Two undefeated, nationally ranked teams met before a Falcon Stadium record setting crowd of 56,409 in a game whose final score didn't accurately reflect the superiority of one over the other. The Fighting Irish posted a seven point victory to push their record to 7-0 on the season. It was the fifth time Notre Dame has defeated an opponent by eight points or less. If you want lopsided scoring margins the Irish aren't for you. If you want a team which is capable of controlling a game from start to finish, then the team which beat Air Force yesterday is the one for which you've been searching. The surprise is not that Notre Dame won the game, but rather, that it won the game by only seven points given the course of play as it unfolded last night.
A HUMAN BLOCKADE. The AFA Falcons brought a nation's leading 339.2 yards per game rushing total into the fray against the Irish. The Falcons were held to less than thirty-one percent of that figure by a stalwart defensive front which frequently comprised eight or nine players. If part of Notre Dame's defensive strategy was to control the Falcons' ground attack and dare AFA to win the game by throwing the ball, then it worked to perfection.
Through the first six games of the season Air Force had been able to run the ball at will and register TDs by the handful. On Saturday night the Irish solved the complexities of the option which had baffled other teams this year and grounded the Falcons' offense.
QB Chance Harridge was contained all night, AFA's outside speed was a never a factor and when the Falcons tried to sustain drives with a passing game they had no success. Every AFA offensive thrust was parried deftly by a Notre Dame defensive counter.
EVERYTHING BUT POINTS. Notre Dame's defensive line met the challenge presented to it by AFA's offensive line and won that battle in compelling fashion. When Notre Dame had the ball the Falcons had no answer for Ryan Grant, 30/190/1TD for the night. ND QB, Carlyle Holiday, scored his team's first TD on an athletic fifty-three yard jaunt in which he extricated himself from pending entrapment by several Falcons' defenders, reversed his field and sprinted into the North endzone late in the first quarter. Grant added an eighteen yard TD run late in the first half to stake the Irish to a 14-7 lead.
Whether the Irish were busy rolling up 335 yards on the ground or completing eight passes from Carlyle Holiday to Arnaz Battle for all of their 112 yards passing for the night Notre Dame controlled this game from start to finish. Holiday and Battle baffled AFA pass defenders throughout the game with a middle screen pass play for which Air Force was never able to make an effective tactical adjustment.
MISSING IN ACTION. Air Force opened the game's scoring after DL John Hicks' thunderous tackle separated Holiday from the ball and awaiting LB Marchello Graddy picked it from midair and scooted 19 yards for the game's first TD. AFA's other touchdown on the night came as a result of a special teams' play on the opening kickoff of the second half. DB Sean Rodgers' hit on return specialist Vontez Duff caused a fumble which was recovered by LB Kenny Smith on the Notre Dame sixteen yard line. Chance Harridge led an abbreviated drive which culminated in a game tying score and extra point conversion.
The Falcons were assessed a personal foul penalty on the PAT and the ensuing kickoff was returned by the Irish to their forty-one yard line from whence they launched their only scoring drive of the second half, but one which produced the game's winning margin. Air Force fans would be engaging in an exercise in futility by pondering what might have happened had the personal foul blunder not befallen Air Force.
Notre Dame throttled AFA's option attack by positioning eight and sometimes nine men close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to contain the Falcons' outside speed. Notre Dame's size, quickness and lateral pursuit simply proved too much for the AFA offense to overcome and it failed to generate any consistency during the game. In choosing to leave only two and three men in pass coverage the Irish took a calculated chance that Harridge would not be able to hurt them with his passing game. Harridge's futile missiles more accurately recalled to mind a leisurely game of lawn darts rather than a precisely crafted aerial assault. Harridge is a capable leader whose position in the lore of AFA option QBs will not be fully cemented, until and unless, he can develop a productive passing game.
Tight end Adam Strecker didn't have a single reception in the game and the AFA passing game never forced Notre Dame to adjust its run snuffing alignment. The Falcons' offensive line simply couldn't budge the Irish defenders to the brink of relenting. When Air Force tried to augment its static running game with a passing attack Harridge was unable to deliver the goods. On balance, credit for initiating control of the game must be accorded to the superior play of Notre Dame's team not an inferior effort on the Falcons' part.
WHAT LIES AHEAD? Fisher DeBerry maintains three goals for his AFA teams each fall: winning the Commander-in Chief's trophy, earning a conference title and gaining a bowl berth and victory in the post season. All three of these goals remain within reach of this season's squad, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that so much more than all of those goals did not escape the Falcons' grasp last night with the team's defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish. Yes, the Falcons can still win the CIC trophy with a win over Army in three weeks. The team may even post an undefeated record in the Mountain West Conference race. Air Force can earn a bid to the Liberty Bowl, meet and defeat the Conference USA champion and claw its way back up the polls into the mid-teen rankings by posting a 12-1 mark for the 2002 season. Yet there is no mistaking that a win over Notre Dame last night would have made much more than all of this possible.
Fisher and his staff must now shake the team from what might be an understandable emotional funk after its disconsolate loss to Notre Dame. A conference foe, Wyoming, with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain in its season with an upset of Air Force, awaits in Laramie this coming weekend. If adversity is the milieu in which depth of character can be revealed, then the Falcons have an opportunity which they can seize as they return to MWC play next Saturday.
The loss against Notre Dame marks the first t