Notre Dame’s offensive formations belied the long list of gaudy stats that Irish quarterback Tommy Rees and his merry band of receivers racked up in a 45-10 rout Saturday night in Colorado Springs.
Junior tight end Ben Koyack hauls in a 22-yard touchdown pass during the second quarter of Saturday's game at Air Force..
For all the personal bests and school record that Rees and company carried in tow back to South Bend, they didn’t look like the wide open, basketball-on-grass type of offense that normally has the gears to produce that many points. The air attack was set up in large part thanks to Notre Dame’s two tight ends, who rarely left the Falcon Stadium turf Saturday and were almost never detached from the rest of the offensive line.
Junior Ben Koyack made two catches for 29 yards, one of them his second career trip to the end zone. His classmate Troy Niklas also had two catches for 20 yards. Modest numbers, especially for Niklas, but keeping that duo on the field gave Notre Dame the upperhand in passing game match-ups all evening.
“We think Ben Koyack is a guy that we want to get more playing time for,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We felt like there were some particular match-ups that we could get with Ben on the field that we liked.”
Koyack came to South Bend with a reputation as a pass-catching weapon at tight end. The 6-5, 261-pound had only five career receptions prior to Saturday’s game with the Falcons. He caught his first touchdown pass against Arizona State in early October and has made more regular appearances in the lineup this month. He and Niklas both started against Air Force.
Midway through the second quarter, Notre Dame got Koyack matched up with linebacker Jared Jones and capitalized on his three-inch height advantage. Rees tossed a fade pass toward the sideline, which Koyack hauled in for a 22-yard score that gave the Irish a bit of breathing room for the first time in the game.
That was the junior’s last reception Saturday, but his presence on the field set up long strikes to wide receivers throughout the game, and eventually a steady rushing attack in the second half. Freshman Will Fuller’s first career score came out of a tightly-bunched formation that forced the Falcons to move more bodies near the line of scrimmage. Fuller, another pass-catcher with the potential to bloom in the second half of the year, blew past his man-to-man defender for a wide-open, 46-yard scoring play.
“We wanted to run two tight end sets so we could run and pass the ball,” Fuller said “It made them have to stack the box a little bit, so whenever we made a catch it seemed like it was one-on-one. That was great.”
With a comfortable lead in the second half, the two tight ends helped Notre Dame stretch Air Force’s 3-4 defensive front and create gaps for its running backs. Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston chipped away at the clock as Notre Dame ran the ball 20 times for 90 yards in the half.
The Irish have long had a game-changer at the tight end position. Having two of them that can hamstring a defense creates extra options for Kelly and play-caller Chuck Martin for the final month of the regular season.