"Let me just say we'll be emphasizing tackling today," Weis said, who hasn't been giddy about his defense's performance in this area. "You can read into that very clearly what that means. We'll be emphasizing it."
The emphasis comes at the right time. On Saturday afternoon, the 8-1 Irish will battle 4-4 Air Force at Falcons Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. EDT and CSTV will have the television coverage. Air Force comes into the contest fresh off a 43-7 pasting of Army. The Falcons are No. 3 nationally in rushing offense, totaling 266 yards per game on the ground. Running the football effectively usually translates into a time of possession advantage. Air Force is fourth in the nation in the category, controlling the ball for 33 minutes a game. This means fewer possessions for the Notre Dame offense, who is finally showing signs of consistency.
"We're averaging just over 71 plays a game," Weis said. "They're averaging just giving up 58 plays a game. It's doing the math. That's 13 less plays per game that you end up having. (Bill) Parcells used to call it shortening the game. They play to shorten the game and make you play with precision and know that every possession becomes critical. Before you know it, it's halftime. In the Navy game, we had three possessions and there were less than three minutes to go in the first half. It becomes very critical from the first possession to make things happen."
The Notre Dame defense could not get a handle on the option offense vs. Navy in the first half. The Midshipmen rolled up 211 rushing yards in the first 30 minutes and appeared to be toying with the Irish defenders. But in the second half, Notre Dame made the adjustments and asserted their will, surrendering just 60 yards on the ground in the third and fourth quarters. Weis and the players made constant reference to the speed of the option attack and adjusting to practice speed and game speed against a team who has perfected the system. The Irish will once again face an opponent on Saturday that is highly efficient with this offense.
"It's a bigger advantage than when we played Navy because you know what the speed of the game is, which I felt was a problem in the first half against Navy," Weis said. "Yeah, we tweaked a few things at halftime but we caught up to the speed of the game. Trying to defend the option without practicing it on a weekly basis is a negative situation. I hope that will have some carryover this week."
The signal caller for the Falcons is Shaun Carney. The team's co-captain is the second leading rusher for Air Force, averaging 65 yards per game. Carney has scored six touchdowns on the ground and another five throwing the football compared to just two interceptions. The junior doesn't put the ball in the air much, throwing just 70 passes in eight games. Weis admires how Carney runs the option without sustaining bone crushing knocks by oncoming defenders.
"Anytime you're put into the position of getting hit a lot, you don't see him taking big hits," Weis said about Carney. "Besides him understanding how to run the offense and showing good leadership, he's elusive, he makes the offense go, he's a runner and he's not a guy who has to get rid of the football because he can hurt you carrying the football. He makes good decisions and doesn't get crushed."
This will be a week of remembrance for one of the Notre Dame assistant coaches. Secondary coach Bill Lewis lost a son, Gregg, in a helicopter training crash back in the fall of 1998. Gregg Lewis was a 1992 graduate of the Air Force Academy and actually walked on to the football team in 1988.
Bill's other son, Geoff, got into contact with Weis and asked the Irish head coach if there was anything that could be done for his parents this weekend to remember Gregg's memory. After clearing it with Notre Dame and Air Force, Weis has arranged for the two schools to wear decals on the back of their helmets on Saturday. The decal is a replica of Gregg's unit patch, the Jolly 38th of the 66th Rescue Squadron stationed out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Weis didn't let Bill know about the details until all the arrangements had been made.
"His son came up for a game and we talked about it," Weis said. "We decided that he should tell Bill about it. So after a game, he told him what was going on and I'm sure it was fairly emotional. I wanted to make sure everything was set before hand. Bill and I have talked about this multiple times since then. There is nothing worse than losing your kids. I haven't lost a kid but one of my kids has a whole bunch of problems and there's nothing worse than that. The only thing worse than that is losing them all together and any parent in the world would feel that way."