’s effectiveness in the red zone. Notre Dame has the talent in the front seven and in the secondary to shut down the Air Force ground attack when the play-action pass has been taken away. Making Air Force have to work for its yards and scores also increases the chances they turn the ball over. You do not want to allow Air Force to get cheap yards or yards in chunks. Big plays are one way the Falcons could neutralize Notre Dame’s size and talent advantage.