Air Force's offense tough tackle for Notre Dame
Tim Jefferson has more wins as a starter than any quarterback in Air Force history. He's 24-11 when taking the first snaps.
His ability to run the Falcons' complex offense, which can morph from an option into a conventional attack where he is a precise passer, has very much caught the attention of Notre Dame before Saturday's game.
"It's just a nightmare," coach Brian Kelly said of defending Jefferson and ever-changing Falcons' offense.
The Falcons (3-1) come to Notre Dame Stadium averaging 364 yards rushing per game. That makes for an interesting matchup since the Irish defense, led by linebacker Manti Te'o, is only giving up 91 yards on the ground through five games.
And Air Force's ability to switch its offensive look from series-to-series or even play-to-play is something Notre Dame (3-2) will have to contend with. It's not the pure triple option that Navy used to run all over the Irish last season.
"There are so many versions of the option," Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "They run a lot of formations and can spread you out."
After breakdowns at Michigan that led to a last-second loss, Notre Dame's defense has rallied and the Irish have yielded only 35 points in the last three games, victories over Michigan State, Pitt and Purdue.
"They are superb against the run," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "They haven't relinquished a whole of yards or scores. They are limiting field position and scores, too. ... They have been together awhile and there is pretty good continuity."
The Falcons' Asher Clark has rushed for 382 yards and Jefferson has 210 on the ground while passing for another 493. He's only attempted 47 passes by connected on 33, including five for TDs.
And Air Force has a talented special teams player in Jonathan Warzeka, who has a pair of 100-yard TDs on kickoff returns during his career.
Air Force, which won 41-24 the last time the schools met four years ago at Notre Dame Stadium, is coming off an emotional overtime win at Navy last week. The Falcons won 35-34, thanks to a blocked extra point - one of three kicks they've blocked this season.
That's a stat to be noted because Notre Dame long snapper Jordan Cowart is nursing a broken hand and kicker David Ruffer has struggled. After going 23 for 24 over parts of two seasons - including 18 of 19 last year - Ruffer is only 3 of 7 this season, including one that was blocked.
The big number for Notre Dame last week against Purdue was 0. That's how many turnovers the Irish had after 15 in the first four games, nine of them by sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees.
Rees will face an Air Force defense led by linebacker Brady Amack, who had 23 tackles last week when Navy ran a bone-tiring 105 plays. The Falcons will now be faced with stopping Irish receiver Michael Floyd, who had 12 more catches last week and 47 for the season. And running back Cierre Wood gained 191 yards rushing.
Air Force tackle Jason Kons, who is from Germantown, Wis., fully understands the mystique of Notre Dame and how big a deal it would be to win in South Bend.
"I grew up in the Midwest. I feel that anybody in America that wants to play football, wants to play for Notre Dame. If they don't want to play for Notre Dame, they want to beat Notre Dame," Kons said. "It was always my dream to play for a team like Notre Dame. If you don't bleed gold, you want to beat gold."
Playing football at a service academy can be a demanding proposition. Falcons' tackle A.J. Wallerstein, for example, gets his day started at 6 a.m. By the time of his pre-practice meeting at 2 p.m., he's already been in morning formation and attended five classes, two in physics and another in differential equations. Total time for breakfast and lunch is 45 minutes.
"We know how hard it is with our weekly schedule, and then we try to think about what those guys go through; I can't even imagine how much more they have on their plate than we do," Notre Dame safety and captain Harrison Smith said.
Air Force center Michael Hester is out with an ankle injury. And Notre Dame defensive end Ethan Johnson, who hurt his ankle early in last week's 38-10 rout of Purdue, will be a game-time decision.