At a Crossroads

Our summer prediction series saw the Irish stumbling in Week Six to fall to 4-2. Only half of that forecast will prove true Saturday in South Bend....

It's not a "must impress," simply a must-win.

A 4-2 start is fine for the Irish in 2011 is fine; it was actually predicted on these pages, though I thought the losses would occur vs. Michigan and Air Force, and never suspected five turnovers or a momentary loss of defensive competence would highlight a crushing Week Two defeat.

I no longer believe a loss to Air Force in the popular "trap game" scenario is in the cards for Brian Kelly's ever-improving Irish. The Falcons pass defense isn't as scrappy (#2 nationally last season) as expected; the Irish rushing attack is clicking as hoped – which means Air Force will have trouble stopping Notre Dame on both air and ground.

A loss and resulting 3-3 record, however, would indicate underlying issues remain. A second loss in three meetings with academy teams for this staff would be tough to take. So too would the potential fifth loss in the first 10 home games of the Kelly era.

And at 3-3, the national appeal of Notre Dame's forthcoming prime time tilt with USC would lose more luster, both where it matters today (on the field) and on the recruiting front. (Though the Trojans are trying their best to sully it on their own. How's the Kiffin era working out, Los Angeles?)

Notre Dame's near-30 high school prospects on hand for that rivalry game would conceivably come away less-than-impressed with what would be a relatively deflated atmosphere in a battle of also-rans.

But my glass remains half-full, and admittedly, an impressive win would further indicate that Notre Dame's 0-2 start was an error-filled fluke. It doesn't matter how the Irish get to 4-2, just that they get there.

Saturday's contest with Air Force shouldn't be considered a trap – at 3-2, how could anything be? But it is the season's crossroads game, the last in a four-weekend-long line of must-win matchups since the giveaway seen ‘round the nation in Ann Arbor.

To Thine Own Self, Be True…

Through four games, Air Force's offense has converted 69 percent of its third-down situations. They are, however, a shockingly-low 116th (out of 120 teams) in time of possession; holding the pigskin for a paltry 24:55. Notre Dame is at 31:32 per game, 34th nationally.

"They're running the ball effective, getting tons of yardage, then getting the opportunity to throw the ball over your head," Kelly said, adding that 1 out of every 6 completions for the Falcons this season has resulted in a touchdown. "Consequently the time of possession has been down a little bit. I would not say it's attributed to their ability to put points on the board."

Kelly offered that the standard tact vs. an academy offense – making the most of every possession – isn't the end all for Saturday. "I would say that certainly in their ability offensively to run the football, you're going to lose some opportunities if you turn the football over. There's no debating that. I don't know that that's going to change the way we operate our offense."

The Falcons, for all the rose petals thrown their way, are eminently beatable – 20-10 in their last 30 games dating back to the season opener of 2009 (the Irish are 17-13 in that same span).

When they lose, it's often because the opposing defense is able to throw off the machine-like pace and tempo of their unique offensive attack.

"When you get them off schedule as to what they want to do, I think everyone in college football would have the same problem. I don't think it's just Air Force," Kelly offered. "They do so many things; you can't defend everything. You've got to put yourself fundamentally in a good position. But you can't be guessing out there on every call."

To that end, Kelly noted the Irish will play their game, not capitulate to the opponent's unorthodox approach.

"I don't want to get away from who we're becoming, and that is a team that's playing really physical. I don't think you jump into the sixth week and all of a sudden now you stand up and you take a step back," he explained. "I think we keep charging. I think we keep doing what we've been doing. Certainly we have to be aware of option and the responsibilities. It's an extremely multi-faceted offense. But we've got to be who we are, and that is being physical on both sides of the ball."

Beyond this modest streak

A win Saturday would give the Irish four straight, tying two other streaks for the longest since Brady Quinn left campus in 2006.

Four in a row isn't relevant, nationally – it might take a 9-game streak and thus a 9-2 mark entering the season finale at Stanford to make a significant dent in the BCS landscape. But at 4-2, the Irish can stop worrying about digging out of a self-imposed 0-2 hole one shovel pitch at a time. Confidence and momentum – the calling card of the off-season after a 4-0 finish – would be regained and relevant again. The Irish will have defeated three quality teams, plus Purdue (and if Purdue is your "worst win" your schedule is just fine.)

