Cut RateWith the exception of an isolated, epic fourth quarter meltdown in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame's defense has been stifling over its last 10 outings, allowing more than one touchdown just once (a pair of cosmetic scores by Miami in the Sun Bowl) and yielding just two rushing scores (one the result of a fumble recovery by Michigan) since the team's October 23 loss to Navy.
They'll face a stiff, similar test this week vs. the multi-faceted option attack of Air Force. And though the Falcons can beat teams through the air and by various means on the ground, it's their base triple-option that has forced the Irish to tweak their approach slightly this week – it's likely been 11 months since a Notre Dame defender took on live cut blocks in practice as they did Tuesday afternoon.
"We went full-go today," said defensive line coach Mike Elston of Tuesday's full-contact practice. "You have to put (the defense) in that situation, because on Saturday, if they're not ready for (cut blocks), they're not going to be playing hard. They'd get cut one time and be like, ‘Okay (taken aback), where'd that come from?' So we have to be able to practice against it as its going to be in a game."
Outside linebacker Darius Fleming has faced elements of the triple option on four previous occasions (Navy three times and Army once). He's well-aware the speed of the game is far different on Saturday vs. a team that has perfected the attack compared to the well-meaning efforts of the Irish scout teams.
"You have to react to what you see, but at the same time they're going to be certain times that things will be going so fast that you might not be able to tell who has the ball," Fleming warned. "That's when trust comes in and believing in your teammates. If you get your job and they get their jobs done, you'll be fine, but if you make a mistake by thinking too much, that's when things can go bad."
Fleming has done his best to impart to freshmen contributors such as Troy Niklas, Stephon Tuitt, and Aaron Lynch, that what they've seen in practice this week bears little resemblance to what the Falcons will bring to the field Saturday.
"I've been telling them all week: it's going to be a lot different than what it's like in practice. (Air Force) does this while we're in August camp running pro style; while we're doing that, they're doing this. They've been doing it for years; it's their ‘profession.'"
The veteran Fleming is aware of, but no longer concerned with the cut blocks he and his teammates will encounter in this weekend. "It's something you have to prepare for. It's going to happen; you can't get around it," he said of the tactic. "Use your hands and feet, if not, you'll be on the ground. If you can stay off the ground, it'll help you in the game."
The Irish have practiced staying off the ground this week, though as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco pointed out, there's a fine line between preparing and jeopardizing your defensive personnel.
"You're in a tightrope of how much to work on that, and how aggressively, and still get our players to the game on Saturday," Diaco noted of potential injuries incurred when a blocker dives at a defender's knees. "Picture it," he explained, "turn to the side, and look that way. I'm going to dive on the side of your knee as hard as I can.
"It's hard. It's a challenge."
Lucky 13The Irish defense has allowed 13 points or fewer in three straight games – the first such occurrence at the program since No. 1 ranked Notre Dame did the same in 1989.
Air Force, conversely, has scored more than 20 points in 13 of its last 17 contests dating back to the beginning of 2010. Two of the games below the 20-point mark occurred vs. TCU – the Horned Frogs owned the nation's No. 1 defense last fall – and in two others, Air Force won anyway, defeating Navy (14-6) and then Georgia Tech 14-7 in the Independence Bowl last December.
Whether it's been via the triple-option, standard zone blocking, or the play-action pass, the Falcons have found a way to score points, and the cut-block plus cut-back run has consistently befuddled opposing defenses.
"Air Force challenges you because they come off the ball so well on the play side (the front side) and then they go ‘play-away' and you're coming off hard to attack the blocker, but then they're cutting you," Elston said. "You have to play with really good hands, heavy hands, and have some light feet to be able to move laterally to play the cut, sprawl back a little bit and stay alive. You have to stay off the ground. You cannot be on the ground. You may not be initially in your gap, but you cannot be on the ground."
To that end, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco admitted that time must be spent not only on standard defensive improvements he preaches each day, but on elements of an offense to which his team is unfamiliar.
"The offense is unique, and it's not something that we ever see," Diaco said. "We try (to simplify it). We're in the process of putting things together that fit into what we do and how our players are already trained, and then at the same time, fit them into these unique plays and formations.
"I would imagine it's a fun offense to be a part of," he continued. "They're an explosive group, they're moving in and out of formations. It's a unique and special offense."
It's All RelativeAs for successes in stopping the attack, Diaco again deferred to the relevance of the term. "Every time I've looked they've rushed for nearly 400 yards and the scores are high. What's ‘success?' And people talk about ‘stopping,' you don't stop an offense like this.
Hopefully you can get them off schedule. TCU for (whatever reason), they were up 14-0 and you blinked and it was 21-0. If they can get off schedule (down and distance) that seems to help…most of the time. But these guys are proficient passers and receivers. It's why they're one of the best offenses in the country."
The Falcons lone loss this season was to the aforementioned Horned Frogs, but Air Force out-gained TCU 416 to 410 in the contest. In three of four losses last season (9-4), Air Force gained 411, 487, and 458 yards, facing #8 Utah, #23 San Diego State, and #7 Oklahoma, respectively, losing the trio by an aggregate 10 points.
The only team to stifle Air Force over the last two seasons was the 2010 Horned Frogs, who ran roughshod over the Falcons, winning 38-7 and limiting the attack to 231 total yards. TCU boasted the nation's No. 1 defense in 2010 en route to an undefeated season.
In light of the Falcons accepted success, Elston concurred that winning on first down – or on as many individual downs as possible – is of added benefit this week.
"No one has really ‘stopped' their offense," he said. "You can't give up the big pass and you have to force them to run the ball. And you have to get them off schedule. I don't know that anyone's done that though.
"You have to win on every play that you can. You have to win more than you lose against them."
True TestDespite a five week span in which the Irish faced the nation's No. 3 (Ray Graham) and No. 4 (Denard Robinson) ranked rusher, and in addition to Michigan State (#81), the nation's #7, #16, #19, and #40th ranked rushing offenses (Notre Dame is #41 at present), Diaco's defense has surrendered just five rushes of 15 yards or more through five games this season.
Air Force brings the nation's No. 3 ranked rushing offense and has 10 players with a rush exceeding that total this fall, and 17 rushes in excess of 15 yards – as well as at least that many totaling 13 or 14 yards – in just four contests.
"You have to play fast because when you have as much movement as (Air Force has) in the backfield, you can get paralysis by analysis," offered Irish safeties coach Chuck Martin. "You just have to stick with your key and go where it tells you and trust your teammates will do the same. It's not different than any other week except if you don't (do your job) it can go bad in a hurry," he added. "They're a big play offense both run and pass. You watch their pass clips and there are guys running up and down the field free every week.
"They stress you a lot of different ways and usually when you face a quarterback that runs it as well as (Tim Jefferson) does, they don't throw it very well, but he's like the third-rated passer in the country. He's pretty proficient throwing it."
Notre Dame's defense has been proficient for the better part of its last 10 contests.
Saturday represents (at least) its second-toughest test over that span.
"It's a challenge, but we have some pretty smart kids and disciplined kids, so I think we're up for the challenge," Martin offered. "It's no different than any other week. You have to trust your teammates and do your job. Be 1/11th of the defense."