"Obviously, the Falcons really have a tremendous challenge on their hands this Saturday with the eighth ranked team in the nation and a Heisman Trophy candidate," DeBerry said at the Tuesday Mountain West Coaches teleconference. "They are strong and have some outstanding individual receivers. They are receivers who have established the all-time touchdown mark at Notre Dame in just two years. They are a talented team and talented on both sides of the ball. This is a strong team and we'll have to play the best game we've played this year to win."
DeBerry is in his 23rd season with Air Force. Only two other coaches in Division 1A have been at their institutions longer: Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden and Penn State task master Joe Paterno. He's led the Falcons to over a .600 winning percentage and 17 seasons of .500 or better. DeBerry has been the conference coach of the year three times and national coach of the year once in 1985. That season was his crowing achievement when Air Force totaled a 12-1 record.
This year, the Falcons sit at 4-4. They have the third best rushing average in the nation, racking up 266 yards per game on the ground. It'll be tough for the Irish defense to contain, who did a spectacular job in the second half against Navy and the option attack after struggling early on. Notre Dame pointed out that they finally caught on to the speed of the offense. The Irish hope this time, it won't be so slow starting out of the gate.
"In practice you never really simulate the type of speed of their offense that they run," Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski said. "It's just because they've been doing that for- they've had guys in that system for years, so obviously every step is accounted for and they never have a misstep. If you get off base for half a step, they've got ten yards on you. So definitely having that game played first half, second half and getting a feel for the type of option game definitely will help us out this game."
What should also open Notre Dame eyes is what this Air Force team is capable of achieving. To open the season, the Falcons traveled to Knoxville to face Tennessee. The sea of orange was as ever present as usual at Neyland Stadium. However, the Falcons were able to overcome the distinct road disadvantage and accumulate 281 yards on the ground. Air Force scored late with under two minutes remaining to cut the Volunteers lead to 31-30. DeBerry decided to gamble and go for the win. But a Chad Hall two-point conversion run was stopped short and the Falcons upset bid denied.
The perplexing part is that Air Force can give this type of performance one contest and then lay an egg against inferior competition. The Falcons lost 19-12 on the road to San Diego State. It's the Aztecs only win of the season. What can Notre Dame expect on Saturday? Prepare for the best.
"We watched what they did," Irish head coach Charlie Weis said about the San Diego State game. "It's just that you don't bank on that, what you're going to see. You bank on their best effort. That's what you bank on. You never can bank on an off performance. You have to bank on you're going to get their best, and that's what we're expecting."
Air Force is coming off a 43-7 beating of Army on the road. In the contest, the Falcons ran out to a huge 43-0 halftime lead and were prevented the shutout when the Black Knights scored with under two minutes remaining. Air Force ran for 267 yards in the contest, a yard below their average. The confidence is there. The altitude might be a factor on Saturday. DeBerry can sense the type of challenge that Weis and the Notre Dame will be for the Falcons.
"They always have great players," DeBerry said. "You would expect them to because they do a great job in recruiting year in and year out. Usually, they have their pick of who they want. They have a senior dominated football team this year. Being a Notre Dame grad, it's special to him (Weis). And he's brought a special energy to the program since he went to school there and he cares."