Our Notre Dame pre-spring opponent previews continue with the Air Force Falcons, who appear on the Fighting Irish schedule for the second time in three years.
The Irish and Falcons have staged some memorable battles in recent years, splitting two overtime games in South Bend in 1996 and 2000 and bringing ESPN's College Gameday to Colorado Springs for their 2002 clash of unbeatens.
Air Force suffered its first losing season under head coach Troy Calhoun in 2012, going 6-7, including losing its ownership of the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to Navy. Let's take an early look at the 2013 Falcons, who opened spring drills on Tuesday.
Links to other Notre Dame opponent previews are below:
Date: Oct. 26
Site: Falcon Stadium (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33 (2012)
Last Meeting in Colorado Springs: Notre Dame 39, Air Force 17 (2006)
Current Streak: Notre Dame-1
Record: 6-7 (5-3 Mountain West)
Bowl: Armed Forces (lost to Rice, 33-14)
Leading Passer: Connor Dietz (Sr.)—68-for-11, 1131 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT
Leading Rusher: Cody Getz (Sr.)—198 carries, 1248 yards, 9 TDs
Leading Receiver: Ty McArthur (Jr.)—24 receptions, 411 yards, 2 TDs
Calhoun’s Falcons must deal with their second new quarterback in as many years, as Connor Dietz departs after just one season as the starter in Colorado Springs.
Kale Pearson did appear in 10 games last season though, rushing for 49 yards and throwing for 128 in limited duty.
Pearson is under six feet tall and played mostly as a wide receiver and Wildcat quarterback in high school. Speed isn’t much of a concern, but mastering the triple-option may be. After a poor close to the 2012 season, don’t be surprised if Calhoun looks for different ways to take advantage of Pearson’s skill set instead of a strictly triple-option attack.
For the second consecutive season, the Falcons lose their leading rusher from the previous year. Cody Getz departs after going from 102 yards as a junior to over 1,200 yards in his final season.
Junior Jon Lee should assume Getz's role. Lee rushed for 545 last seasons, including a season-high 96 in an upset of Nevada.
The always-critical fullback position also will have a fresh face, as the Falcons must replace 2012 starter Mike DeWitt. If Calhoun does tweak the scheme a bit, this isn't a bad year to do it with so much inexperience in the backfield.
Like any service academy (save Army's failed attempt at moving to a pro-style attack in the mid-2000s), Air Force will leave its aerial prowess for something far more important than football.
The Falcons completed just 83 passes last season, 24 of those to junior Ty MacArthur. The 5'9" MacArthur is back, but no other returnee caught more than seven passes in 2012.
Tight ends are not a big factor in the Falcons' limited passing attack, but they do return sophomore Marcus Hendricks, who caught two touchdowns last season.
For the second straight season, Air Force loses three starters off of the offensive line. In such an assignment-based scheme like the triple option, a lack of experience up front can have a great effect.
The Falcons lost center Michael Husar in the season opener a year ago to a knee injury. He should be back at full strength to join seniors David Lore and Drew Kerber as the veterans of the unit.
Against its toughest opponent last season, Michigan, Air Force was able to churn out 290 yards on the ground. Notre Dame is stronger up front than the Wolverines were, but the Falcons could do just enough damage on the ground to cost the Irish a top-five run defense.
Notre Dame will face a familiar 3-4 defense when they travel to Colorado Springs. While he's about 80 pounds lighter than the Irish's Louis Nix, junior Nick Fitzgerald plays Nix's nose guard role for the Falcons.
Fellow junior Joseph Champaign is back on one side of Fitzgerald, but is also undersized at around 240 pounds. The other end spot is open, with sophomore Alex Hansen the top candidate to step into that role.
The Irish are physically superior to Air Force up front and should easily top 250 yards on the ground against this physically inferior group after rushing for 266 yards in the 2011 meeting.
The linebacking corps was the strength of a sneakily effective defense last season, which finished in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West.
That won't be the case in 2013, as all four starters depart. All of the top backups do return, with junior Jared Jones the most effective of the quartet last season. Jones finished with 45 tackles and a sack.
Replacing a combined 333 tackles doesn't happen overnight. Linebacker is the biggest concern defensively for the Falcons, and perhaps on the entire team as well.
What the Falcons lack in experience at linebacker, they possess at the back end of their defense. Three starters in the secondary return from a unit that allowed just 210 yards per game through the air last season, as well all four backups.
Granted, with a schedule that included two other service academies and Denard Robinson, Air Force wasn't exactly facing the 2007 New England Patriots offense on a weekly basis.
Strong safety Brian Lindsay is the lone loss, but he was the most physically imposing Falcons defensive back at 220 pounds. Senior Steffon Batts has good size at 6'0", but this is another undersized unit. The team's two projected 2012 safety starters were dismissed from the team in August.
Parker Herrington was an All-Mountain West kicker in 2011, but struggled for much of last season. Herrington missed five of his first six field goals, including two in a devastating overtime loss to Navy. He departs, along with senior Briceton Cannada, who was the kickoff specialist last year, next in line.
Punter Will Conant had a solid season, averaging 39 yards per kick. He returns and could also contend for the vacant placekicker position.
Air Force returned just 10 punts last season (sound familiar, Irish fans?), all by MacArthur. Lee and backup defensive back Anthony LaCoste should again share kick return duties. The Falcons have not had a return touchdown since October 2010.
This could be the year the bowl streak comes to an end for Air Force after going to the postseason in each of Calhoun's first six seasons. A tougher Mountain West schedule (Air Force missed Boise State last season), along with having to play Navy in Annapolis could doom the Falcons.
Even with Notre Dame coming off what is sure to be an emotional game against USC before heading to the Rockies, the Irish shouldn't have much to worry about in their first of two consecutive games against service academies.
Don't expect 92 total points like the two teams racked up in South Bend two years ago, but a 26-point victory for the Irish could be repeated in what is the final scheduled meeting between the programs.