Once tied at 10-10, the Falcons scored 21 straight points to take control of the contest and take care of Notre Dame en route to a 41-24 victory. In front of another sellout crowd in South Bend, Air Force (8-3), despite being undersized, dominated both lines of scrimmage, sacking Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen six times and racking up 285 yards on the ground.
What bad history was set? Notre Dame (1-9) lost to two service academies in the same season for the first time since 1944, a span of 63 years. Head coach Charlie Weis has tried a little bit of everything to get this team motivated. One approach was going back to a "training camp" atmosphere after the 38-0 loss at Michigan. Time after time, the attempts have not translated into wins on game day. Weis laid out the major problem after the defeat.
"My tone wasn't very pleasant," Weis said about his post-game talk to the players. "My message is that I'm 51 years old. My greatest attribute professionally is as a teacher. That's my greatest attribute. I've always been able to teach at a very high level, and the subject happens to be football. It's just like a professor and a subject and my subject happens to be football.
"I've always been able to do a good job of getting my message across and regardless of the age of the student, I've been able to figure out in a classroom where there's different levels of football intelligence what they needed to do to understand what we are doing and being able to take it from the classroom to the practice field, and then see it applied on the practice field -- on the game field.
"It's one thing when you see those things applied on the practice field but then it doesn't correlate or you don't see the corresponding thing on game day. And I think that that's my biggest frustration where we didn't all of a sudden put a package in and practice hit and come out to the game and you don't have it right."
Every time Notre Dame appeared to get back in the contest, Air Force shoved them away. The first instance occurred late in the second quarter. Clausen hit John Carlson for a two-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-Goal to nod the game at 10-all. For Carlson, it was the fifth-year senior's second touchdown grab of the year. The score also got the crowd going and the momentum looked like it was shifting towards the Irish.
But the Falcons responded forcefully. Getting the ball with 2:32 on the clock left before halftime, Air Force marched 66 yards in seven plays, capped when Spencer Armstrong scored on a eight-yard reverse. Air Force moved down the field on five runs and two pass attempts and went into halftime with a 17-10 lead and momentum swinging back in their direction.
After getting the ball to start the second half, the Falcons didn't waste any time increasing the lead. Shaun Carney hit Sean Quintana for a seven-yard scoring strike to give Air Force a comfortable 24-10 advantage. It was 31-10 when Carney hit Keith Madsen later in the third quarter for a 10-yard touchdown drive. The Falcons came into the contest with the second worst passing offense in Division I. Carney ended the day 10-of-16 for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Clausen, playing without freshman wide receiver Duval Kamara because of academic issues, tried to work some magic in the fourth quarter. On fourth down, the freshman signal caller hit David Grimes for a 21-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 31-17. It was possibly the best pass of the afternoon for Clausen, who finished 22-of-40 for 246 yards and three touchdowns to no interceptions. The problem: the freshman was sacked six times and plagued by numerous drops. The six sacks add to the troubling total for the year as the number hit 51 after Saturday's performance. Despite the lack of protection, Clausen was one of the few bright spots on the day.
"I sat there and talked to him at the very end of the game," Weis said of Clausen. "I called him aside and we talked about the program and next week and the future. And I think that one thing he understands is we took a baby step at his position but the thing is now the team needs to take one."
As Notre Dame tried to creep back into the game, Air Force erased any hope of a comeback. After Grimes touchdown, the Falcons' Chad Hall returned a kick 52 yards down to the Irish 33-yard line. It set up a 37-yard field goal by Ryan Harrison to push the lead back up to three scores at 34-17. Hall was as good as advertised and is the only player in Division I who leads his team in both rushing and receiving yards. The senior totaled 142 yards on 32 carries and caught two balls for another 31 yards on his way to 272 all-purpose yards.
"He's our one star," Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said. "That comes as no surprise. I feel like the later you get into the year, it's his senior year and there isn't a whole lot left. He's wearing a little heavier harness and we are going to ride him a little. That's something we're aware of."
Clausen wasn't done. The freshman moved Notre Dame 71 yards in eight plays and connected with Armando Allen out of the backfield on a swing pass for a nine-yard touchdown. It brought the Irish to 34-24 with just under eight minutes remaining. The defense actually stopped the Falcons on the next series and forced them to punt.
After a completion to Robby Parris, it set up a 4th-and-1 on Notre Dame's 25-yard line with five minutes remaining. Clausen tried to sneak it for the first down but was stuffed by the Air Force defense, who appeared to know what play was coming. The Falcons made the Irish pay as seven plays later, Carney snuck into the end zone from a yard out for the backbreaking score as fans headed towards the exit in droves.
What's next? Notre Dame has lost six straight home contests and will try to avoid a winless campaign in South Bend next weekend against Duke. It'll be the battle of one-win teams as the Blue Devils are 1-9 on the season after a 41-24 loss to Georgia Tech. It'll also be Senior Day for a handful of the Irish players, the last time these guys will play at Notre Dame Stadium. Weis would like a victory for both the seniors and the players coming back in 2008.
"I think the first thing that you have to do is do all you can to win that game," Weis said of Duke. "Let's go back to just going to win the game, end up with your last game at home with a win because who is to say that September 6 next year against San Diego State, the players are going to know that they are going to win that game or feel they are going to win that game when they haven't been winning games. You could sit there and go into the off-season and say, ‘Hey, we've got it all fixed now, everything is fine now." But they need a little taste of that.
"Second, the emotion that you really do play on, which is a little bit different than the first part, is the fact that for the seniors, it's last time they are ever going to play. I think that that alone should have enough impetus for the players to be ready to play for the seniors for the last time out there, they should want to play. And for anyone who is not a senior, they had better be playing for them, because this is the last time they are going to be able to walk out and play at this stadium."