COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Senior quarterback Tommy Rees showed no signs of a neck strain that knocked him out of the USC game on the road against Air Force on Saturday. He threw a career-high five touchdown passes as the Irish recorded a blowout victory for the first time since the season opener with their 45-10 drubbing of the Falcons.
Sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown was one of five wide receivers to catch a touchdown pass for Notre Dame Saturday against Air Force.
Rees tied former Irish signal caller Ron Powlus for third in school history with 52 touchdown passes with his second-quarter connection with junior tight end Ben Koyack and later passed Powlus with two touchdowns later in the game. Freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller hauled in Rees’ first two touchdown passes, giving each of them their first-career scores.
Notre Dame struck quickly on each of its three touchdown drives in the first half, with drives of 1:24, 2:18 and 1:09, respectively. Rees finished the half 14 of 19 for 224 yards and three touchdowns after leaving last week’s 14-10 win over USC in the third quarter with a neck strain.
Sophomore receiver Chris Brown notched his first-career touchdown reception in the third quarter on Rees’ fifth score. Senior wide receiver TJ Jones reached the end zone for the fifth straight game in the third quarter. Rees’ five touchdown passes — to five different Notre Dame receivers — rank second in Irish history for a single game. He finished 17 of 22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns.
“When our doctors feel like he’s cleared to play on a Tuesday, that is enough for us as we put him through tests and they’re not going to clear him for contact unless they feel really good about him,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said about his quarterback’s expected availability throughout the week. “We had no hesitation at all to get him through the game. Certainly we didn’t want to put him in harm’s way, but certainly felt confident to get him out there and playing"
Defensively, the Irish played without senior nose guard Louis Nix (knee) and sophomore safety Elijah Shumate (hamstring), but mostly held the Falcons’ triple option offense under check. Freshman quarterback Nate Romine started for Air Force, giving the academy four different starters under center this season, the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Falcons accumulated 183 rushing yards in the first half, but mustered only 10 first-half points. Down 24-10 late in the second quarter, senior Anthony LaCoste fumbled in the red zone. Notre Dame recovered to carry a 24-10 advantage into the locker room. On the first drive of the second half, Air Force reached Notre Dame territory before Romine fumbled and freshman Dog linebacker Jaylon Smith recovered. Six plays later, Rees threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day to put the Irish ahead 31-10.
For the sixth time in their last seven games, the Irish trailed first. Notre Dame won the toss and marched 47 yards down the field before the Falcons blocked junior kicker Kyle Brindza’s 46-yard field goal attempt. Notre Dame lined up to go for it on fourth-and-two at the Air Force 24-yard line, but freshman offensive lineman Steve Elmer’s false start led to the field goal attempt. Elmer started in place of senior guard Christian Lombard, who is out for the season after undergoing back surgery earlier this week. Air Force took the succeeding drive 71 yards and scored on junior Colton Huntsman’s 10-yard touchdown scamper.
“We told our guys that Air Force was going to give us a punch and sometime — and it was in the very first quarter — and it was when we drove down and had a field goal blocked and subsequently they scored,” Kelly said. “Our team was going to have to respond and they responded quite well obviously. That was the challenge to our football team that something was going to happen early on and they would have to respond. They responded very, very well and from then on really played well.
“We scored 45 of the next 48 points after that touchdown.”
The offense broke out due in large part to its distribution among many options. Jones said it was hardly a surprising performance.
“I don’t think I look at [the receiver corps] any differently now,” he said. “We expected to make big plays. Whether it’s this game, the next game or games in the past we look at ourselves as one of the best in the country and we have that confidence. We expect ourselves to perform at our best each week.”
But Notre Dame’s success centered around its senior quarterback and the top statistical performance of his career. In the month of October— during which the Irish won all three games — Rees completed 48 of 81 passes (59.2 percent) for 729 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s played well, except for the interception against Arizona State,” Kelly said. “I thought he played very well against Arizona State coming from a subpar performance against Oklahoma. … I thought clearly he was playing well against USC until he got injured. We really felt like he’s been playing well and doing some things that really putting the ball in great locations.
“I’ll give you one example. TJ’s catch — a couple of his catches the ball position was outstanding — but the one in particular that I liked was Chris Brown’s touchdown catch. It was put in a position where only [Brown] was gonna catch it. He’s making those kinds of throws where even if you’re covered right now, Tommy can continue to make those kinds of accurate throws away from the defenders.”
Backup senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix ran the offense more efficiently than in other looks this season after Notre Dame lifted Rees with a 38-10 advantage. He completed a 47-yard pass down the sideline to Will Fuller and carried the ball into the end zone himself a play later.
“A lot better than last week’s,” Kelly said when asked how Hendrix’s performance compared to when he replaced Rees against USC.
Notre Dame struggled to establish its running game early, with junior George Atkinson III accumulating only 18 yards on six carries. During the second half, however, junior Cam McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston sparked the unit. The duo finished with a combined 108 yards on 21 carries.
“We were running some more gap schemes [in the second half],” Kelly said. “We had some trouble with the nose [guard] penetrating. We’re a zone inside, zone outside team. [Junior center Nick Martin] was on an island pretty much in the 3-4.
“I think that mix of putting some gap schemes in the third quarter opened up some running holes.”
At 6-2, Notre Dame enters the final month of the regular season with its eyes on winning out and qualifying for a BCS bowl. It will conclude its two-week stretch against the triple option Saturday when Navy travels to Notre Dame Stadium.