Air Force Scouting Report

"Our first goal will always be to beat Army and Navy. Our second goal will be to win the conference. The third goal will be to beat Notre Dame." Fisher DeBerry speaking at his first press conference as Air Force Head Coach

History of the Wishbone / Flexbone

The Wishbone offense traces its roots back to a West Texas high school coach named Emory Ballard. Ballard had played around with the concept of running the triple option with three backs while coaching in Breckenridge and Ingleside High Schools. Later, he was hired by Darrel Royal, at Texas, to coach line backers in 1967. The following spring Ballard was switched to offense, convinced Royal to take advantage of the RBs that Texas had, and he then implemented the triple option out of the basic T-formation. Ballard tinkered with the formation, eventually moving the FB closer to the QB to increase the speed of the triple option and stress the defense even more. Ballard did not coin the name Wishbone. That term came from a Texas writer covering the Longhorns.

Ken Hatfield came to Air Force from Florida, where he implemented the Wishbone as the Gator's offensive coordinator. As the head coach at Air Force he began to tinker with the alignments of the traditional Wishbone halfbacks. He moved first one, then both half backs to the slot positions and the Flexbone was born. Fisher DeBerry continues the practice at Air Force, where he has been the head coach for twenty-one years.

Notre Dame at Air Force

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame travel to Colorado Springs to take on their second service academy, the Falcons of Air Force. This marks the first time the schools have met since 2002, an Irish victory, and the Irish come into this game leading Air Force 21-5 in the series. The last Air Force win over Notre Dame came in a 20-17 overtime contest in 1996.

This past weekend college football saw Ohio State, the number one ranked I-A team, hold on to a 17-10 win over the Illini, a 2-7 football team that has only beaten Division I-AA Eastern Illinois, and a Michigan State team that has destructed from within. It also saw number two Michigan have its hands full with 3-6 Ball State, winning by a 34-26 score. Florida, the number seven ranked team, was pushed to defeat 4-5 Wake Forest, 25-19.

I've brought these games up for a reason as the Irish prepare for the Falcons this week. In the oft repeated clichés of college football one hears, you can only get up for a few games a season, it's why they play the game, on any given day any team can beat another team, match ups, not records make games, and on and on. These cliches don't exist without a reason.

Fans often compare scores of their team's next opponent with the schedule's common opponents and predict resounding victories. Too many times these prognostications leave said fans taking abuse in the office, on the assembly line, around the water cooler, at the convenience store, or wherever fans are that love to hassle other fans about the failings of their favorite team. Irish fans should know this feeling better than most under the idea it's Notre Dame versus the world.

Many Irish followers are predicting a resounding defeat of Air Force this week. After all, didn't the Falcons fall to Navy, 24-17, a team the Irish beat convincingly, 38-14? Doesn't Notre Dame have the built in advantage of facing an option team just two weeks before? As everyone's favorite, Lee Corso, would say, "Not so fast my friend." Air Force has an attack that's more diverse than what the Irish saw against Navy. Also, the Falcons are not playing a back up QB.

I may be very wrong in my assessment, but Air Force scares me, as I'm from the school of Lou Holtz. I worry about every opponent. My worries are based on several things: Navy defeated Air Force with their starting QB in the line up, not the sophomore that the Irish faced against Navy. Air Force could possibly throw the ball better than Navy could against the Irish. Air Force went into Knoxville and took the Vols to the brink with a 30-31 loss. The Falcons possess a more diverse attack in their running game than the Middies showed the Irish. The Irish could be looking ahead.

Falcon Offense

Air Force will align in the same look as Navy with two wide outs, two wings, and the FB in the traditional position. They, unlike Navy, also use a TE in situations other than short yardage, an unbalanced line, and vary the wide out sets. Unless they change for Notre Dame the Falcons feature wider splits on the OL than most teams, the idea being that it improves blocking angles and negates size advantage. Add to that is the Falcon's OL will be going at Irish knees and feet which makes a long day for defenders, playing assignment football, and anxious to stop the option.

