Notre Dame traveled to Colorado Springs on Saturday and left their high altitude destination on the winning side of a 45-10 rout of Air Force. Anytime there is a blowout victory, there’s a lot to like, but here are the five things I like the most from Notre Dame’s first easy win of the season since week one.
The return of Touchdown Tommy Rees
Two years against Air Force Tommy Rees had one of the best games of his career. This afternoon Tommy Rees had THE best game of his career against AIr Force. Rees stat line reads like that of a video game with 17 of 22 passing for 284 yards with a career high 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. He had as many incompletions as he did touchdowns.
After missing most of the second half last week due to injury and being questionable all week long, Rees was deadly accurate all day long and would have had an even higher completion percentage had it not been for a couple of drops early on. The only blemish on his day were a few misfires when he was on the run but for the life of me I still can’t figure out why he was throwing on the run in the first place. Rees was picking apart the Air Force defense from the pocket and they weren’t getting any pressure on him so there was no need to get him on the move.
Regardless, Rees turned in the best performance of his career and now has 20 touchdowns on the season tying his season total from all of 2011 when he started 12 games for the Irish. At this rate, Rees will finish the season with 30 touchdowns – something that only Brady Quinn has ever done while wearing a Notre Dame uniform.
Rees also moved into 3rd place all-time in passing touchdowns in Notre Dame history with 54 behind Brady Quinn’s 95 and Jimmy Clausen’s 60. Rees won’t have a chance to pass Quinn, but 7 more touchdowns with five more games is very attainable for Rees. Four years ago after Rees first career pass against Michigan went for an interception who would have ever thought he might end his career second all time in career touchdown passes for the Irish?
For a guy who was questionable all week with a neck strain, no one could have asked for anything more of Rees this week.
Big plays from Notre Dame’s freshmen
Notre Dame’s 45-10 win Saturday was fueled in part by the play of their freshman class. Freshmen wide receivers Corey Robinson and Will Fuller both scored their first career touchdowns in the first half on long passes from Rees – Robinson a 35 yarder and Fuller a 46 yarder. Robinson made a great play on the ball in the air and came down in bounds just shy of the endzone before walking into while Fuller blew right past the Falcon secondary for an easy touchdown on a play action fake from Rees.
Defensively, Jaylon Smith continued his impressive freshman season with another good game for the Irish defense. It took the phenom linebacker to get his feet under him while facing an option attack for the first time, but once he adjusted, he turned in a heck of a game leading the Irish with an unofficial 8 tackles including several on 3rd down to kill drives. Smith would have had his first career touchdown as well on a fumble recovery had it not been for one of the worst calls by an official I have seen in a long, long time when they called a clear fumble an incomplete pass that Smith cleaning recovered with a clear path to the endzone. With a week’s worth of practice and playing against the option, Smith should be poised for another big game next week against Navy. Isaac Rochell saw his first bit of extensive action too with some injuries along the defensive line and turned in a solid performance.
Tarean Folston got into the mix in the second half as well with 11 carries for 47 yards mainly playing with Andrew Hendrix at quarterback and the backup offensive line in the game. Remember how Julius Jones just looked like the best back on the field for the Irish as a freshman years back? Folston is looking exactly the same right now. He just runs with more power, authority, and vision than the other running backs right now.
All in all, not a bad day’s worth of performance from your freshman class.
The tackling from Keivarae Russell
Notre Dame had some major tackling problems early in the season but those problems have largely been dealt with the last few weeks and no one was a better example of that on Saturday than Keivarae Russell. The former running back was excellent on the perimeter of the Notre Dame defense turning in a solid day of tackling with 6 unofficial stops and 1 fumble recovery.
The Notre Dame defense had a tough time slowing down Air Force early but they settled down and made some big plays to keep Air Force out of the game including a few by Russell. Russell’s tackling has improved steadily from the start of the season and Notre Dame is going to need another big game from Russell next week when Navy travels to South Bend with their option attack.
A clean game penalty and turnover wise
Notre Dame did not turn the ball over once today and they committed just one penalty for five yards. Considering the Irish were starting a true freshman on the offensive line and were missing a few starters on defense, committing just one penalty is pretty impressive. The Irish also did not turn the ball over for the 13th time under head coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame’s record in those games? 13-0.
Notre Dame has played very clean football over the last three weeks other than Rees’s pick 6 against Arizona State. The Irish have turned the ball over just one time and have gone back to back games without a turnover. The last two weeks the Irish have also combined for just 7 penalties. In their two losses earlier this season the Irish combined to turn the ball over 5 times which shows that when the Irish protect the football, they win.
Kyle Brindza’s punting and 3rd career 50+ yard field goal
Kyle Brindza’s day didn’t start well with his first field goal attempt getting blocked to cap off an ugly series of events at the end of Notre Dame’s first drive that saw the Irish fail to convert a third and 1, then get a false start on their 4th down attempt, and then come away with no points. Brindza’s day ended pretty well though with the junior kicker becoming just the second kicker in Notre Dame history to kick three career field goals from 50+ yards with a 51 yarder in the second quarter.
Brindza had another solid day punting as well with three punts for an average of 44.3 yards including one punt pinned inside the 10 yard line. He wasn’t asked to punt much but when he was, he punted well. Brindza’s punting has been very unrated by Notre Dame fans so far this year but he has settled in nicely to the role after a slow start and was named to the Ray Guy candidate earlier this week.