"It really slows you down and forces you to play assignment football and takes away sometimes that skill advantage that you have, that size advantage becomes minimized in some instances, because you have to play so disciplined and play assignment football."
-- Irish head coach Brian Kelly on Saturday's foe, the Air Force Academy
Notre Dame has come a long way since its initial brush with option football during the Brian Kelly era. Four years ago this week, a potent Navy offense ripped defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit for 35 points before Midshipmen took mercy on the beaten Irish late in a 35-17 victory.
Since, Diaco's defense has faced four option-oriented attacks, allowing 3, 33, 14, and 10 points, respectively. The 33-point total was produced by Air Force in 2011, a game in which the Irish led 21-3 at the end of one quarter, 42-16 at the half, and 59-19 at the game's five-minute mark.
While 14 of the Falcons 33 points that afternoon came in the game's final five minutes, long after the host Irish had emptied their bench, Air Force was nonetheless successful throughout the contest moving the football, with since-graduated triggerman Tim Jefferson guiding an offense that produced 160 yards on 20 first quarter snaps and 156 yards on a remarkable 27 second-quarter plays, before being limited to 77 yards (on a whopping 28 snaps) in the third quarter.
The Falcons of 2013 are far less potent.
While the 2011 squad ranked third nationally in rushing and 23rd in total offense, head coach Troy Calhoun's present-day Falcons have struggled, due in large part to issues behind center.
"I think that certainly the Air Force Academy has had their share of injuries to deal with, in particular, the quarterback position has been one of them," said Kelly of injured starter Kale Pearson (out for the season with a torn ACL) and his backup, Jaleel Awini (suspension). 'They're challenged there, when you're talking about the quarterback position."
In the pair's stead stepped Karson Roberts, concussed in the Falcons previous outing (October 10) vs. San Diego State. Freshman Nate Romine took over thereafter, and its undecided who will start under center Saturday vs. the Irish.
"I would say both of them have shown some things that coach (Diaco) is going to have to deal with," said Kelly of the pair. "Their offense didn't look that much different when they were in there. I think both of them add something to it. So we're preparing more for the structure of the offense more than the particular quarterback.
"They've had 16 days.They had the bye week plus they played a on Thursday night (vs. the Aztecs, a 27-20 defeat). So I think there's plenty of time to have them both prepared and ready to expand that package a little bit."
The 1-6 Falcons rank 88th nationally in scoring offense -- six spots behind Notre Dame. They've managed 268 yards per game on the ground, good for a #12 ranking.
Air Force hasn't finished outside the nation's top nine in total rushing yards since 1986 (15th), finishing among the top three in each of the last four seasons.
Pardon Their Progress?
An improved pass rush (8 sacks in the last six quarters). Better tackling in space by the team's back seven and a front wall that's limited opposing ground games to just 3.4 yards per rush over the last two games, more than 1.3 yards less than the season averages of vanquished Pac-12 teams Arizona State and USC.
Diaco's defensive unit has improved greatly since Michigan and Purdue (relative to Purdue's ability) both riddled his ranks in September. But that growth will be stunted over the next two football Saturdays and game weeks -- neither will have anything to do with the three Irish foes that follow.
"We want to win against two option teams," said Kelly. "So the next evolution of this defense is to play assignment football, disciplined football, 11 players fitting a play.
"If one guy breaks down in the 11, it doesn't matter how well (surging defensive end) Stephon Tuitt plays. It doesn't really matter how well (inside linebacker) Danny Fox plays. If we don't have our corner playing football, we're going to give up a lot of points. So this is about 11 players playing together. That's the next step for this group and playing that for the next couple of weeks is really the most important thing."
Diaco's cornerbacks have both started vs. an option team in the recent past, last season's season opener vs. Navy in Dublin. So too has safety Matthias Farley, although it was at Dog linebacker, while inside 'backers Fox and Carlo Calabrese have played five games vs. option attacks during their time under Diaco's guidance.
Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day, Kona Schwenke, and Louis Nix have faced and prepared for the unique offense as well. Nix, according to Kelly, might be spared over-exposure to option blocking schemes that feature myriad (legal) shots at defenders' legs.
"There's a lot of low blocking, a lot of cut blocking," said Kelly. "Just for a big guy, that's not the kind game you'd like to play, you'd like to get your hands on somebody and really physically try to get your strength -- and at Lou's size, he's going to be going against the guy who is 245 pounds. And he's probably going to be fending off cut blocks most of the game."
"We're going to be careful with him. We need Big Lou," Kelly continued. "Option football is not his cup of tea."
Past successes vs. option offenses have included Diaco's defense utilizing a four-man front with the addition third defensive back -- Robert Blanton in 2010, Jamoris Slaughter in 2011, Farley in 2012 -- instead of the team's Dog linebacker. The 2013 Dog linebacker is Jaylon Smith -- a freshman with a safety's speed but at 6'2" 230 pounds, a linebacker's build. It's difficult to imagine the Irish defense not employing one of its most improved players.
"We're putting a couple of packages together for that," said Kelly. "Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles. They're a little bit different than, say, Navy in terms of their formation. So Jaylon Smith will be on the field quite a bit for us."
Added Kelly of facing an option team: "It's something that you don't see and prepare for…you have to be so disciplined to face it. And you know the game of football, especially on defense, is that you want to play a little bit reckless at times."
The defense's four-season credo to be "one of the 11" should serve it well Saturday in Colorado Springs.