Air Force's run offense primarily relies on four players, the QB, #5, Shaun Carney, the wingback, #1, Chad Hill, and the FBs, #21 Ryan Williams, and #8, Jacobe Kendrick. All four have led the Falcons in rushing at least two games this season. There are six other backs that have carried the football for Air Force this year, and Coach Fisher DeBerry usually isn't afraid to use any back in his program, but these four listed above are the mainstays in the Falcon rushing attack.

Shaun Carney, the Falcon QB and heart of their attack, is a tough, brash customer. As a player at St. Edward's High School, the major rival for ND freshmen Robbie Parris and John Ryan, he set school records in passing for 3849 yards and thirty TDs, leading St. Edwards to a 24-2 record as a starter. He also can provide bulletin board material as witnessed by his comments before the Army game where he predicted the Falcons would thump Army by a score of 49-7. He backed his statement as Air Force beat Army 43-7. Carney isn't as quick as Navy's Kaheaku-Enhada, but he's definitely more powerful.

A side note about Carney is that he shared time as the St. Ed's QB with OSU's Troy Smith, a year ahead of Carney, before Smith left for Glenville High school.

Falcon Running Game

Shaun Carney has netted 521 yards rushing for a 3.9 average and six TDs on the ground. Carney, doesn't run with the flash of a Tommy Frazier, but he does run the Falcon offense well, being particularly adept at hiding the football. Besides keeping the ball in the option, the Falcon QB will also run the keeper where he fakes to the FB and then follows the FB. Meanwhile, the motioning slot, halts his motion behind the FB and runs into the hole outside of the FB, sending two blockers into the hole. Carney will also run the QB draw as well as the QB sneak on short yardage.

Chad Hall, all 5'8", 180 pounds of him, is the Falcon wingback and the fastest of the four major ball carriers. He averages 5.6 yards per carry, and his position of wingback, with 125 carries, is the dominant back among the slot backs in the flexbone of Air Force. By contrast, the slotback for Air Force, as a position, has only 23 carries on the season. Hall will be used as the pitchman on the option, the toss sweep, the counter, and the draw. He's quick on his cuts and fearless running inside.

The Falcons run the triple option and the pitch just as Navy does, which is enough of a problem, but they also employ the counter effectively. The counter that Air Force uses starts with the slotback going in motion. The QB opens to the FB, who is diving into the line to the same side that the slotback is motioning towards. The slotback stops his motion before getting to the FB's position and cuts back up field, looking to perform a kickout, seal, or isolation block, depending on the defense. Meanwhile, the wingback, in most cases Hall, takes a step back and comes past the QB, takes the handoff and cuts up into the line off tackle. When he reaches the hole he'll cut it up to the center of the field or angle wide, depending on the blocks in front of him. Air Force ran this play five times in the first half against Army and never gained less than five yards. The counter is particularly effective when the defense begins to lose its discipline and anticipates the option.

The fullbacks, Williams and Kendrick, seem to alternate based on who is hotter, or whether the Falcons prefer speed or size at a particular moment. Williams appears faster and weighs in at 215 pounds. Kendrick tips the scales at 230. Air Force uses either in their goal line offense.

WR Victor Thompson has run some type of reverse four times this year, and although it wasn't seen against Army it most likely will be attempted against the Irish Saturday.

Falcon Passing Game

Carney is the Falcons' all time leader in passing percentage at 61%, and he also has the all-time passer rating of 148.5. Against the two top teams on Air Force's schedule, Tennessee and Colorado State, he completed 7 of 9 for 127 yards, and 8 of 13 for 102 yards and two TDs respectively. This year, Carney is down in his completion percentage at 54.3% with 5 TDs and 2 INTs.

His main receivers are #81, Vic Thompson, with 12 receptions on the year, but a 10.2 average per catch, and #83, Spencer Armstrong, with 8 receptions and a 15.2 average per catch. The third receiver is #18, Justin Handley, a HB, with 5 receptions and a 17.4 average per catch. Handley wasn't seen in any pass catching opportunity against Army, but I'm sure the Irish have seen film on him and the routes he runs.

