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Week Six: Air Force

Molly Sammon | Sunday, October 9, 2011

Air Force and Notre Dame combined for 92 points Saturday, lighting up the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard like never before. Both teams combined for 1,125 total offensive yards — 565 for Air Force (3-2) and 560 for Notre Dame (4-2) — in an offensive show-and-tell.

But while the offensive output may have been close, the game was never in doubt, as Notre Dame triumphed 59-33.

“There is a lot of things coming together for us offensively with so many different outlets that … we are getting to the point where our guys feel very confident that if they just, during the week, do the little things right, they will be able to execute on Saturday,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

The Irish improved their win streak to four games, tied for their longest undefeated streak under Kelly. Kelly said the Irish have not yet “arrived,” but they are getting there.

“We have made progress to the level where we know what it looks like on the other end, but there’s still so many areas to iron out,” Kelly said. “We have got to get more consistent on special teams. We have glimmers of really good play. We have got to obviously tighten things down defensively with our younger guys, and then just play with more consistency. Four in a row is not enough for this group, you know, but I like the direction that we are going.”

Some early successful offensive drives on the field allowed the Irish to explore new parts of their roster. The Irish opened the scoring just 2:47 into the game when senior wide receiver Michael Floyd jumped for a 34-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees.

“We started off fast. Michael Floyd set the table for us early on and that’s probably why he’s one of the best, if not the best receiver in the country,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “The touchdown pass where he went over the top in man-to-man coverage kind of gave us that momentum.”

By the end of the first quarter, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees passed for three touchdowns to three different receivers. Aside from Floyd, junior tight end Tyler Eifert and junior wide receiver Robby Toma found the end zone to build a 21-3 breakaway lead from which the Irish would never look back. The final touchdown of the quarter was Toma’s first career touchdown reception.

“A team like Air Force, they are a team that runs they ball a lot, and if you can get up early and speed their game up a little bit, it’s big for us,” Rees said.

Rees completed 23 of his 32 passes for a total of 261 yards, with four touchdowns and no turnovers.

“He’s growing as he goes here,” Kelly said. “He’s 8-1 as a starter and he continues to grow and develop, and we are seeing that maturity. [Rees] got flushed out of the pocket a couple of times, threw the ball away, made some very good decisions in pressure situations when something wasn’t there. He’s just developing, maturing.”

Rees split time with sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix who completed all four of his pass attempts, adding 33 pass yards of his own to Notre Dame’s overall 294.

Hendrix was also the leading rusher on the day at the quarterback position with 111 yards. He earned 78 of those with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter when he broke away from the Falcon defense only to be tripped up two yards short of the goal line. Freshman running back George Atkinson rushed the ball in from the two-yard line for a 59-19 lead before the Irish gave up two touchdowns to Air Force in the final minutes of the game.

Hendrix’s performance at the quarterback position does not change senior Dayne Crist’s spot on the depth chart, but his playing time suggested he provides some security in that part of Notre Dame’s roster.

“Andrew [Hendrix] does not have all of the grasp of the offense, everything that he needs. But he certainly is somebody that can go in the game and can do some very good things,” Kelly said. “We featured six different formation looks for him, and it’s a package that can continue to grow with him.”

Aside from competitive play, the Irish sported pink armbands in honor of breast cancer awareness. The cause is particularly dear to Notre Dame as Kelly’s wife and Rees’ mother are both survivors of the disease.

After six straight games and four straight wins, the Irish head into a bye weekend that Kelly hopes will give them enough recuperation time without sacrificing any of their recent success.

“I think we need it. We need a break,” Kelly said. “This break comes at a good time for our guys to get home and see their families a little bit. So any momentum that is lost in that is gained by our guys getting a chance to get home.”

With a week’s break from games and a week off from classes, the Irish continue their season against USC on Oct. 22 in the first home night game in over two decades.