Sitting at 5-2 after holding on for a 14-10 win over rival USC last Saturday night, Notre Dame now has reached the service academy portion of its schedule. The Fighting Irish will travel west to Colorado Springs, Co., to meet Air Force Saturday evening (5 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) before welcoming Navy for its biennial visit to Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 2 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
First things first, however, as any head coach will tell you. That's Air Force. Head coach Brian Kelly discussed Tuesday the team's preparations for its first trip to Air Force since 2006, including adjusting to defending a triple option offense for the first time since playing Navy in the 2012 season opener (Read the full transcript here).
"This will be another, now, important test for our defense and the growth of our defense," Kelly said. "A lot of young players playing. Now we'll have to test them and making sure that their assignments are correct and making sure that, again, that they follow the details of assignment football when you're playing option. This is about 11 players playing together."
With their inability to recruit the big, hulking linemen that many national powers possess, service academies attempt to utilize discipline, cut blocking, gap control and other triple option must-dos in order to neutralize size and speed disadvantages.
"We spent a little bit more [time] on it, starting this spring and moving forward in the camp," Kelly said of preparations for the triple option. "Can't say that I'm pleased with the way we've blocked it. We need to block it a little bit better."
|2010||Navy||East Rutherford, N.J.||L, 17-35|
|2010||Army||New York, N.Y.||W, 28-3|
|2011||Air Force||South Bend||W, 59-33|
|2011||Navy||South Bend||W, 56-14|
|2012||Navy||Dublin, Ireland||W, 50-10|
In five meetings against service academies, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's units have allowed 95 points, although just 24 of those came in the most recent two meetings, both against Navy. Has the Irish coaching staff "figured out" the triple option? Kelly doesn't see it as that simple.
"It's something that you don't see and prepare for so it's difficult in its preparation, because you have to be so disciplined to face it," Kelly said. "And it really slows you down and forces you to play assignment football and takes away sometimes that skill advantage that you have."
Perhaps in no offensive scheme is the quarterback more important than in the triple option. Much of the Falcons' struggles in their 1-6 start can be attributed to using three different starting quarterbacks, which may become four Saturday evening. Kelly expects Air Force to eliminate some of the diversity with which it had experimented with earlier this season.
"I think there's more option base in their offense right now," Kelly said. "I think you go back to what you do when there's a little bit more inexperience at the quarterback position.
Opening-day starter Kale Pearson was lost for the season with a knee injury, while Jaleel Awini was suspended from the team after three starts. Sophomore Karson Roberts has started the past three games, but left the Oct. 10 loss to San Diego State with a concussion. If he is not cleared, freshman Nate Romine will make his first career start against the Fighting Irish. Kelly has decided to focus more on the scheme than the individual players this week when preparing his team.
"The quarterback certainly is part of that scheme and so when we look at both of the quarterbacks that have played in the last game, the last couple of games, it really, for us, is not as important as preparation for the scheme," Kelly said. "And then you take the passing game and the likes within the passing game and we're prepared for that."
Kelly has some quarterback concerns of his own after Tommy Rees was knocked out of the victory over USC with what was diagnosed as a neck strain. Rees was cleared for practice Tuesday and, barring a setback later this week, will make his 26th career start Saturday.
"He was cleared today to practice," Kelly said of his senior signal caller. "And when you're cleared on Tuesday, your first day of practice, I don't think there's any hesitancy to go out and play somebody when he's cleared so early in the week. And as long as Thursday looks good and he feels great on Thursday, then we move into Saturday without any hesitation."
Rees' importance was quite evident against the Trojans, as the Irish failed to complete a pass after he left the game. Andrew Hendrix remains the backup after struggling in place of Rees, with freshman Malik Zaire still the No. 3 quarterback.
Perhaps the defensive equal of Rees in terms of importance, nose guard Louis Nix, may be limited this week after suffering a shoulder injury last week, partially due to the opponent Notre Dame faces. At 350 pounds, the sudden, quick movements required in defending the triple option don't align with Nix's skill set.
"Option football is not his cup of tea," Kelly said. "There's a lot of low blocking, a lot of cut blocking. Just for a big guy, that's not the game you'd like to play. He's going to be going against the guy who is 245 pounds. And he's probably going to be fending off cut blocks most of the game."
For Notre Dame, the next two weeks are almost like a separate season with a unique preparation process. Having the two service academy games back-to-back allow for this, unlike 2011, when games against the Falcons and Midshipmen were sandwiched around a showdown with ultra-athletic USC.
While Notre Dame is on fall break from classes, playing Air Force and its triple option ensures that the Irish defense will still have plenty of assignments to worry about this week.