Slowly but surely, things are looking up for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. They're yet to reclaim the Top 25 spot stripped from them after their loss to Oklahoma, but with two straight wins heading into Saturday's game against Air Force, Brian Kelly's squad is back on the precipice of the national conversation.
Of course, Kelly probably spent his evening frolicking in four-leaf clovers after last week's win over USC.
With quarterback Tommy Rees indisposed for most of the second half with a neck injury, the Irish offense sputtered, giving the Trojans multiple opportunities to pull ahead from a 14-10 halftime deficit. Only they couldn't do it. Either by the good luck of USC's atrocious offense or by the good skill of Notre Dame's defense, the Irish held on for the final 31:13 to win the game.
Now 5-2, the good fortunes should continue on Saturday. Rees did not suffer a concussion, as some initially feared, but a mere neck injury that will allow him back into the lineup against Air Force. Although Rees isn't among the nation's most decorated passers, Andrew Hendrix's difficulties last week against the Trojans make his return more welcome than ever.
And that's especially the case in a game where the Irish should be able to load up on the counting stats like an overzealous Little League team on ice cream day.
Air Force heads into Week 9 with a 1-6 record, with that lone win coming against Colgate. The Falcons have never won fewer than six games under head coach Troy Calhoun, but key departures from last year's team and struggles at quarterback have made this season a slog.
With the Irish staring directly at a return to the Top 25 with a win, it's unlikely the Falcons get much of a reprieve from their weekly savagings. But the frequent contests between Notre Dame and Air Force are coming to a close after this season (for now), so there should be a heightened level of intrigue.
Here's a complete look at when and where you can watch Saturday's contest, along with a prediction for the outcome.
When: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Falcon Stadium at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado
Watch: CBS Sports Network
Stream: CBS Sports Live
Spread: Notre Dame -20 (via Vegas Insider)
|Notre Dame Injury Report|
|Louis Nix III||DT||Shoulder||Probable|
|Air Force Injury Report|
Can the Irish Fix Their Offense vs. Air Force?
It's hard to focus on a two-sided storyline for this contest, mainly because the Falcons' season is going nowhere fast. They remain an intriguing rushing team that confounds teams within the Mountain West, but a team with a defense as talented as Notre Dame's shouldn't have much of a problem.
Stephon Tuitt looked rejuvenated last week against USC. And even with the Trojans struggling, the display Notre Dame put on in the second half is as encouraging as anything.
But...the offense. Oh, how the hands wring about the offense. Rees was well on his way to a stellar evening against the Trojans, so his return will create an obvious boost over Hendrix, who looked completely overwhelmed.
That said, even with Rees this is a flawed attack that needs to workshop its strategy to get back in the national conversation.
The senior signal-caller is completing a scary-low 53.1 percent, which is the third-worst rate in the nation for anyone with 200 or more pass attempts. He's done a nice job of avoiding many interceptions with his errant passes thus far, tossing only six picks against 15 touchdowns. But the unalienable rule is that where there are misthrown balls, there are opportunities for defensive players to make plays.
Still, a look at Football Outsiders' advanced metrics expose a far better Irish offense than one would expect. They are 29th in the nation in the site's S&P ratings, which are based on play-by-play data and work to mitigate non-competitive situations. FEI, the site's possession-by-possession index, has Notre Dame all the way at No. 14.
So things aren't as broken as they seem at times. The fact is that the Irish have been inefficient at finishing drives that could have resulted in scores, and the result is an offense that ranks 83rd in the nation in scoring.
It's unclear how the Irish could look to improve on that, however. Their personnel is essentially who they're rolling with for the remainder of the season. Good luck telling me who the best fit at running back is, though Cam McDaniel seems to have locked up the top spot for now. As for Rees? He's more valuable than Irish fans want to let on, but it's also impossible to feel comfortable with him under center.
The underlyings of a good offense are here. It'll just be up to Kelly to tinker going forward and see how that can be coaxed out.
There isn't all that much worth discussing on this front. The Irish are 20-point favorites, and the number is only that low because no one's quite sure how they'll score points. Rees being cleared to play is a huge step, but we're still talking about an offense that struggles with its consistency.
Not that it will matter in this case. Notre Dame can and should use this game as a testing ground for wrinkles it can use later in the season, when the schedule ratchets up in difficulty and folks are starting to throw January bowl consideration around.
No one is quite sure what the right mix at the running back spot is. Nor has Rees been able to get through a game without making the types of inaccurate throws that have marred his career in South Bend. It's a relative rarity to have such a cupcake at this point of the season, so gaining confidence is a must here.
Luckily, the Falcons are bad enough that they should be able to supply it.
Score: Notre Dame 34, Air Force 10
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