Anything can happen on a given Saturday, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish head into Saturday's matchup with Air Force knowing there's an overwhelming chance they leave at 6-2.
The Falcons have just one win in their seven games—against Colgate. If you're unfamiliar, Colgate is currently sitting at 2-5 and plays in the FCS' Patriots League. Since that win, Air Force has run off a string of six straight losses, some close, some not and none coming against a team the caliber of the Irish.
Vegas Insider understandably lists Notre Dame as a 20-point favorite. Although Brian Kelly's offense has been inconsistent for much of the season, the defense looked in fine form last week against USC, when the Irish held the Trojans without a point for nearly the game's final 40 minutes. That, of course, came despite USC starting inside Notre Dame territory for much of the second half because the offense sputtered when Tommy Rees went down with a neck injury.
With Rees back in the fold and Andrew Hendrix back to the bench, the Irish should win and do so handily. Trekking up to the always-treacherous Colorado altitudes will prove difficult, and the multiple cliches on rivalry games exist for a reason, but there's no objective criteria by which picking the Falcons is prudent. Selecting the Falcons to even come close in this game is one step too close to the sun—even if Nate Romine starting at quarterback provides a bit of extra intrigue.
Instead, this game should prove a solid midseason check-in contest for Kelly. Where he can mix up a few things, make sure his players are hitting their marks and attempt to rectify the team's deficiencies as it jostles ever closer to the Top 25.
With that in mind, here's a look at a few things the Irish should emphasize versus Air Force.
Get Rees Comfortable Early, Build His Confidence
Although he's been maligned in some South Bend circles, Irish fans got a good glimpse of what life without Rees would be like last week. Henrix, a senior, came in and looked like a jittery freshman. He failed to complete any of his four passes, accumulated five yards on six carries and even fumbled once, though the Irish recovered.
All that came after Rees frankly looked as good as he has all season. The senior signal-caller completed 14 of 21 passes for 166 yards and the Irish's only two touchdowns of the game. Those scores came from seven yards out to Troy Niklas and 11 yards out to TJ Jones—the exact type of throws Rees needs to make if the Irish hope to make a January bowl game.
But those are precisely the spots he's struggled. Before Saturday's showdown in South Bend, Rees had completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in the team's last three games. He had nearly single-handedly cost Notre Dame a win against Michigan State, tossed three interceptions before the end of the first half against Oklahoma and was full of boom or bust in a mostly strong performance versus Arizona State.
That was the Tommy Rees Irish fans were afraid of coming into the season. He's now completed only 53.1 percent of his passes thus far, the third-worst rate among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. While Rees was on his way to a confidence-boosting outing against the Trojans, Kelly will look for him to return to that form Saturday.
He should have ample opportunity. Air Force ranks outside the top 100 in passing yards allowed per game. Opposing quarterbacks have torched its secondary for 17 touchdowns against only four interceptions. No team in the nation has allowed opponents to complete a higher percentage of their passes than the Falcons, who dwarf the competition at 73.2 percent.
Keep in mind that Air Force has done this despite playing exactly zero ranked teams. And only two teams with a record better than .500. If there is any game for Rees to find comfort and accuracy in the pocket, it's coming in Colorado.
Cam McDaniel or George Atkinson III? Who Is Better for the Offense?
Over the past couple weeks, it seems Kelly has landed on McDaniel. After shifting allegiances between McDaniel, Atkinson and Amir Carlisle throughout the first half of the season, McDaniel has carried the ball 33 times over the past two weeks. Carlisle and Atkinson have combined for 31, with the latter getting an overwhelming majority of those touches.
Thus far, the arrangement has mostly worked. McDaniel has averaged better than five yards per carry in each of the past two games and was the overwhelming reason the Irish scored their final touchdown against USC. He scampered for 60 yards on two carries, with Rees capping the drive with his pass to Jones.
That's all well and good, until you look at McDaniel's other 16 carries in the game. Subtract the 60 yards gained on that drive, and you have a running back who averaged exactly two yards per attempt over the rest of the game. Throw in a critical fumble that set up USC in Notre Dame field position, and you get a Notre Dame backfield that has yet to crown a true star.
Those 60 yards were critical, obviously, but they also expose the main criticism of Atkinson as a relative sham. Atkinson has gained 12 more yards this season than McDaniel despite receiving 17 fewer carries; he averages almost a yard-and-a-half better per attempt. The easiest detraction from that point would be that 80 of Atkinson's yards came on a touchdown scamper against Oklahoma, and he wasn't that effective as a lead back in the first half against Arizona State.
Better running back?
Unfortunately for the Irish, that puts both McDaniel and Atkinson in similar spots. Who is better for the offense long term? It's hard to tell. Atkinson gained 40 yards on eight carries against the Trojans, looking solid on each of his attempts.
One week it's Atkinson. The next it's McDaniel. Maybe the answer is to merely workshop the two against the Falcons and see what fits. They've allowed nearly five yards per clip on the ground, ranking in the bottom 15 in the nation. They've given up 20 rushing touchdowns. There are points to be had here for both the passing and rushing game.
Who gets the carries now and into the future remains an intriguing question.
Continue Building on Last Week's Defensive Momentum
Even against a depleted Trojans attack, Notre Dame's defensive display last week was as impressive anything it did last season. Three times Cody Kessler and Co. started a drive with the ball inside Irish territory. Once, USC began at its own 48-yard line.
The result? Zero points.
While they got the good fortune of a missed field goal from Andre Heidari, the Irish defense was impenetrable. USC had three second-half drives that ended in negative yardage and five total that went for fewer than 10 yards. That's some stand-up-and-golf-clap defense.
We've covered why it's unlikely the Irish will need such dominance Saturday. Air Force's defense is porous enough that it'd be a disappointment if they were unable to reach the 30-point barrier for the fourth time this season, equaling last season's total. This will be more about being cognitively aware of weaknesses and looking to rectify those situations.
In particular, the Irish run defense will get an interesting challenge against the Air Force option. The Falcons tried mixing up their attack early in the season but have found the option is far and away their most effective way of moving the ball. Air Force ranks 12th in the country with 268.8 rushing yards per game and will almost certainly look to keep the game close by controlling the clock.
That will be especially the case with Romine receiving his first start. The young quarterback has completed only six of his 16 passes this season, a sign the Irish's somewhat shaky secondary won't have to worry that much. But Silas Redd had some success against the front seven last week, and defending the option will obviously be a chief concern with a visit from Navy coming Nov. 2.
The impetus here will rely on the team being better. Sounder up front, smarter on reads and avoiding overaggression. With four very winnable games upcoming prior to the season-ending matchup against Stanford, the Irish will need exemplary efforts from Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Co. going forward.
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