I love the service academies I have a great deal of respect for anyone who joins the academy and I cheer for them when they are not playing Notre Dame. I respect these soldiers because I'm not joining. It's not that I am yella', I just don't think I am cut out for the military life (see rules and regulations). A unit led by me would surely meet an unfortunate demise.
Notre Dame has always played the service academies probably for the same reason I cheer for them. I think Notre Dame has a lot of respect for their discipline and traditions. There is a kinship in the way each school conducts business. Both are built on a foundation of excellence, discipline and character. The soldiers have been the underdog for many years but they certainly don't play like one. I expect a serious battle because I don't think you will see either team back down.
Air Force is a team that runs the ball. They run the triple option and I think Air Force will always run the triple option. The Academy is not allowed to take 6-8 310 pound offensive tackles because of height and weight regulations. The triple option is one of the most effective ways to take undersized men and give them a chance to beat bigger men. The triple option is a game of finesse and discipline. You have to have both to execute this offense and you better have both if you want to stop it.
Their outstanding quarterback Chance Harridge leads Air Force. Harridge does his damage on the ground. He runs the triple option like a finely tuned machine making the right decision with the ball almost every time. Harridge has rushed for 615 yards and averages 5 yards a carry. He is the man to look to when they are in the red zone and he has scored 15 touchdowns rushing with 4 in the air. In order to have an effective triple option; you need to be able to distribute the ball. Not one player should have a tremendous amount of yardage. That is why you see their backs have similar numbers in attempts and rushing yards. Leotis Palmer has 44 attempts for 301 yards, Steve Massie has 52 attempts for 236 and Adam Cole has 34 attempts for 152 yards. Air Force also has a few other backs they add to the mix in Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward. Air Force lists Palmer and Stephens as tight ends but they are really running backs.
Air Force does not throw the ball often. They complete an average about 6 attempts a game but average 81 yards a game so they can get some big plays when they complete the ball. Harridge has a 49% completion average and he looks for Anthony Park and Adam Strecker most of the time. Air Force does spread the ball around with 11 players catching a total of 29 balls. Rickey Amezaga and Alec Messerall look to have some big play ability averaging 28 and 27.5 yards per reception. I don't expect Air Force to try and throw much against Notre Dame and if they do, I don't think they will be very effective. Notre Dame cannot just squat on the run however or they will throw the ball deep looking for a big play.
Air Force has done a pretty good job of protecting the ball. They have a total of 10 turnovers for the season and 5 came in a game against Cal. Air Force has also done a nice job of creating turnovers 16 turnovers with 14 coming in the last three games. I have always stated that bad teams are considered bad teams because they make mistakes. Air Force usually does not beat themselves so you are going to have to beat them to get a win.
On defense, Air Force is pretty good against the run. They give up an average of 128 yards a game. That stat is inflated by the 260 yards they surrendered against Navy that also runs the triple option. They also are pretty good against the pass as well. They surrender an average of 188 yards a game and have effectively shut down and forced turnovers against two pretty good passing teams in Cal and BYU. The Falcons have only surrendered 6 touchdowns on the ground and 4 through the air. This defense is much better than they usually are. They fly around the ball and they hit you hard. They play with a similar passion as the Notre Dame defense.
There isn't much strategy for this game. Air Force is going to line up in their triple option or bone formation and Notre Dame is going to have to stop them. Any time you face this offense, the defensive end and the safety have to have big games. The interior defensive linemen must shut down the full back, the defensive end must hit the quarterback and the safety must take out the pitchman. It sounds so simple except the Falcons have averaged 340 yards and have scored 25 touchdowns on the ground. Air Force has a solid kicking game as well completing 7 or their 8 attempts so far. Notre Dame will have to find a way to stop Harridge and they can win this game.
So why is Air Force so successful? It takes a lot of discipline to run this offense and the timing has to be perfect for it to be effective. Air Force runs this offense as good as any team I have seen. They use a lot of misdirection to neutralize the speed of a defense and level the playing field. Their offensive linemen and their backs block low and take the feet of the defender out from under him. They don't want to drive you out of the way, just knock you off your feet so you can't pursue. That is how a 270-pound offensive lineman can continue to be effective against a 300-pound defensive tackle. The Notre Dame team will have a lot of banged up shins when they return to South Bend.
Air Force will frustrate the Notre Dame defense. ND's defense is so used to using their speed and athleticism to make plays and while that will have an impact on this game, playing a disciplined and an assignment style of defense will be the only way they can win this game. They will be knocked off their feet often in this game and you can't become frustrated. The play of Ryan Roberts, Justin Tuck, Kyle Budinscak, Gerome Sapp, Glenn Earl, Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell will be the difference in this game. If they can stay home and execute their assignments, Notre Dame will win this game.
On offense, Notre Dame has to find a way to run the football. The Falcon defensive front is smaller but they are very quick. They shoot the gaps before an offensive lineman can get a body into them and they make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The linemen will have to find their man and get a body on them quickly. Air Force will not make a lot of mental mistakes so this will be a game of who wants it more and if the Irish Offensive linemen can use their advantage of size and strength to push this defensive line out of the way. If they can get a body into the teeth of this defense, they should be able to run the football.
All you ask of Carlyle Holiday is to protect the football in this game. You cannot give Air Force the short field. They will move the ball on Notre Dame so you can't give them the short field or they will score. Holiday will have to make his reads and complete some passes so the Falcon defense doesn't load 9 in the box. They will have to make some plays deep in the Air Force secondary to get them to back off.
This game is what college athletics should be about. I think the reason that these soldiers play with such passion is they realize this will be the last time they will be doing it. There isn't a NFL check waiting for them or interviews on ESPN. They will be in their uniform protecting our country so they better make the most of it while it lasts. They won't be able to tell their kids about the 3 touchdowns they scored in the Super Bowl but they can tell them about the time they beat Notre Dame. A night game, ESPN game day at the Academy, this will be the toughest game for Notre Dame this year. I can't pick against them because they haven't let me down yet. The Notre Dame defense finds the way to win this game. Notre Dame 24 Air Force 21.
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