Unique Challenge, Unique QBBetween the lines, they've appeared in four straight bowl games with consecutive wins, including a 14-6 victory last season vs. fellow ground game juggernaut, Georgia Tech. 14 seniors return from a roster that took Oklahoma to the wire last season, 27-24 in Norman – and out-gained the Sooners' potent offense to boot. And on the sidelines, they're led by a finalist for the 2010 Joseph V. Paterno Coach of the Year Award, Troy Calhoun.
Add to that the No. 3 rushing team in the nation this fall and a pass defense that returns its key components from a No. 2 ranking last season and Saturday's Air Force contest represents more than just a trap contest for the suddenly streaking Irish.
"The balance that they have offensively creates headaches for everybody," Kelly said of the Falcons. "This is a team that requires a great deal of understanding defending the principles of option but (also) throwing the football. It's not cupcake throws. We're talking about pushing the ball down the field vertically."
Kelly noted that one out of every six Tim Jefferson passes this season has resulted in a touchdown. The Falcons triggerman threw 10 touchdowns last fall as well, adding another 15 via the rush.
"It's just a nightmare," Kelly offered of the senior signal-caller. "He throws the ball so well that, again, you're put into so many conflicts in dealing with this offensive structure, and it starts with Jefferson's ability to throw the football."
The Falcons, Kelly says, feature a far different attack than Navy, a team that riddled the Irish for 35 points last fall.
"There are many more pieces in the Air Force offense. They're going to run some traditional zone, inside/outside zone, they're going to run some power, some gap," he offered. "You're not going to get any of that from Navy, whereas you're going to get a balance in terms of what you'll have to defend (vs. UAF).
"Jefferson is obviously a guy that can throw the ball very well, (and) the receiving core, it's not off of play-action or ‘crack-and-go,' it's a comprehensive passing game."
Kelly noted the Air Force attack resembles, well, no one's.
"Not that we have gone against," he admitted. "The base is (what) you have to respect and you have to be really sound against option principles. Then the next play its lead zone. That's where they really put you in a very difficult position. That's going to require some great discipline on our part."
Calhoun, 37-19 in his four-plus seasons at the helm, apparently does not refer to his attack as a true triple-option. Regardless, Kelly believes that facet of the Falcons offense is of chief concern to the defense.
"If you fall asleep for one second on his offensive scheme, that being the triple-option and veer option, you're going to be in big trouble," Kelly offered as a bottom-line. "So I think what (Calhoun) does very, very well offensively is he forces you defensively to be ready for triple-option, and when you are so committed to triple-option, he's running the zone play at you.
"His ability to morph back into either one of those, if the defense is overplaying one scheme or the other (is an advantage)."
Self-Awareness, Stay the CourseNotre Dame has won seven of its last nine games because it stops the run and runs the football.
And the most humbling defeat of the Kelly era was administered by an Academy team against which the Irish performed neither of those tasks with a modicum of success.
Can two disparate results vs. triple-option teams last year (the Irish defeated Army handily one month after getting leveled by Navy), help Kelly prepare for a more athletically talented Air Force attack and its option principles?
"I just think being more familiar with it as a staff and being more familiar with it as how the game unfolds are all experiences you can take with you," Kelly said of last year's battles. "(But) certainly we have to play the way we play. We cannot become so out of character in stopping the option that we forget about the things that we teach every day.
"That is playing physical, flying to the football, great tackling…I think you've got to be careful because sometimes (regarding) option, you get this sense of, ‘Hey, it's option,' (so the defensive approach changes dramatically)," he explained.
"But we have to do what we do. That is, we've got to play physical at the line of scrimmage and we've got to tackle well; understanding the option being the most important principle."
Prior to last season's matchup with Navy, Notre Dame's defenders and defensive staff expressed, nearly to a man, a concern with the (legal) cut-blocking tendencies of the Midshipmen.
The self-fulfilling prophecy manifested in 367 rushing yards on 60 carries, with scores of Irish strewn across the turf on nearly every snap. Kelly believes wariness of cut blocks and the possibility of a crippling chop block – always a concern amidst the dozens of legal cut-blocks executed by an undersized Academy squad – won't be an issue Saturday.
"The way we're going to approach it, if you're afraid of that (getting cut at the knees/ankles), you're not going to play. We have to be who we are," Kelly reiterated. "Yeah, we have to understand the game plan and what Air Force brings, which is they strike on such a wide front. But, no, we have to play physical.
"We're big, strong, physical. They're agile, mobile and smart. They play extremely hard. We have to use our attributes and we have to be a physical team."
All Hands on Deck?A welcomed one week respite awaits the Irish roster following Saturday's contest. The University's fall break coincides with Notre Dame's bye week on the gridiron. And that reality could allow Notre Dame's lone front-line injury, the ankle of left defensive end Ethan Johnson, time to heal…that is, after necessary playing time vs. the Falcons.
"It's relevant. It definitely factors into how you're treating, trying to get him through this weekend; then having some time to rest him," Kelly said of Johnson who will remain in a protective boot until Thursday.
"We'll have to see how he moves around on Thursday. We're hopeful, but you really don't know," Kelly explained. "When you immobilize for 48 (hours), you're hoping for great results. We've been very aggressive in the treatment, but we'll have to really see on Thursday.
"He'll be involved in all of our drills, our walk-through. He's going to be an inside guy for us, so he's just got to be physical at the point of attack," he continued. "It's not like he's going to have a lot of different things going on. We hope he'll be able to answer the bell."
Johnson's classmate and bookend Kapron Lewis-Moore has repeatedly answered the bell in matchups with triple-option foes. Lewis-Moore was the lone bright spot in last year's bloodletting vs. Navy, posting 10 tackles. He added 8 one month later vs. Army and registered seven vs. the Midshipmen in 2009.
"He's 290-plus pounds and he moves like a guy who is 245, 250 pounds," Kelly offered of Lewis-Moore's success vs. the vexing offense. "Quick feet, plus his size give him the ability to do really good things. I think the same thing with (Darius) Fleming. Obviously strong, physical at the point of attack. If you want to base him out, he's going to be able to hold the point but he can also move his feet very well."