Notre Dame records its best report card of the year in 45-10 win over Air Force.
PASS OFFENSE: A+. It didn’t take Rees’ greatest effort to look impressive against Air Force’s bottom-scraping pass defense, but his record-setting day deserves no other grade. Rees came back from a sprained neck against USC to throw 17-of-22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns. Rees, who has steadily been playing better since Oklahoma, set a school record with five touchdowns to five receivers. With a chunk of the offensive line already injured or injured throughout the game, Rees didn’t have as much time to throw as he likely would have liked. Not that it mattered. Rees got the ball out quickly and christened receivers Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and Will Fuller for their first career scores. It’s not often that TJ Jones is a side note, but that’s the senior’s fifth straight game with a score and third career 100-plus yard game. His draft stock is skyrocketing as he continues to use his body better than anyone on the team. Andrew Hendrix’s 47-yard connection with Fuller and subsequent 4-yard touchdown rush was a much-needed confidence boost for a guy who struggled against USC and will likely see the field against Navy.
RUN OFFENSE: B. The ground game couldn’t get much going early, and by the time it found its legs, Rees was scoring at will. For once, Notre Dame didn’t need much of Cam McDaniel’s ridiculously good-looking running. McDaniel still did some damage, though, averaging 6.1 yards on 10 carries. Nice cameo by freshman Tarean Folston, who was running like he desperately wanted to join the First Time Scorers Club, too. He almost got there after charging 31 yards on three carries before McDaniel came back in. Folston finished second in rushing yards with 47 on 11 carries. With the injury-riddled offensive line, it was a good thing the Irish didn’t need to ground the ball much on Saturday.
PASS DEFENSE: A+. Not much to grade here, as Air Force threw the ball only 12 times for 49 total yards (a mere 4.1 average). Quarterback Nate Romnie found Marcus Hendricks for a 19-yard connection, very nearly setting up Air Force for a score before the half. But linebacker Ben Councell forced a fumble that cornerback KeiVarae Russell scooped up. It’d be the closest Air Force would come to scoring the rest of the game. This wasn’t going to be a game with a lot of pass rush — which is why Brian Kelly could afford to leave Louis Nix in South Bend — but the Irish made sure Air Force could do nothing through the air. Saturday’s game marks the second straight week the Irish secondary hasn’t allowed a passing touchdown.
RUN DEFENSE: B+. Air Force had Notre Dame’s number early in the game, marching 71 yards up the field for its first and only touchdown of the game. The Falcons targeted freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith, and Smith struggled to defend the perimeter early in the game. By the half, Air Force had 183 rushing yards but only one score to show for it. A combination of adjusted defensive scheme and a renewed energy from Smith put an end to that. On the first series of the second half, Smith scooped up a fumble that should have been run back for a touchdown. Officials (incorrectly) blew the play dead, preventing Smith from joining the first-time score club with his other freshman classmates. Air Force finished with 290 rushing yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B. Kyle Brindza’s blocked missed field goal capped a disappointing opening showing from the Irish, but Brindza — in typical Brindza fashion — bounced back to nail a 51-yard field goal near the end of the first half. Brindza now has three career field goals of 50 yards or longer, matching Harry Oliver’s Notre Dame record. George Atkinson broke free on kickoff return that looked like it was going to be run back for touchdown, but he was tackled 37 yards into his run. It was a nice showing from Atkinson, who didn’t do much otherwise in the game. Notre Dame didn’t punt in the first half for the first time since the Navy game in 2011. The punt return team totaled a whopping zero yards.
COACHING: A. Everyone cringed when Brindza’s blocked field goal was met with an Air Force score, but the Irish adjusted a defensive scheme that wasn’t working for them and didn’t let the Falcons in the end zone again. Brian Kelly was confident enough in his backups that he could afford to leave Nix at home and starting guard Chris Watt on the sideline after a banged-up knee. Against any other team, that probably wouldn’t have worked. But Kelly knew he had to get his young guys some experience. Notre Dame rotated early and often, spread the ball and racked up several first-time moments in a comfortable game. A 45-10 win on the road at an unfamiliar altitude is just what Notre Dame needed after close wins over Arizona State and USC.
Compiled by Rachel Terlep.