DENVER — With an annual game against Navy and a sporadic series with Air Force, Notre Dame's defense has a pretty good idea of what to expect this Saturday in Colorado Springs. Like the other service academies, Air Force deploys an option offense, one that's designed to neutralize the size and skill advantages its opponent nearly always has.
"You have to be so disciplined to face it," coach Brian Kelly said. "And the game of football, especially on defense, is that you want to play a little bit reckless at times. It really slows you down and forces you to play assignment football and takes away sometimes that skill advantage that you have, that size advantage becomes minimized in some instances, because you have to play so disciplined and play assignment football."
Air Force has the typical offensive profile of an option team: Long, plodding drives with very few big plays. Troy Calhoun's Falcons have the fourth-most rushing attempts in the nation, are averaging the 12th-most rushing yards but are near the bottom of college football in big plays (of over 10 yards).
But while fellow option-running service academies Army and Navy both have solid time of possession numbers, Air Force is 78th among FBS teams in time of possession, holding the ball for 28 minutes and 51 seconds per game.
It's no coincidence, then, that Air Force is 1-6 this year, with that lone win over FCS-level Colgate.
The Falcons' defense has largely failed them, allowing the eight-most yards per game (488.7) and the 10th-most points per game (37.6). They're prone to giving up big-chunk plays — the 34 plays of 20-plus yards their defense has allowed is 86th nationally — and are dead last in opponent third down conversion percentage, allowing offenses to pick up first downs on 63.7 percent of attempts.
But it's worth noting that Notre Dame struggled to beat a Purdue team that doesn't rate out much better than Air Force. Without directly referencing that game, quarter Tommy Rees said facing a 1-6 team won't change much for the Irish.
"We've lost games in the past or had close games in the past where the opposition's record wasn't great," Rees said. "So we understand the level of play we need to come with and the intensity we need to have."
That Purdue game — a 31-24 win — was a nationally-televised night game. Purdue played over their heads in it (they're also 1-6 this year) while Notre Dame played well under their talent level.
Saturday's game at Air Force kicks off at 3 p.m. MST and is televised on CBS Sports Network, making it more of an off-the-beaten path game. If the atmosphere had any effect on Notre Dame in West Lafayette, chances are it won't equal that in Colorado Springs.
But that won't change the lesson for the game: Discipline is key, both on offense and defense.