Eyebrows are arching in querulous fashion as readers ponder the unanticipated presence of Notre Dame and Air Force in the upper reaches of college football's elite teams this fall. Weren't these two teams little more than scheduling cannon fodder just last autumn? Air Force surrendered points last season faster than the Dow Jones ticker. Wasn't it only minutes ago, after the conclusion of the failed Bob Davie dalliance, that the hallowed George O'Leary era ended before it began? These were two programs which couldn't find their playbooks with both hands.
Fans are asking how it is possible for each of these teams to be a perfect 6-0 at this point in the season. These teams have players on their roster who actually attend classes and are able to find the school library without benefit of a campus directory or tour guide. Rumor mills are working overtime grinding out tales that undergrads in South Bend do nothing all day long but go to one Mass after another. How can the school possibly field a competitive football team?
The tales spun about the Air Force Academy's cadets are no less puzzling or damnifying. Yeah, the academy, say, isn't that the place where everyone marches in a mad dash from building to building while screaming cosine tables and assorted trigonometric functions as marching cadences? The reality of the situation is that South Bend and the AFA campus are locales for some of the most level headed, well balanced young men and women in the country. These sites are also home to a pair of the most successful programs in division 1-A this fall.
A SOLID BASE. Notre Dame is 6-0, but hearing complaints that its offense isn't sexy enough. Not enough passing, not enough rushing, there's too much dominance exhibited by the defense. Yeah, it's hell being a fan of a team that was 5-6 last year and which is 6-0 this year.
This year's AFA team isn't being universally embraced either. For starters, attendance is down nearly four percent this season for home games even though the team is ranked for the first time since 1998 and is riding a healthy seven game winning streak.
After going 6-6 last year and looking vulnerable to every kind of offensive attack from first game to last, the Falcons have installed a new 3-3-5 defensive alignment and cut their points allowed figure by thirty-nine percent. After six games last season AFA had allowed 159 points and that included a shutout against division 1-AA Tennessee Tech. This season after half a dozen games AFA has yielded but 97 points. Air Force fans are heartened by the improvement on defense while still bemoaning the anemic nature of the passing game. Whether it's in South Bend or north of Colorado Springs there's just no pleasing every college football fan.
Partisans of both teams will confront one another on cyber-bulletin boards this week offering tortured logic as to which team will win and how the other team's demise will be manifested. One datum sure to be cited is the frequency with which both teams' defenders have produced turnovers, and not of the pastry shop variety.
The Irish have forced nineteen miscues by their opponents while Notre Dame's offense has committed nine, making ND a plus ten for the season. AFA's defense has made the opposing team cough up the ball seventeen times while the Falcons' offense has given up the ball just seven times. AFA is also a plus ten for the season. No edge there, but a revelatory explanation as to why each team is undefeated this year.
Perhaps neither team has been, or will be, overpowering on offense this fall. Each team has benefited from being able to disrupt its opponents' offensive attacks by generating a high number of turnovers. The ND defenders have scored several TDs through six games. For its part the AFA defense was solely responsible for rallying the team from a twenty point halftime deficit against Utah. DBs Nate Allen and Wes Crawley have scored TDs this season, the former against Northwestern after blocking a punt and the latter versus Navy via a lengthy fumble return.
DEPENDABLE NOT FLASHY. Fisher DeBerry and Tyrone Willingham have laid foundations upon which they have built their teams' successes this season. Solid defensive play, which has led to advantageous field position for maturing offenses, has been the cornerstone for victory in South Bend and at the academy in the current football campaign.
AFA defensive coordinator, Richard Bell and defensive backfield coach, Vic Shealy, have fashioned a ball hawking, stingy unit which has allowed the Falcons to rally for come from behind victories against California, Utah, Navy and BYU.
Notre Dame is more than capable of beating Air Force this weekend. To do so the Irish may need to score early in the game. In three games in Falcon Stadium this season, Air Force has allowed a total of sixteen points after halftime. Northwestern scored the game's final three points in a 52-3 opening day blowout. New Mexico scored a fourth quarter TD and extra point to force an overtime in which the Lobos were beaten by Air Force. This past Saturday the BYU Cougars scored a meaningless fourth quarter TD before its two point conversion attempt was intercepted. Conversely, AFA has scored 52 second half points, including seven in OT versus New Mexico, in the second halves of its three home games.
Strong defensive play characterized by the generating of numerous turnovers, offenses which score points when given the ball in prime field position and which commit only a handful of mistakes are the underlying components explaining the continuing success Notre Dame and Air Force enjoy this season.