Air Force offense provides challenges

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Toward the end of his weekly news conference, Brian Kelly was asked questions on his opponent's offense: Is Air Force even really an option team? How much option do the Falcons actually run?

"That might be true in Troy's eyes," Kelly responded to the first question, speaking about Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. "But let me tell you what, if you fall asleep for one second on his offensive scheme, and that being the triple option and veer option, you're gonna be in big trouble. So I think what he does very, very well offensively is he forces you defensively to be ready for triple option, and when you are so committed to triple option, he's running the zone play at you. And his ability to morph back into either one of those, if the defense is overplaying one scheme or the other."

In layman's terms, Notre Dame's opponent Saturday is not an option team as much as it is a team that likes to run the option.

But just how complex is Air Force's offense? If public discourse is an accurate measurement, then plenty.

Kelly fielded 51 questions on Tuesday, and 15 centered around Air Force's offense, including the first six.

The difference in Air Force's offense and schemes jump out when comparing it to Navy, a traditional option team that the Falcons beat Saturday in a 35-34 overtime contest. The Midshipmen ran for 367 yards in a 35-17 rout of the Fighting Irish last season in East Rutherford, N.J.

"There's many more pieces in the Air Force offense," Kelly said when asked to compare and contrast the offenses of the two military academies. "They're gonna run some traditional zone, inside/outside zone, they're gonna run some power, some gap. You're not gonna get any of that from Navy, whereas you're gonna get a balance in terms of what you'll have to defend.

"[Air Force quarterback Tim] Jefferson is obviously a guy that can throw the ball very well, and so the receiving corps, it's not off of play-action or crack-and-go, it's a comprehensive passing game. So this incorporates a lot of principles, so quite different in that respect."

The Falcons offense lines up in a variety of different formations, including the shotgun and spread, giving Jefferson more time to read defenses.

The senior quarterback has completed 70 percent of his passes (33-of-47) for 493 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, and he has been sacked just once. Air Force ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency.

Kelly called facing Jefferson "a nightmare," thanks in large part to all of the different looks Calhoun can throw at defenses.

"You have to look at how the defense is playing," Kelly said. "If the defense is all out set for triple option, he's not gonna run much of it. He's gonna run zone, he's gonna run lead, he's gonna throw the football. So if you're running a middle-of-the-field alley player who's set for option, you're not gonna see much of it. They're gonna throw the football and they're gonna run the zone.

"So that's really where he has a great scheme here, is that he sets what he does based upon what the defense shows."

Oddly enough, Air Force ranks 116th in the nation in time of possession, at 24 minutes, 55 seconds per game, though that likely speaks more to its offensive efficiency.

"They're running the ball effectively, getting tons of yardage, and then getting the opportunity to throw the ball over your head," Kelly said. "So consequently the time of possession's down a little bit. I would say that it's not attributed to their inability to put points on the board. I think that's the most important stat."

Kelly said Tuesday the Irish got away from who they were last season against Navy before re-gaining their physical edge four weeks later in a 27-3 rout of Army, another option team.

Maintaining that nature, specifically in the trenches, is something Kelly hopes to see from his team this Saturday.

"I think what I'm trying to say is that I don't want to get away from who we're becoming, and that is a team that's playing really physical," Kelly said. "I don't think you jump into the sixth week and all of a sudden now you stand up and you take a step back.

"I think we keep charging. I think we keep doing what we've been doing. Certainly we have to be aware of option and the responsibilities. It's an extremely multifaceted offense. But we've gotta be who we are, and that is being physical on both sides of the ball."