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Football: More of the same

Bill Brink | Monday, November 12, 2007

The frustration Notre Dame has experienced all season can be summarized with one kick.

When defensive end Trevor Laws booted the penalty flag after an offsides call during the extra point attempt of Air Force’s fifth touchdown of the Falcons’ 41-24 win over the Irish, he symbolized the team’s dissatisfaction with this historically bad season.

Chad Hall, who led the Air Force offense, caused much of Laws’ frustration. Hall rushed 32 times for 142 yards. He also caught two passes for 31 yards, had 99 return yards and averaged 7.4 yards per touch in the game.

“He’s a competitor, he competes out there so much and runs so hard,” Laws said. “He wants to get as many yards as he can every play; he’s out there loving what he’s doing.”

Air Force improved to 8-3 on the season, coach Troy Calhoun’s first with the Falcons. Notre Dame dropped to an all-time worst 1-9.

Irish freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen had his best game of the season, completing 22-of-40 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t have the help of his receivers, however. On the first play from scrimmage, after Clausen hit tight end John Carlson for a 28-yard completion, Carlson fumbled, giving Air Force the ball on its own 42-yard line. The receivers continued to drop passes for the rest of the game.

The Falcons drove down to the Notre Dame 1-yard line, but nose tackle Pat Kuntz stopped Falcons quarterback Shaun Carney behind the line. Ryan Harrison made a 19-yard field goal to put Air Force up 3-0.

Notre Dame’s next two drives stalled when Air Force sacked Clausen on blind-side blitzes. Irish coach Charlie Weis said that the blitzes were part of Air Force’s defense and that he had a plan in place to counter them – but it wasn’t executed, he said.

“We know what they’re doing,” Weis said. “Here comes a weak corner. We’ve got two to block two. ‘You block him, you block him.’ And the quarterback’s getting hit in the back.”

After the Irish forced an Air Force punt that gave them the ball on their own 20-yard line, fullback Asaph Schwapp bobbled a handoff and sent the ball flying into the air. It came down into the hands of linebacker John Rabold, who ran 19 yards for the touchdown.

“When you turn around and just hand the ball inside to the fullback, you think the worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to get a couple of yards and you’re going to be playing second and eight,” Weis said.

The Irish went three-and-out on their next possession but received a stroke of luck. Carney and Hall fumbled the option exchange, and linebacker Kerry Neal fell on the ball. Nine plays later, Notre Dame had a first down on the Falcons’ 11-yard line. But three straight incomplete passes forced a Brandon Walker 28-yard field goal to make the score 10-3 with 8:29 remaining in the half.

On fourth-and-1 on their own 49-yard line on the Falcons’ next possession, Laws stuffed tailback Chad Smith at the line, forcing a turnover on downs and giving the Irish good field position.

“Could you punt it? Sure,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “I felt like there was a very good chance that we could convert the one yard.”

Notre Dame would have gone three-and-out again if not for a roughing-the-passer penalty after Clausen’s incomplete pass on third down. The penalty gave the Irish a first down on the Air Force 32-yard line. On third and goal from the 2, Clausen hit Carlson in the corner of the end zone on a play-action fake, and the Irish tied the score at 10-10.

“I thought that we were back in it,” said Carlson, who had four receptions for 57 yards and the touchdown. “I hoped we’d start rolling and score some more points.”

The Falcons’ rushing game caught fire on the next drive, accounting for 56 of the drive’s 66 yards. Air Force made the score 17-10 when wide receiver Spencer Armstrong ran a reverse eight yards for a touchdown with 1:09 remaining in the half.

“They changed their offense every time we tried to get hold of what they’re doing,” Laws said. “They ran a different option today [with] a lot [more] different little wrinkles than Navy had, so it was tough to stop.”

The Falcons’ run game set up a scoring chance on their first drive in the second half, which ended with Carney rolling out and hitting wide receiver Sean Quintana for a touchdown.

After two Notre Dame drives ended in punts, Air Force capped a 65-yard drive when Carney rolled right and hit tight end Keith Madsen amid defenders for a 10-yard touchdown that gave the Falcons a 31-10 lead with 1:31 left in the third quarter.

Clausen found a rhythm when Notre Dame got the ball back. Running a no-huddle offense, he led a 10-play, 57-yard drive that culminated on a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver David Grimes on fourth-and-9 to make the score 31-17.

“We lined up and the corner was pressed,” said Grimes, who led the Irish with six catches for 67 yards and the score. “He just checked down when he saw the coverage.”

Hall returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to Notre Dame’s 33-yard line, but Notre Dame’s defense held Air Force to a field goal, making the score 34-17.

Clausen went 5-of-7 on his next drive, including a swing pass to running back Armando Allen for a touchdown to make the score 34-24 with 7:56 remaining. Allen had nine rushes for 29 yards and 2 receptions for 17 yards and the touchdown.

Notre Dame forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with 5:39 left, but Clausen fell short on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1. Air Force capitalized on the short field and scored to put the game out of reach at 41-24.

Laws said the team did not know the reason for its struggles this season.

“If we knew why, we’d be winning games,” Laws said. “I don’t know why we’re not playing as well as we should be. I wish I did know.”