There'll be an undeniable buzz in South Bend during the team's two weeks of preparation for the much-anticipated, prime time tussle with USC on the 22nd.

A loss kills all of the above and ends the team's slim BCS hopes. Suddenly eight wins seem more likely than 10 – a return to a nothing bowl yet again.

But these Irish won't lose Saturday.

And at 4-2 – right on schedule – I like their chances to forge a real streak from this four-game set.

For the first time since Week Two and only the second time in their last 11 games, Notre Dame's defense will allow more than one touchdown – but it won't feel as close as the final score indicates.

Notre Dame 30 Air Force 20

Viewer's Guide

Five items of interest for Irish fans to monitor during Saturday's matchup with the Falcons:

  1. The difference is pictured above: Junior running back Cierre Wood ranks as Reason 1A that Notre Dame's recent scares vs. forms of the triple-option should end. Plenty of strong Irish teams have yielded 20-plus (1989, 1993, 2005) even 30-plus points (1990) to the Naval and/or Air Force Academies over the years. But the constant for Notre Dame in those seasons was the ability to impose its will offensively – with a top-notch running game, the Irish can again do this Saturday.

    Either Wood, Jonas Gray, or both, will have a field day vs. the 113th-ranked rush defense of the Falcons.

  2. Edges Slaughtered: Why could Saturday be a big day for free safety Jamoris Slaughter, he of the nine tackles to date? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's key adjustment following last season's debacle vs. Navy was to move cornerback Robert Blanton to outside linebacker for Notre Dame's ensuing bout vs. the triple-option, November 19 vs. Army. Blanton's speed and aggressiveness, coupled with the ability to drop and cover, offered a much better matchup on the perimeter than did a standard outside linebacker (in last year's case vs. the Midshipmen, Kerry Neal).

    This season, Blanton can't shift from cornerback – the Irish don't have a third cornerback to insert. Instead, look for either of the team's free safeties: Zeke Motta or Jamoris Slaughter to man the spot early and often in what will look like a 4-3 front, but one with five defensive backs on the field (either Motta/Slaughter will then join Harrison Smith as true safeties in the backfield).

  3. Cool Your Jets: The Notre Dame fan blogoshpere is atwitter following Brian Kelly's radio show proclamation Thursday night that a "Special Package" will be unveiled in the Irish backfield. "We're gonna employ a special package with somebody, but I'm not gonna tell you who," Kelly said. "It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix."

    Or it "could" be slot receiver Theo Riddick, who ran the Irish form of Wildcat last season in the Sun Bowl, totaling 32 yards on eight carries.

    If it's Hendrix (more likely) or Golson (less likely as he ran the Scout Team this week), it would be the collegiate debut for either.

  4. EJ to Play?: If senior defensive end Ethan Johnson can walk and shuffle left or right without collapsing in pain, expect him to receive some medicinal aid for his injured ankle and find a way to take the field Saturday. The Irish defense needs stout, veteran, disciplined play up front to combat the pinpoint cut blocks and in-unison leverage the Air Force's undersized offensive line expertly employs.

    Both freshman defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will play (according to Kelly), but the more Irish fans see Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, and Hafis Williams, the better. As for redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix, he of the 80-pound weight advantage vs. the Falcons center Michael Hester? Remember the old football adage, big man: "Low man wins…"

  5. Seamless Exchange: Air Force's pass defense finished second nationally last fall – it's dropped to #71 overall through the first month of 2011. In other words, Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd might be able to find some running room.

    Expect the Falcons to position two defenders in Floyd's immediate vicinity for much of the afternoon, daring Notre Dame's other targets to beat them…and more important, baiting Tommy Rees to try.

    With attention turned to Floyd and the Irish running game clicking on all cylinders, tight end Tyler Eifert will again benefit from single coverage – and there's not a Falcons linebacker that can contend with the 6'6" target underneath or down the seams.


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