Each year, when Notre Dame prepares to play a military academy, Irish coaches and players are peppered with questions about defending the pesky triple option attack. That has especially been the case since Navy shredded the Irish defense for 367 yards rushing in a dominant 35-17 win over Notre Dame in 2010, Brian Kelly’s first season. Since then, the Irish have outscored military opponents 192-60 in four games, all won in decisive fashion.
With big bodies like Ronnie Stanley (78), Sheldon Day (91) and Louis Nix (1), Notre Dame controls the physical advantage over Air Force this weekend.
But Notre Dame is not the only team that enters the matchup with a bit of a caveat. The service academies do as well, and it’s one that won’t change regardless of how well Air Force practices and prepares for Saturday’s tilt: the size disparity.
Notre Dame starters weigh an average of 311.4 and 323.0 pounds on the offensive and defensive lines, respectively. Air Force’s starting offensive linemen average 261.0 pounds, while its starting defensive linemen average 256.7 pounds. The ‘lightest’ Irish starter on either line, sophomore Sheldon Day, weighs 20 more pounds than the Falcons’ heaviest, center Michael Huser (290 to 270).
“We’re gonna face a group that’s as talented as any in college football, especially when you look at the front on defense,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said. “Those three guys, if they’re able to stay healthy are going to make an awful lot of money down the road playing football.
“I think you look at Stephon Tuitt, he’s bigger than (No.) 7 of South Carolina. He’s been even more productive than [Jadeveon] Clowney has at South Carolina. He’s 6-6, he’s 327, he’s athletic, he’s long, he’s a tremendous player and the nose guard [Louis Nix] is 357 with terrific feet.”
For a Notre Dame team desperate for consistency from its rushing offense, this might be the week to impose its collective will on the ground with the calendar about to turn to November. Calhoun called the foursome of juniors Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle and freshman Tarean Folston as good as any stable of running backs in the country, but Notre Dame hopes to see a boost from its 97th-ranked attack.
“All four probably could’ve played wherever they wanted to with an athletic scholarship in addition to the weapons they have at wide receiver,” Calhoun said. “What makes them good offensively starts up front, just an excellent offensive line. They’re long, they’re big, they’re strong, they’re powerful, they’re explosive.”
Notre Dame has taken advantage of its strength in recent matchups against the academies after losing three of four to Navy from 2007 to 2010. In Dublin a year ago, the Irish rushed for 293 and Atkinson fell a yard short of giving the Irish two 100-yard rushers in the game along with Theo Riddick. In 2011, the Irish bookended a disappointing home loss to USC with a pair of home blowouts against Air Force (59-33) and Navy (56-14), respectively. In the Air Force game, Notre Dame scored 42 first-half points and introduced Andrew Hendrix as a change-of-pace quarterback. He finished the game as the team’s leading rusher with 111 yards on six carries.
To date, the Irish boast just one 100-yard rushing performance in 2013: Atkinson’s 148-yard afternoon in the 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. The rushing game could certainly use another to set the tone offensively heading into the season’s final month.