It’s really only natural that Irish fans see that a military academy is up next on the football schedule, and feel a bit guy-shy about the prospects of the Notre Dame defense facing off against an option attack. The relatively fresh mental picture of the Navy fullback and/or quarterback running unimpeded up the middle of the Irish defense is probably permanently seared into the memories of Irish fans – at least those who can manage to stop mentally blocking the horror. So it comes as no surprise that across the internet, Notre Dame fanbases have spent most of this week seeking to divine answers to one question: How will the Irish defend the Air Force option attack? But a closer look at that attack reveals one key point: Aside from some shared strategic philosophies, the Air Force attack is a unique, varied offense of its own design.
To illustrate just how different the Air Force attack is compared to Navy’s just read what Navy’s own coaching staff had to say about it leading up to last week’s Navy/Air Force game:
“They do a lot of things that present problems. Coach Calhoun is a great offensive mind and they have a great scheme,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “There is some carryover for us because they have a lot of elements of the option, but they run more zone plays and power plays than we do.”
Air Force’s ability to switch in and out of various offensive sets is a nightmare for a defensive coordinator, and Navy’s Buddy Green has been working overtime in the film room to identify any tendencies that might help his players on the field.
“They give you 45-50 formations and they use a lot of personnel,” Green said. “They will use two tight ends, one tight end or no tight end. They’ll go shotgun, line up with an empty backfield in a true spread look or go to a pro I-formation and run the zone power play. Other times, they’ll come out with the double-slot formation like us and run option.”
Senior defensive end Jabaree Tuani, a four-year starter who has seen the entire Air Force bag of tricks, said scouting and film study can help the Navy defenders have an idea what might be coming depending on how Air Force lines up.
“Formation recognition definitely helps a lot. If it’s a one-back set with the fullback there’s a good chance it’s an inside play. Obviously, the shotgun formation increases the chance it will be a passing play,” Tuani said. “Knowing the formations and what they do out of certain formations is important.”
However, what makes defending Air Force so difficult is the fact co-offensive coordinators Clay Hendrix (field) and Blane Morgan (press box) will call option plays out of the spread formation and pass plays out of the double-slot formation.
“You’ve got to be able to defend the drop-back passing game or the zone read game out of shotgun. You’ve got to be able to defend the empty backfield or two tight end set. You’ve got to defend against the option game,” Green bemoaned. “There are so many different looks and variations, and yes they can run the option out of almost any formation they have.”
Still, while the offense presents many looks, Air Force butters its bread with the rushing attack, tallying enough yardage on the ground to rank 3rd in college football in rushing offense at 364 yards per game and barely pushing its passing offense up to 149 yards per game (good for 112th in FBS football). In fact, outside of the game with TCU, which Air Force lost by a wide margin, the Falcons have only attacked the air 36 times, for 12 attempts per game. Still, of those 36 attempts, the Falcons completed 26 for a 72% completion rate outside of the TCU game, including an astonishing 9 completions in 10 attempts against Navy. Against TCU, the Falcons were far less effective in the air, completing just 12 of 21, including 1 completion from Wide Receiver Jonathan Warzeka. Given TCU’s reputation for defense, those numbers should come as no surprise, but in truth, this season, TCU has deviated from their general trend of defensive mastery over the last decade, ranking just 101st in Pass Defense and 106th in Pass Efficiency Defense. Still, Air Force’s completions in the TCU game went for an average of 14 yards. Look for the Falcons to take a few shots down the field to see if Irish defensive backs are looking for the ball.
The variations within the Air Force system, however, do seem to affect the Falcons in an interesting way: turnovers. Currently, the Falcons are -.50 in Turnover Margin for a 92nd ranking. While hardly showing a propensity for dropping the ball like the 2011 Irish, that’s still significantly worse (and significantly more undisciplined) than Navy’s 21st ranking (at +.75). At 8 total turnovers lost, Air Force is averaging 2 turnovers per game. In fact, in their first game, the Falcons put the ball on the turf 4 times (losing it twice). Perhaps all that mental preparation to run such a varied attack means less time for work on ball security. This seems to be a new problem for the Falcons, as the 8 lost turnovers this year is nearly half of the total they suffered in all of 2010 (which placed them at 16th nationally for the year).
Finally, for Irish fans wondering where on earth the “typical” speed of a Brian Kelly offense has been this season, this just might be the week when it could be put to good use. Last week Navy’s offense forced Air Force into facing 105 defensive snaps. And the Falcon defense is suffering some wear and tear, missing a 2 starting linebackers, 2 starting defensive ends, and a cornerback. A heavy, rapid rotation of Wood and Gray should prove quite taxing to Air Force. Afterall, having faced Navy, TCU, South Dakota, and Tennessee State, the Falcons are already 113th in rush defense – even after holding Navy to 18 yards below their season average.
Check this video out when you get a chance to get some idea of the various ways Air Force runs their “triple option concepts.”