The 1985 team hosted Notre Dame in the fifth game of the season and beat the Irish 21-15. The 1989 the Falcons hosted the Irish in the seventh game of the season and fell 41-27. Here they go again. For a third time Fisher and the Falcons sport a perfect mark on their season as they play host to Notre Dame before the watchful glare of a national television audience.
DeBerry is halfway through his nineteenth season as head coach of the Falcons. The preceding eighteen years have seen AFA win its fair share of games, earn an impressive number of bowl berths and finish among the nation's top ranked teams on occasion. Yet the newly arriving fall carries with it hopes of hitherto unthinkable successes for the Air Force Academy football team.
From the promontory they would occupy after a win over Notre Dame, the Falcons could gaze upon a college football landscape abounding with possibility and potential. A loss against the Irish would consign the Falcons to having been only a flavor of the week, a would-be contender from the hinterlands of the Mountain West Conference, who had sought refuge amid the clamor of BCS-bowl-bound teams.
As game time approaches be sure of this: there is far more at stake for Air Force than Notre Dame. The Notre Dame football program is not the stuff of legends, rather, it is legend itself. Rockne, the Gipper, Ara, the Four Horsemen, Joe Montana, Tim Brown and Lou Holtz. Feel free to add a dozen or more of your own favorite names not appearing on that list.
A GROWING PROMINENCE. Fisher DeBerry's three, primary annual goals for the Falcons are having them win the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, securing a conference title and earning a bowl game berth and victory. Posting a win over the Irish, or suffering a defeat to them, will have no impact of the first two of DeBerry's goals for the team. Should Air Force lose to Notre Dame the Falcons still would remain in a strong position to gain a bowl bid. However, a victory over Notre Dame this weekend would create staggering possibilities for the AFA football program and the academy itself.
There will be much sound and fury rising from the heated debates over what AFA's continued rise in the polls might portend for the brass at BCS headquarters. That is a story which will unfold as Air Force plays the remaining five opponents on its regular season schedule. A win on national television over an undefeated, seventh ranked, universally recognized Notre Dame football team, will more than likely boost the Falcons several rungs in the upcoming editions of polls. More importantly, a win will serve notice throughout the realm of college football that this particular Air Force team deserves to be taken quite seriously in its quest for national recognition.
An Air Force Falcons' victory against Notre Dame would allow the academy to present itself before high school students across the United States as an institution wherein academic excellence, preparation for service to this country and the distinction which accrues to those who excel in athletics at the highest level, are all attainable. This weekend's game provides AFA with the opportunity to show young men and women in this nation that the pursuit of a college education and the achievement of athletic success in the most challenging arenas are not elements which are mutually exclusive for adolescents wrestling with the decision of where to further their education. An AFA win against Notre Dame would bring into view the panorama of possibility which awaits men and women who attend a service academy. Yes, there is far more at stake here for Air Force than merely producing a victory over a historically preeminent college football program.
HOW IT MIGHT LOOK. Last week's win over BYU helped Fisher rid himself of the lingering bad taste in his mouth due to his 3-12 record against the Cougars. DeBerry improved his mark to 4-13 against a long time conference rival and the Falcons posted their fourth win in six contests against Brigham Young. This week AFA confronts another thorn in its side. In the DeBerry era the Falcons are a paltry
3-9(.250) when facing the Fighting Irish.
BYU continues to have a decided edge against AFA, but the fact that Air Force has won four of the past half dozen meetings does show the tide is turning. The same may be true of the AFA-ND series. The Irish enjoy a substantial edge with a
20-5(.800) record against the Falcons. The two most recent games were both played in South Bend, went to overtime and saw each team post a win. In 1996, AFA place-kicker Dallas Thompson booted the game winning FG in overtime to give the Falcons a 20-17 victory. In 2000, Air Force produced a furious fourth quarter outburst, rallying from an eighteen point deficit to tie the score. In the final minute of regulation play, AFA PK David Adams had a twenty-eight yard field goal attempt blocked forcing the game into overtime. The Irish prevailed with a TD in the first overtime for a 34-31 win. Notre Dame still maintains an overwhelming lead in the series, but the past two games may be an indication that Air Force can hold its own in its recurring battles with the Irish.
Everyone has a theory as to how this game will progress, what will and won't happen and what can and cannot be allowed to occur by a particular side if it is to win the game. There have been paeans written to the undersized, overachieving Falcons. There have been stories which wax eloquently about the perceived, superior athleticism of Notre Dame's players. Notice has been taken of both teams' propensity for having ravenous defenses which create turnovers with incomprehensible alacrity.
Air Force has achieved its success this fall because of a productive defensive realignment and the nation's leading ground game. Notre Dame has achieved it's exalted position in the polls, most notably, because of a superior performance by its defense. Don't expect AFA to get too cute by trying to throw the ball markedly more than it does on a weekly basis. Anything more than 10 or 12 passing attempts by the Falcons will represent a move away from its strength, which is running the ball.
Aerial trickery is unlikely to have a pronounced roll in Chuck Petersen's game plan for the Falcons. One exception here is tight end Adam Strecker. At 6-6/240 he's surely big enough to block effectively against Notre Dame LBs and blitzing DBs. If Strecker does that long enough and effectively enough the Irish may momentarily forget that he's also an eligible receiver. If AFA ever plans to include the TE in the passing game--and that's a question of real merit--there is no more propitious time than this weekend.
Deception on the ground via pitches, misdirection, reverses, perhaps even a naked bootleg, are altogether another matter. HBs Leotis Palmer, Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward all have the requisite speed to enable Air Force to attack the perimeter of ND's defense. Don't be surprised to see WR Anthony Park run a reverse at some point in the game.