Up there in the wild blue yonder, where the air is crisp yet fragrant with alpine firs, Tommy Rees and his sure-handed wingmen went Enola Gay on the Air force Academy, bombing the Falcons by a 45-10 final score.
As expected, it took time for the Nixless Irish defense to adjust to the swirling blur of the Air Force ground game. The Falcons and Calhoun had 16 days to prepare for the Irish, and were successful early. But the Irish figured it out, and when Air Force got a field goal for its 10th point at the 5 minute mark of the second quarter, the Falcons were done scoring. For the last two thirds of the game, the Falcons netted 171 yards on 9 drives, less than 20 yards per sortie. Of course, “career” days by Justin Utopu and Kendall Moore helped the Irish stop troops.
In the season’s first “breather,” the Irish started fast, maintained the pace and relaxed with the game in hand late in the third quarter, when Rees exited gracefully, deferring to Hendrix. Calhoun chose the tactic of jamming the box and letting his secondary go man to man against the Irish corps of receivers. Chris Brown’s touchdown of 15 yards was the shortest, as the Irish pass game faltered only when Martin and Kelly experimented with Rees rolling out.
Steve Elmer, the next man in when Christian Lombard underwent back surgery. got his first start. It will not be his last. Young Steve is no gimmee, and he showed his chops against Leonard Williams in the USC game. Powerful leg drive. There is something else significant when you watch him line up on the right side next to redshirt frosh Ronnie Stanley. You are seeing the prototypes for the offensive lines in Notre Dame’s future.
An important byproduct of the romp was the chance to play the second team offensive linemen. Practice is practice, and experience trumps practice. In 2012 we had no offensive line depth, but we are building that, even with redshirting McGlinchey, McGovern, Montelus and Bivin.
There was only one chunk play (20 or more yards) in the running game by Air Force. And Smith, Rochell, Redfield, Luke and Butler got their first experience against an option game. This will pay dividends against academies in the future, but also against some of the more run-oriented spread teams that we might play in a Bowl game.
Newcomers of the match:
Corey “the Ensign” Robinson and William Fuller – gettting their first touchdowns. They have combined for 10 catches and two touchdowns more than the three catches without scoring that frosh Brown, Ferguson and Neal combined for in 2012,
Isaac Rochell – quick, runs to the ball, and will greatly benefit from a Long winter.
Jaylon Smith – continues with jaw dropping plays.
Tarean Folston – got fed significantly, and he will be significant in the stretch run. Has good vision and “escapability.”
RATING THE UNITS
BCS GAME LEVEL
Defensive line – while, normally, one would require depth to the third string to rate a DL unit (depth is MOST important at DL and RB) this high, the remarkable performances of Tuitt and Nix elevate this unit. It is likely that the future is bright for Notre Dame football, but it might be a generation before we see anything like these two guys playing next to each other on our defensive line. The depth hangs on, livin’ on a prayer. Let’s keep everybody healthy for the Stanford game.
Receivers - Jones and Daniels arrived in the Bama game, Jones has elevated this year, and Daniels needs a tad more consistency. Christ Brown is developing as the third option, but our depth (young as it is) is building. Robinson, Fuller, Prosise and Onwualu show glimpses, and this is an area, with players like Floyd, Toma and T.J. Jones where we have delivered annually on “player development.” This area is strong for years to come.
Offensive line – Elmer’s arrival moves this unit up. We now have a “sixth starter” who can play. Frankly, when he lines up next to Stanley on the right side, we are miles ahead of where we were on the right side in 2012. This line has operated under the handicap of not having a qb running game to declog things and has had to protect a quarterback more nimble of mind than of foot. This upgrade is continget on Christ Watt returning to the starting lineup.
Cornerback – shaking off some early season bad plays, Jackson and Russell have settled in, with the latter now the stronger player. Diaco has suggested that KeiVarae Russell could be the best cornerback in the country when he’s a senior, and that seems less far-fetched with each passing game. These two will be crucial against Stanford. If they can survive in man-to-man coverage, Diaco will have flexibility to either load the box or blitz. What solidifies this rating bump is the play of true frosh Cole Luke and Devin Butler. They have pushed Lo Wood out of the rotation. More importantly, the kids can play! We are a long way from the Spring 2012 quartet of Jackson, Wood, Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown.
New Year’s Day Bowl level
Linebackers – have survived the loss of Spond and Grace. Athletic and fluid on the outside, experienced and resolute on the inside with Fox and Calabrese. Jaylon Smith continues to astound. He has played better than his press clippings. There are more athletic inside duos than our two starters, but nobody has more experience at that position in college football. Matchups are tricky, but those two are not a bad matchup with the Cardinal of Stanford.
Tight End – The good news is that Troy Niklas has elevated his game, and now is one short of the record for most touchdown receptions for a Notre Dame tight end (6). Koyack gets more comfortable, both blocking and receiving but Welch is not on pace. Notwithstanding, we can play some effective two TE football.
Running backs – Carlisle, McDaniel, Atkinson and Folston have each had their moments, and their confidence will grow against the weaker portion of the schedule. Their lack of production in the passing game keeps them at this level, as it was expected to be a team strength.. They can all block and they all return in 2014.
Safety – injuries to Baratti and Shumate have robbed this depth chart of two superior athletes, and Redfield is still not there with the complicated role of the safeties in this defense (remember the complexity is what kept Shumate at cornerback last year.) Collinsworth and Farley are solid and were in their sweet spot against the Air Force. But they will need help against Stanford and a bowl opponent. Shumate and Redfield and Hardy should be up to the task. The good news is that all these guys, as well as Turner, return in 2014.
Quarterback – this is why predictions are absurd. If someone had told you in the Winter of 2010 that Tommy Rees would be 20-6 in 26 starts as the Notre Dame signal-caller, what would you have said-or thought? The offense showed major progress against a tough USC defense, and Rees had hisr way with the AFA stop troops. There are limitations here, but they are coached to their abilities, and have generated wins. If Rees can sharpen the between-the-hash patterns and the running back timing, this unit will be in good shape.
What will we see against Navy?
(1) 50 years ago, Roger Staubach led Navy to a dominating 35-14 win over Hugh Devore’s Irish. Navy man Jack Kennedy was in the White House, Navy snagged the Lambert Trophy, once revered, on the way to playing in a de facto national championship game against Texas in the Cotton Bowl where Darrell Royal’s Longhorns overwhelmed Heisman winner Staubach and the Middies, 28-6. A lot has changed since then. O tempora, O mores!
(2) In a schedule that is beginning to break the Irish way, the serendipity of playing an option-based Academy for the second week in a row. Thus, continuity of defensive preparation and game-planning, albeit against a Navy team that is superior to Air Force. After all they have that signature over Indiana’s Cream and Crimson. Remember, with a first game starting redshirt frosh QB and with KeiVarae Russell being bumfuzzled in his first game and first month playing ND football, we still beat Navy 50-7 in Dublin.
(3) A great opportunity for depth development, with focus on the frosh and the second string offensive line.
(4) Once again, the massive size of the Irish against a much smaller foe. Further, if you are tempted to say that the smaller Middies are swifter than our Irish, please reexamine the Dublin Dash by Stephon Tuitt going yard against the Middies last year.
(5) A chance for Kelly to move to 6-1 against the Academies. Yeah, that one will always be there.
Sink the Navy!