Irish fly past Air Force
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame showed just how its spread offense is supposed to work.
Tommy Rees found four different receivers with first-half TD passes and seven Irish players reached the end zone Saturday as Notre Dame scored its most points since the end of the Lou Holtz era 15 years ago and routed Air Force 59-33.
“We have got very good diversity within our offense. We can run and throw it. We are hard to defend right now,” coach Brian Kelly said after his team’s fourth straight victory.
“We are making the strides. … We have not arrived. The pieces are starting to come together for us. We are getting there.”
Notre Dame (4-2) got TDs on all six of its first-half possessions and led 42-16 at the intermission. The Irish now head into a bye week with a four-game winning streak.
Rees was 19 of 25 for 208 yards in the first half and finished 23 of 32 for 261 yards.
“It’s maybe a little bit of everything. Getting in a rhythm and getting in a groove with this offense,” Rees said of his improved play, which has included no turnovers the last two games after having nine in the first four.
The wide-open game featured the most combined points ever for a game at Notre Dame Stadium, breaking the previous mark of 90. And the 59 points were the most by Notre Dame since beating Rutgers 62-0 in 1996 — Holtz’s final home game as Irish coach.
The two teams combined for 1,125 yards total offense — 565 by Air Force and 560 by Notre Dame.
“We want more,” said receiver Theo Riddick, who had eight receptions, including a TD catch. “If we could have scored 75, we would have gotten 75. But we’re excited with the win regardless if it’s one point or 30 points.”
Air Force tried everything — a no-huddle and option offense that ran up big yards, an onside kick the Falcons’ didn’t recover, a fake punt that resulted in a 19-yard gain. Air Force finished the first half with 311 yards and was 5-for-5 on fourth down conversions in the game.
But the Falcons (3-2) were simply no match physically for the Irish, especially Notre Dame’s big offensive front that allowed Rees ample time to find wide open receivers and running backs to dance through huge holes.
“Frankly, when you see them playing live, you’re a little bit surprised that the record is not even better and it can be as they go,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said of the Irish.
Two Falcons turnovers, a fumble by Asher Clark on Air Force’s first play from scrimmage and an interception, helped send the Irish onto TD drives.
“We put our defense out there with some short fields, absolutely,” Calhoun said.
The Irish also showed a new wrinkle and a new weapon in Kelly’s attack when sophomore Andrew Hendrix was inserted as a change-of-pace quarterback in place of Rees.
Hendrix completed all four of his passes and broke off a 78-yard run to the 2 in the fourth quarter, showing off his ability and giving a glimpse perhaps of the Irish’s future. Hendrix finished with six carries for 111 yards.
“It just creates many more difficulties for a defense, and at the end of the day allows our offense to be very diversified,” Kelly said of Hendrix, adding that Dayne Crist is still the backup to Rees. “It just gives you another dimension on our offense that if you’re not prepared for it, you can see what happens.”
Tim Jefferson’s 6-yard TD pass to Ty MacArthur, set up after punter David Baska’s 19-yard run and another 30-yard jaunt by Mike DeWitt, got Air Force within 35-16 in the second quarter.
But just as they did all day, the Irish played pitch-and-catch and went right down the field for another score. This time it was Riddick catching a pass over the middle as Rees was hit. Riddick sailed through the defense on a 24-yard play that made it 42-16.
Notre Dame scored on its first drive and kept going.
Michael Floyd leaped high over Air Force’s Bobby Watkins III to grab a pass from Rees at the front pylon of the end zone. Initially ruled a touchdown, the play was reviewed — and even though replays showed that Floyd’s left foot appeared on the line — the score was upheld.
The 34-yard TD pass capped an 81-yard drive, one that took under three minutes and also included a Rees-to-Riddick hookup of 24 yards.
“There was no explanation. … It was confirmed that it was definitely in. I didn’t see it, either,” Calhoun said. “When I saw it on the sideline, I thought it was out. But as far as the actual visual, I didn’t see it.”
Moments later, on the Falcons’ first scrimmage play, Clark broke off a 29-yard run but fumbled at the end of it and Robert Blanton recovered for Notre Dame.
A 20-yard run by Jonas Gray, who had two TDs, set up a 5-yard scoring pass from Rees to Tyler Eifert.
After a field goal by Air Force’s Parker Herrington, the Irish got a 40-yard kickoff return by George Atkinson III and moved in for another TD in four plays. Hendrix hit Eifert for 22 yards, setting up Rees’ 10-yarder to Robby Toma for the score.
The Falcons then used their no-huddle offense to confuse the Irish and move down the field 80 yards. Notre Dame forced a field goal try, but Irish freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch — starting because of an ankle injury to Ethan Johnson — was offside on the play, giving the Falcons a first and goal at the 3. Jefferson then carried in for the TD before Darius Fleming blocked the extra point attempt, leaving the score at 21-9.
Air Force tried an onside kick and Notre Dame recovered at the 38, setting up another short drive capped by Gray’s 5-yard TD run. Jamoris Slaughter’s acrobatic interception of Jefferson sent the Irish on to another TD. This time it was Cierre Wood’s turn with an 8-yard touchdown run and it was 35-9.