Falcons fall to Notre Dame, 21-14
By John Van Winkle, Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published October 21, 2002
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFPN) -- The Air Force Academy Falcons' hopes for a perfect season were dashed Oct. 19 by the Notre Dame defense and running game.
Notre Dame held the Falcon rushing offense to just 104 yards on 38 carries, and defeated Air Force 21-14.
"We knew coming in that Air Force is a heck of a football team," said Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham. "And walking out of this contest, we're not disappointed with what they brought to the table today. We're just very fortunate that things went in our favor and we were able to prevail.
"But that is a very good football team," said Willingham. "(They) stretch you on almost every snap, offensively and defensively."
Most of Notre Dame's opponents use a strong passing game or a balanced offense mixing pass and run plays. Air Force brought in the nation's No. 1 rushing offense, with an option-based running attack that had averaged more than 338 yards per game.
"This was one of the most difficult assignments that any defense can have, going from a passing attack to an option attack," said Willingham. "You're never sure with the Falcons, when that offense can bust out or a responsibility could be missed."
But Notre Dame's defenders made the important tackles on the outside, or forced the option attack inside, to where they had help from other pursuing defenders. That effort held Air Force to just 2.7 yards per rush.
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame averaged 6 yards per carry on the ground.
"In contrast to us, they always came up with second down and medium (yardage to go), or second down and short, and third and short," said Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry. "We always came up with second and long and third and long. And that's not the nature of our offense."
Air Force's defense put the first score on the board when defensive end Jon Hicks knocked the ball loose from Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday's grasp. Falcon linebacker Marchello Graddy scooped the ball up and ran it in untouched, thanks to a full defensive escort, for a 21-yard touchdown.
Notre Dame rebounded quickly, however, and scored on a 53-yard run by Holiday and an 18-yard run by sophomore Ryan Grant, to lead 14-7 at the half.
Air Force's option attack got back in gear in the second half after the Falcon defense recovered a fumble and quarterback Chance Harridge scored to tie the game.
But a penalty after the extra point forced the Falcons kick off from their 20-yard line, and gave Notre Dame great field position, said DeBerry. Holiday soon led the Notre Dame offense to another score, to lead 21-14.
Notre Dame's rushing game continued to control the clock on subsequent series, but didn't seal the win until making their 22nd first down in the game's final minute.
"There's no shame in losing to the No. 7 team in the nation by only seven points," said DeBerry. "I am certainly proud of the way our football team fought. They never game up. If they'll play that hard in the next five [games], then I don't think there's anybody on our schedule who we can't beat."
With the win, Notre Dame remains one of only 10 undefeated teams in the nation, at 7-0. Air Force falls to 6-1, and returns to Mountain West Conference action Oct. 26 at Wyoming.
Air Force leads the conference, and of its remaining five opponents, only 6-2 Colorado State University has a winning record. Air Force's four remaining opponents are the University of Nevada - Las Vegas at 3-4, San Diego State at 2-5, Wyoming at 1-6 and Army at a perfect 0-7.
"There's a lot of fight in Falcon football, and we're going to stay in your face for four quarters," said Harridge, after this, his first loss as a starter. "We've just got to pick up and move on, and the important thing is not to dwell on it, but to look ahead and know some great things are still in store."
"But this one hurts, and the good thing is, is it doesn't affect our goals as a football team of winning the commander in chief's trophy or the winning the conference championship," he said.