A week after winning a second half slugfest against rival USC, the 5-2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish leave the cozy confines of Notre Dame Stadium and head to Colorado Springs, where Troy Calhoun's Air Force squad awaits.
For Irish head coach Brian Kelly's offense, a unit that came to a screeching halt after backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix entered the game, Tommy Rees' return—and the Falcons' 118th ranked defense—should get this group get back on rhythm in a hurry. But Bob Diaco's defense will be in for a challenge, playing the first of two consecutive option offenses.
Coming off another loss in the final minutes, Air Force may be 1-6, but they had an extra week to get ready for a date with the Irish, an always-motivating opponent. But the Falcons will need to sort out a jumbled quarterback position and fix a young, inexperienced defense if they want a chance at winning.
Here's everything you need to know before the Irish and the Falcons play.
Time: 5:06 p.m. ET
Place: Falcon Stadium, USAFA, Colo.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM channel 129
Spread: Notre Dame -19.5
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first hand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
Contain the Running Game
The Irish may have won comfortably against Air Force the last time they played them in 2011, but the Falcons ran all over the Notre Dame defense. Running for a ridiculous 363 yards on 60 rushing attempts, the Falcons ended up with 565 yards of offense in the 59-33 loss, numbers that are mind-boggling when you think about the way Bob Diaco's troops have played these past two seasons.
Air Force ranks 12th in the country with almost 270 rushing yards per game on the ground. It's been a little less productive when it comes to yards per carry (4.9), but the front seven of the Irish defense are going to have to be ready to play assignment-correct football.
Be Efficient on Offense
Just about every team that's played Air Force has had some success on the offensive side of the ball. Don't expect the Irish to be any different, especially after it looked like Tommy Rees and the Irish offense had hit its stride in the first half against USC.
A crisp, efficient performance should be at the top of the checklist for Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. That means running the ball well, regardless of who is taking reps. It means passing proficiently to receivers not just named TJ Jones. And it means making sure the quarterback play continues to move forward.
There's no reason the offense shouldn't sustain drives against Air Force. But the Irish need to get out of the gate quickly and play consistently for four quarters, something this group has been challenged to do.
Make More Big Plays
In the season-opening game, Irish fans couldn't believe their eyes with Tommy Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for two deep touchdown passes to open the game. The Irish offense made its share of big plays, with Amir Carlisle, TJ Jones and Troy Niklas all chipping in plays of 40 yards or longer.
The explosiveness in the Irish offense needs to emerge on Saturday with players like George Atkinson III ready to break another long run. The youth on the Irish offense might also be primed to break out with Tarean Folston, Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu ready to contribute.
Move the Chains
The best way for Air Force to win this game is to keep the ball away from the Irish. The Falcons have had success against the Irish defense, and every second the ball is in Air Force's hands, it's not giving Notre Dame a chance to score.
Making big plays will be key for the Falcons offense, but if Air Force wants to have a chance on Saturday afternoon, it'll need to sustain drives and stay on the field.
One stat is especially sobering for Air Force fans: Brian Kelly's team is 12-0 when it doesn't commit a turnover. That's not a great number when you're 106th in the country in forcing turnovers. But Tommy Rees has turned the ball over in the past and if you've got a unit that's outside the top 100 in both passing and rushing defense, you might as well take some shots and try to manufacture a turnover.
Throw the Kitchen Sink at the Irish
A loss on Saturday afternoon all but ends Air Force's bowl dreams by the end of October. But a win against the Irish could be the springboard to a fantastic finish.
Both Karson Roberts and Nate Romine will be available at quarterback. Whoever plays against the Irish should be ready to take some shots down the field, where Falcons receivers have five players with a reception of 30-plus yards.
But that's not the only rabbit Troy Calhoun needs to pull out of his hat. Fake punts, trick plays, whatever it takes to swing the momentum. It's going to take that kind of effort for Air Force to pull out the victory.
Don't look now, but Niklas has scored five touchdowns and one in each of the last three games. Before Tommy Rees went down against USC, he and Niklas had connected four times and looked like they were on pace for a big day.
Niklas' older brother played linebacker for Air Force, and you've got to believe this is a game that matters to him a great deal. More importantly, there's nobody even close that can match up with the 6'7", 270-pounder, who is quickly morphing into the next great Irish tight end.
If the Irish move to another uptempo attack like they ran against USC early, Niklas will be an option all afternoon, working the middle of the field for the Irish offense when he's not clearing the way for running backs.
This is the type of offense that Smith was built to play against. If Irish fans thought Jamoris Slaughter was active when he slid into the box against option teams, wait until they get a load out of Smith. He has quietly worked his way up the stat sheet of the Irish defense while also turning in eye-popping plays like his interception in man coverage against Nelson Agholor.
Smith will work the field side of the Irish defense, playing option principles that were familiar to him as a high school athlete in Fort Wayne. With his size, speed and athleticism, there's no reason to think that Smith won't have double-digit tackles on Saturday.
Any time an Irish football team plays a military academy, keep your eye on the fullback. Air Force has a good one in Hart, a bulldozer who leads the team in carries. The 220-pound Texan will challenge the Irish as the first option in the offense, capable of taking a dive play and turning it into big yards.
It's not hard to think back to prolific running games both Air Force and Navy fullbacks have had against the Irish. There's been plenty of damage done over the years and the main objective of the Irish defense has to be shutting down the fullback and forcing the option offense to the outside where the Irish can pursue and tackle.
Anchoring one of the better secondaries in the Mountain West, Spears returns after a season where he notched 91 tackles from his safety position. He's already logged 52 this season while also contributing two interceptions and three pass breakups.
If Air Force is going to beat Notre Dame, they're going to have to make game-changing plays in the secondary. Spears is likely your best bet to do that.
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun finally has an option at quarterback after injuries ravaged the Falcons depth chart. He'll decide between sophomore Karson Roberts and freshman Nate Romine.
Calhoun wants to wait until he evaluates practices to see whom he'll pick to run the offense.
"We'll see who practices best the next two days, just because Karson did not practice last week," Calhoun told the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly talked about transitioning his defense from facing a traditional pro-style offense like USC's to the option attack of Air Force.
"Preparing for an option team requires great preparation, attention to detail and focus," Kelly said Tuesday. "Now we're transitioning over the next couple of weeks to option football, different style, compared to what we've seen over the past seven weeks.
"Defensively now we'll be challenged in different ways. Assignments. Discipline. This will be another important test for our defense and the growth of our defense."
Meanwhile, Air Force players know their season is on the line.
"Right now we're 1-6 with five games left, so if we were to win out that would get us into a bowl game," safety Christian Spears told the Colorado Springs Gazette. "To be able to come out with a victory, that would be pretty big for our season and just the momentum that would come from that going into those last five games would be paramount."
Notre Dame 40, Air Force 20
The Falcons seem to be getting the Irish at just the wrong time with Notre Dame's defense coming into its own and the Irish offense starting to find the right packages for Tommy Rees and the no-huddle attack.
After losing some touches against Arizona State and USC, expect George Atkinson III to break a long run against a Falcons' defensive front that gives up at least 20 pounds per man to the Irish offensive line. You might also get your first extended look at some young Irish receivers, and DaVaris Daniels will catch at least one deep ball for a score.
Air Force might break a big play or two against an Irish secondary that hasn't gotten stellar safety play this season. But there's just too much power up front in the Irish defense with Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams too much to handle.
In a game that'll frustrate Irish fans more for its television home (the hard to find CBS Sports Network) than for the team's performance, expect the Irish to jump back into the Top 25 after a comfortable win over Air Force.