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Football: Falcons’ attack different from Midshipmen

Ken Fowler | Friday, November 10, 2006

Two weeks ago, Notre Dame’s defense started slowly, surrendering three drives of 60 or more yards to the option-running Midshipmen to start the game. The Irish recovered and held Navy to the 14 points it scored in the first half.

On Saturday, the Irish are hoping to play a more complete, 60-minute game against the Falcons’ option offense. But just because Notre Dame figured out how to sink one service academy doesn’t mean it can ground the other.

And the problems for the Irish begin with the seemingly simple inclusion of a tight end.

Air Force enters the contest with an average of 267 yards per game rushing, largely thanks to its wishbone formation and multiple threats.

Much like the offense Navy showed Notre Dame, Air Force employs a kill-you-with-speed offense, though the Falcons’ formations are somewhat different. Air Force often uses a one-receiver formation with a tight end on the other side of the field. By comparison, Navy played two receivers far from the tackles on almost every play – and the Falcons have run that formation, as well.

Irish safety Tom Zbikowski said the contrast was so stark that most of the few things he could take from the Navy game and apply it to this one were “fundamentals.”

“There’s some similarities to them running the option, but Navy definitely has got a much different attack [than Air Force],” he said. “[The Falcons will] definitely use the tight end a lot more than Navy does [and] a few more counters. So it’s actually a lot different than Navy’s option attack.”

When asked what preparations from the Navy game would carry over, Irish coach Charlie Weis offered sentiments similar to Zbikowski’s.

“It helps with half of their package. The only problem is [the Falcons] have another whole half of the package. One half of the package has a lot of similarities to what Navy did, but they have a whole other package that Navy didn’t have,” Weis said.

Against the Midshipmen, Zbikowski had 14 tackles as he focused on containing the pitch man turning upfield on running plays. But the senior have more pass-coverage assignments this Saturday as Air Force throws the ball more, though not much, than Navy. And Zbikowski will have to keep his eye on the Falcons starting tight end – 6-foot-4, 240-pound Travis Dekker, who has 10 percent of Air Force’s receptions on the season.

“They have tight ends in their system and they want to use them,” Zbikowski said. “It can definitely help out in passing situations where [Air Force has] a little bigger body in there.”

Dekker and Falcons backup Chris Evans frustrate defenses by adding an extra blocker on the line of scrimmage who also releases on pass routes more than a quarter of the time he is on the field.

But even with Air Force’s aerial arsenal, the way to stop Falcons is to beat them on the ground.

Quarterback Shaun Carney has averaged 65 yards per game this season on nearly 17 carries a contest.

“Their offense starts with Carney,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “He’s the guy who makes their offense go.”

Chad Hall, the Falcons’ 5-foot-10, 180-pound wingback from Georgia is Air Force’s most dangerous threat with the ball in his hands. Hall has 594 yards on 107 attempts for a 5.6 yards-per-rush average to go along with five touchdowns and a long rush of 38 yards.

But Notre Dame has more to worry about than just the speedsters who make their living on the outside. As teams have concentrated on pitches towards the sidelines because of the added tight end, the Falcons have exploited weakness in the interior of defenses with their two bruising fullbacks, each averaging more than 4 yards per carry.

Backup Ryan Williams, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound product of Mesquite, Tex., has 332 yards on the season with a 4.4-yard average. Jacobe Kendrick, who has taken over the starting job from Williams, enters with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average and 295 yards in seven games this season.

“The two of them [Kendrick and Williams], you’d better stop them, first of all, because if not, they’ll just hand it off to them all day and let them gash you for a while,” Weis said. “You’re going to have to play a … technically sound, fundamental game with a high level of energy to get production [on defense],” Weis said.

That’s the challenge for the Irish.