Notre Dame braces for Air Force's option offense
The name of Air Force's starting quarterback doesn't scare Notre Dame nearly as much as the offensive scheme.
The Falcons (1-6, 0-5 Mountain West) have yet to announce which backup QB will be under center when they try to end a six-game slide on Saturday against the Fighting Irish (5-2).
It could be Nate Romine, a fourth stringer when the season began who's rapidly moved up the depth chart due to injuries and an academic ineligibility. Or it possibly may be Karson Roberts — the backup to the backup out of fall camp — as he returns from a concussion he suffered two weeks ago against San Diego State.
No matter, the Irish are simply preparing for the structure of Air Force's hard-to-defend triple-option offense, not so much the starter.
"For us, (that's) the most important element," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "The quarterback certainly is part of that scheme and so when we look at both of the quarterbacks that have played in the last game, the last couple of games, it really, for us, is not as important as preparation for the scheme."
Notre Dame has some quarterback concerns of its own, with Tommy Rees leaving a 14-10 win over USC last Saturday in the third quarter with a strained neck. But Rees looked solid in practice this week and is expected to play.
"It was good to have Tommy out there," Kelly said. "He took all the first-team reps (Thursday) and he looked really good."
Still, backup Andrew Hendrix received more time than usual with the first-team offense, just in case.
"I liked what he did. A lot more confident," Kelly said.
Here are five things to know as Notre Dame goes for its seventh straight win at Falcon Stadium:
OH, BROTHER: With nose guard Louis Nix III not making the trip due to knee tendinitis, there's a good chance Isaac Rochell could receive more playing time. He may also line up against his brother, Air Force sophomore left tackle Matt Rochell. The brothers are from McDonough, Ga. "I think more than anything else he's excited about playing, whether he's playing against his brother or not, he knows he's getting into the game," Kelly said. "We've talked about being prepared for the game."
DON'T CALL IT A RIVALRY: Air Force coach Troy Calhoun smirked when someone asked him if he ever saw the movie, "Rudy," the ultimate underdog story of Notre Dame defensive player Rudy Ruettiger who made the Fighting Irish team through sheer determination. "It's a good one," Calhoun said. But Calhoun didn't so much as crack even a tiny smile when the subject of Notre Dame being a rival was mentioned. The Irish are 23-6 overall against Air Force and 12-2 at Falcon Stadium. "I don't think they see that at all," Calhoun said.
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE?: Calhoun expects to see plenty of gold and blue in the stands on Saturday simply because the Fighting Irish fans always travel well. "That's a possibility," Calhoun said. This has been a challenging season for Calhoun's squad, which must win out to become eligible for a seventh straight bowl appearance. Asked if an upset of Notre Dame would make up for all the losses, Calhoun said: "It's not the way we live. I want to see how well-educated we can be. I want to see how hard we can play. I want to see younger guys improve and develop as football players. More importantly, I want to see how many seniors we can graduate. That better be the drive of every young man that's part of our program."
TUITT'S RISE: Irish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt just may be one of the best in the country, on the same level as South Carolina standout Jadeveon Clowney even. That's Calhoun's opinion anyway after watching film of Tuitt, who had seven tackles and two sacks against USC last weekend. "He's a tremendous player," Calhoun said.
LONG BREAK: The Falcons have had two weeks to prepare for the Irish. Kelly expects to see plenty of twists in Air Force's play calling, maybe even a little bit of both quarterbacks. "There's plenty of time to have them both prepared and ready to expand that package a little bit," Kelly said. This is an offense that's tough to stop, especially with so little time to prepare. "It really slows you down and forces you to play assignment football," Kelly said of Air Force's run-oriented system.
Associated Press writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.
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