Air Force (6-7)
Date: Oct. 26 at Colorado Springs
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun is 47-31 overall but had his first losing season last year (6-7).
The series commenced in 1964 and Notre Dame has a 23-6 advantage, most recently a 59-33 victory at home in 2011. Air Force athletics director Hans Mueh indicated recently that although no formal discussions have begun, Denver, Chicago and Dallas are possibilities for a Notre Dame-Air Force Shamrock Series game in 2015.
With a 33-14 loss to Rice in the Armed Forces Bowl last December, Air Force experienced its first losing season since 2006, and the first one under head coach Troy Calhoun (47-31 overall), who completed his sixth year at the Academy. The former Falcons quarterback succeeded College Football Hall of Fame coach Fisher DeBerry, who directed Air Force 23 seasons from 1984-2006.
The Falcons lost four of their last five games in 2012. After being typically competitive against a superior foe like Michigan, who it lost to 31-25 in the second game, Air Force faltered badly down the stretch with defeats to Army (41-21), San Diego State (28-9) and Fresno State (48-15) before the postseason debacle against the Owls.
Most painful of all, last year marked only the second time in the last three decades the Falcons lost to both Army and Navy in the same year, and it came after winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy outright the previous two seasons.
Top Offseason Note
Spring practice already began this week at the Academy (Feb. 26), but the Falcons will not have a spring game, one of the few teams to do so.
Air Force joins Notre Dame as one of 18 FBS programs that return their coaching staff completely intact from the previous year. However, among Notre Dame’s 2013 opponents, the Falcons might have taken the worst hit with regard to needing to replace the most personnel. Among the 22 starters on offense and defense from 2012, only eight return (three on offense and five on defense).
Similar to Navy, the Falcons almost assuredly will rank among the top 5 in rushing offense with their triple-option attack, no matter what the attrition. Last year Air Force was second with a 316.23 average.
Their top two returning playmakers are receiver Ty MacArthur and halfback Jon Lee. MacArthur’s 24 receptions last season averaged 17.1 yards, and he also averaged a whopping 8.2 yards on his 57 carries through the creative ways to get him the ball. Lee’s 88 carries averaged 6.2 yards.
As noted earlier, Air Force took some major hits with the graduation of so many starters. Offensively it must replace three linemen plus the tight end, leading rusher Cody Getz (1,248 yards, 6.3 yards per carry), fullback Wes Cobb (530 yards rushing) and especially quarterback Connor Dietz, an efficient passer who completed 61.3 percent of his tosses for 1,131 yards, but also was the second leading rusher with 669 yards and 4.6 yards per carry. The heir apparent at QB, junior Kale Pearson, completed only 12 of his 29 attempts last season — and four were intercepted.
Defensively, the entire starting four-man linebacker crew graduated, including leading tackler Austin Niklas (128 stops, 74 solo) — older brother of Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas. Even with them, Air Force finished 99th against the run in 2012, yielding 198.77 yards per game.
However, the stat that must improve the most is the turnover margin. The Falcons were 106th with a minus-1.00 average per game, similar to Notre Dame’s minus-1.15 figure during the 8-5 campaign in 2011 that left it 118th.
Air Force has seldom been an easy out for Notre Dame in their six meetings since 1996, when a 20-17 overtime loss at home to the Falcons inspired Irish head coach Lou Holtz to resign. There also was the 41-24 Air Force victory that dropped Notre Dame to 1-9 in 2007.
Nevertheless, the Irish have regained their mojo against the military teams the last two years, scoring at least 50 points against them in the last three meetings while also getting the hang of the triple option.
Combined with Notre Dame’s ascent and Air Force needing to replace so many prime personnel, we look for the Irish to be favored by about three touchdowns in this outing, at least from a preseason perspective.