The thing about wishbone or the flexbone in the passing game is when opportunity meets a lack of discipline on the part of the defense. My first introduction to the wishbone was sitting down with Mal Moore, current AD at Alabama, former OC for Bear Bryant and, at the time, RB coach at Notre Dame. One thing that Coach Moore impressed on me was the surprise factor and the home run possibility of passing from the bone. Properly executed, used at the right time, the pass in the bone can be a big play for the offense. A reminder of this is the yards per catch of the Falcon receivers. During a game's course, a CB will spend time defending the running game, trying to avoid WR blocks, and may get complacent or may be too anxious in trying to stop the triple option. He then leaves himself open to the pass, often with no safety help, and gets burned.

Falcon Defense

Air Force will feature a 4-3 front with four DL, or three DL with the Stud DB aligning as a DE. They also show a 5-2 look as well. The defensive line is the weakness of the Falcon defense. The strength lies in the combination of the LBs and the positions of Stud and Falcon.

The Stud DB will play safety, LB, or DE, depending on the defensive call, a big task for #9, 220 pound John Rabold. The Falcon DB, # 4, Julian Madrid, at 205 pounds, doubles as a LB and safety. They both have two interceptions and are third and fourth on the team with tackles. Where these two line up, and what they do from their alignment, will be something Brady Quinn will have to be aware of each play. In using Rabold and Madrid the Falcons are comfortable in blitzing or dropping eight without a lot of personnel changes. Left cornerback Garret Ryback, # 39, picked two passes off against Army showing skill at breaking on the ball.

Drew Fowler, # 33, is a 235 pound LB who leads the team in tackles, with 79, nearly twice as many as the next Falcon defensive player.

To be honest, there wasn't much to see of Air Force's starting defense since Army turned the ball over so often and so quickly once they got the ball. In all my years of watching football I never saw so many turnovers happen so quickly.

Special Teams

Most of Air Force's special teams are nothing to get excited about, even for Air Force fans. Seven punt returns for 66 yards, last in the nation for kick off returns at 14.76 yards per return, and 91st in the country with a net punting average of 33.1 yards per punt. The later stat makes me think Tommy Z may bust another one this week on punt return.

They do, however, have an accurate kicker, in #47, Zack Sasser, who doubles as the punter as well. Sasser is 7 of 9 on FGs, but is only 1 of 3 past 40 yards. His punting average is 42.1.

Where Air Force is tough is in covering kick offs. They lead the nation giving up only 12.43 yards per return and no TDs. Sasser will either get the ball to the goal line, or kick it very high to around the twenty yard line. Not knowing which type of kick is coming puts kick off return teams, and their return men, in a bind. What happens at altitude this week is anyone's guess, mine being that Air Force will try to put it out of the end zone each kick.

One thing I'm sure that Coach Weis has emphasized this week is the punt coverage team. Not that the Falcons are a dangerous threat in normal circumstances, but to place emphasis on coverage, aware of the possibility of Geoff Price out kicking the coverage at altitude.

Final Thoughts

Air Force has the capability of beating a flat Notre Dame team that might be looking ahead to a trip to USC, and in the process ruin ND's bid for a BCS game. In 1996 the Falcons scored a win over an eighth ranked Irish team, 20-17, and in 2000 they pushed the 17th ranked Irish to having to win in overtime, 34-31.

Notre Dame will be facing a more versatile offensive opponent than Navy was, with the injury to Ballard. The Falcons will be at home and the game is at altitude. Now a finely conditioned team shouldn't worry about altitude, right? On a personal basis I was in college, in Boulder, and ironically came in on a Friday. My hosts warned me about the second day affect of altitude. The second day, a short Saturday jog, just leveled me, and I was in shape. Hopefully the Irish will feel no affects, despite flying in Friday.

Hopefully, Charlie Weis has the troops prepared by reminding them of the Falcon's narrow loss to Tennessee at Knoxville and what's on the line for the Irish going into the last Saturday in November. Top Stories