SOUTH BEND - Dee Dowis will be watching Saturday, he hopes, from the beginning.
"This was the one game on our schedule we looked forward to every year," said Dowis, now 22 years removed from his Heisman Trophy run and currently a high-on-the-food-chain guy for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. "It was all the history and tradition. It was such a huge challenge."
Lately, the challenge has been bigger on the other side of the equation. The Irish (3-2) got thumped by Air Force, 41-24, in South Bend the last time the two teams met, in 2007. Overall, the Irish are 2-4 in their last six encounters with service academy teams, all of which run some form of option offense.
The Falcons (3-1) have evolved the furthest from the original template, with coach Troy Calhoun’s team sometimes spreading the field, sometimes airing it out and always seemingly putting up big offensive numbers.
Air Force is 12th nationally in total offense, third in rushing offense, both the highest rankings of ND’s 12 opponents this season.
"Troy is just a super, super smart coach," Dowis said. "I love the way he’s made this offense evolve."
Dowis was all of 5-foot-10, 153 pounds when he was at the joystick of Air Force’s more-traditional option offense. He weighed even less than that when he was a lightly recruited senior in high school in Royston, Ga.
Initially, he had plenty of suitors, but most of them backed away when they met Dowis in person and saw how small he was. So when Air Force assistant Cal McCombs came calling, Dowis’ high school coach wouldn’t let him meet Dowis until he had the chance to be wowed by watching film of him.
And Dowis kept wowing in college as a three-year starter for the Falcons. Air Force ended up going 0-4 against the Irish (1986-89), but they faced a No. 2 ND squad on its way to a national title in 1988 in South Bend, and a No. 1-ranked Irish team in Colorado Springs when Dowis was a senior.
He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, just ahead of Florida’s Emmitt Smith and behind winner Andre Ware of Houston, runner-up Anthony Thompson of Indiana and ND quarterback Tony Rice, among others. His 3,612 career rushing yards stood as the NCAA standard for a QB until IU’s Antwaan Randle El deleted it in 2001.
Certainly Dowis’ success had more to do with his heart, his legs and the ability to process options at Core processor speed than scheme, but he insists the scheme helps immensely. He stopped short, though, of uttering the dreaded phrase "decided schematic advantage."
"I don’t think the teams we played psyched themselves out about the option as much as the fact that it’s a tough offense to prepare for in a week. It’s just hard for teams to simulate that speed in practice.
"It’s an offense that works on mismatches. We want to put you in a tough position. And if you’re not used to it, haven’t seen it a game speed, all the pressure is on the defense."
Dowis did get to experience one victory over the Irish, when he was an assistant coach under legendary Fisher DeBerry in 1996. The Falcons tripped the Irish in the first overtime game in ND history, 20-17, that day.
ND quarterback Ron Powlus fumbled on the first play of ND’s overtime. Air Force’s barefoot kicker Dallas Thompson then hammered home the game-winning 27-yard field goal — after a delay of game penalty on the Falcons and an Irish timeout.
"I just remember that day so vividly," Dowis said. "As an assistant coach, I got to walk around the campus — something I never got to do as a player, because you came in, you played, you left.
"Notre Dame was just such an awesome place. It was such a beautiful day, although the fact that we won probably made it even more beautiful in my memory than it really was."
Maybe the best way for Air Force junior linebacker Austin Niklas to get into younger brother Troy’s head is not to trash talk.
Or talk at all.
"I’ve been trying to call him," said Troy, a freshman reserve outside linebacker for the Irish, "but he hasn’t been calling me back. I don’t know, I guess we’re going to talk after the game."
The brothers, separated by only two years, have rarely played on the same team with each other — or against each other, for that matter,
Unless you count the sport of bed wrestling. Yes, bed wrestling.
"There was this bed," the Fullerton, Calif., product explained. "It was a king-sized bed, and it was kind of like king of the castle. You just knocked the other guy off the bed. And it used to get pretty rough.
"There were lamps flying everywhere. One time (Austin) picked me up and slammed me on the couch and we broke the couch. We tried to fix it, but didn’t fix it very well."
The two have been uber-competitive ever since, but also extremely close.
"He was always there for me," Troy said. "I know he busts his butt every day, and I’m real proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force Academy and to serve our country."
More than 20 former Irish players were on hand for the unveiling/blessing/dedication of the sculpture of former Notre Dame coach Dan Devine on Friday afternoon.
Luther Bradley, Nick DeCicco, Vagas Ferguson, Jerome Heavens and Bob Golic were among those on hand for the 50-minute ceremony outside the former Gate A, now Dan Devine Gate.
Staff writer Eric Hansen: