Notre Dame football: Rees, Irish an aerial force

QB tosses 5 TDs in rout of Falcons

South Bend Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- With 2:06 left in the third quarter, the scoreboard at Falcon Stadium flashed a thank you to those remaining in the rapidly draining facility and a caution to “Please drive safely.”

By then, there was seemingly more attention at the food truck selling “giant turkey legs” on the stadium concourse and the bouncy castle at the other end than what was transpiring on the field.

Tommy Rees, who had a drama-filled early part to his week, had sucked whatever suspense there had been temporarily in Notre Dame’s 45-10 dispatching of Air Force six days after his availability for the game seemed to be in serious question.

The senior played deep into the third quarter, threw a career-high five touchdown passes — and to five different receivers, no less — and recorded the highest pass-efficiency rating by a ND quarterback (260.71 — roughly twice his career numbers) since Jimmy Clausen put up a 303.7 in 2009 against Nevada.

Rees also took a couple of vicious hits after he threw the ball, all that seven days after being knocked out of the USC game with a neck strain.

“Tommy’s a tough kid,” Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese said. “Not many people think that, but he definitely is a tough kid. He fights to the end of the game for us.”

Or at least until the game became a substitution-fest.

Calabrese and the Irish defense had a hand in that too. Air Force (1-7), eliminated from bowl contention Saturday, took a 7-0 lead on its first drive of the game and with its fourth-string quarterback, freshman Nate Romine, at the controls. It was Romine’s first collegiate start as the Falcons became the first FBS team to start four quarterbacks this season.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun admitted he never directly told Romine he would be starting over sophomore Karson Roberts, who suffered a concussion in the Falcons' last game but did practice since.

No. 1, Kale Pearson, was lost in the season opener, and it’s been a steady progression of misfortune since at the position. But Romine looked like a veteran the first time he got his hands on the ball.

Running back Jon Lee converted a fourth-and-2 from the Irish 33 with a two-yard run. Colton Hunstman covered the final 10 yards on a 71-yard, 10-play scoring drive.

That extended Air Force’s streak of scoring at least one rushing touchdown in a game to 55 games — the longest active streak in the nation.

The Irish defense adjusted, though, rotating their cornerbacks into run support, and ND went on to score 45 of the next 48 points.

“We told our guys that Air Force was going to give us a punch at some time, and that was in the very first quarter,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, whose 6-2 team became bowl-eligible. “Our team was going to have to respond. And they responded quite well obviously.”

After allowing 8.4 yards per rush in the opening quarter against the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing team, the Irish cut that to 3.6 over the final three quarters, and did so while playing without All-American nose guard Louis Nix. Nix did not make the road trip because of lingering knee tendinitis and knee soreness, according to Kelly.

With the Irish playing at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet about sea level, Kelly’s plan on defense was to go with a deep rotation of players to counteract the thin air.

That game plan carried over to the offense too and several new faces got into the Rees aerial show that saw him complete 17-of-22 for 284 yards with no interceptions. He leaped over Ron Powlus into third place on ND’s career TD pass list with 54 and now trails only Brady Quinn (95) and Jimmy Clausen (60).

Maligned backup Andrew Hendrix got a little more than a quarter of work, threw a 47-yard completion to set up a four-yard scoring run by himself. That was his lone completion in four attempts. He had nine rushing yards on four attempts.

Kelly’s reaction? “(He was) a lot better than last week.”

Freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller, and sophomore Chris Brown all recorded their first-ever TD receptions. Tight end Ben Koyack got No. 2 of his career. Old hand TJ Jones got his 16th, moving him into an eighth-place tie on the career list with Jim Seymour.

It’s Jones’ fifth consecutive game with at least one TD catch. The school record is eight, shared by former Irish All-Americans Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate.

“I think (Rees) threw it to whoever was open,” Robinson said. “It just happened to be a lot of different people. And we all worked hard. We all tried to get open, and it turned out that way. I’m very happy it did. A lot of guys got their first touchdown including myself.”

He was also happy that the son of a Navy man (former Midshipman hoops All-American David Robinson) got a chance to see him score against the Air Force in person.

“I was hoping someone would ask me about that,” he said. “To see my dad in the stands seeing that, it was really special.”

Robinson’s TD was ND’s first of the game, tying the score at 7-7 with 3:41 left in the first quarter. It was a 35-yarder along the sideline, in which Robinson kept his balance, then burst into the end zone.

“A lot of guys on the team make fun of me, because I always catch and fall down,” Robinson said. “And then today I somehow stood up on my feet. And once I turned around, I was like, ‘Wait a second, I’m still up.’ So then I tried to get the touchdown as fast as possible. It was so surreal.

“I didn’t know what to do in the end zone. I was just like, ‘What do I do now?’ I was trying to find the closest teammate to celebrate with, because I didn’t even know what to do.”

The youth on the team might not have known how to celebrate, but they rose to the occasion. Freshman Steve Elmer started his first college game, at right guard, and several unfamiliar faces shuffled in and out of the line, especially in the second half.

“We had a lot of guys that were excited about their opportunities to play,” Rees said of the line play. “I think they did a good job of stepping up.”

On defense, after a sort of rough start in which Kelly said some schematic flaws isolated freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith with no help, Smith responded with eight tackles — tied for the team high — and a fumble recovery.

“He’s doing a great job,” said Calabrese, who chipped in seven tackles himself. “And can’t wait to see where it goes.”

The Irish would like it to end up back in the BCS, and a 10-2 record is the only scenario that could get them there.

“I think it’s big when you’re favored by a big margin (20) and you come out here and play well,” Rees said. “We needed to come in here and take care of business.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) shuffle passes the ball during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Falcon Stadium in Air Force Academy, Colo. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER