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Notre Dame vs. Air Force Recap: Irish Bludgeon Falcons with Dynamic Offense

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There are a few ways to handle a flexbone option offense in football, and one of those ways is to simply pile points on that team's defense.

Notre Dame put on a clinic Saturday on how to bury a military academy with touchdown after touchdown every time they touched the ball in the first half.

It wasn't all pretty as the Irish surrendered 565 yards of total offense to Air Force (a Brian Kelly era-record---and 127 more yards than surrendered in a loss to Navy last year), but they head into the bye week with a four-game winning streak after a comfortable victory over the Falcons.

Unit grades and further analysis after the jump.

Offensive Line: A+

This line has been exceptional this year and has strung together some impressive football in recent weeks. Back-to-back weeks of 250+ rushing yards and no sacks is about as good as you're going to get at this level.

One of my big fears was that we'd see the smaller and quicker Air Force defenders beat the Irish linemen around the edge or squeak through small gaps on blitzes. That did not happen.

At times, it almost looked too easy for the Irish offensive line.

Tight End: B

Tyler Eifert continues to impress with another big day receiving, finishing with 8 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. If we include a bowl game, Eifert is on pace for around 60 receptions and 800 yards---that's an elite level of production for a tight end.

True sophomore Alex Welch had a bit of a rough game missing on some blocks and letting a nice pass for a big pickup slip through his hands. That dropped this unit's grade a little bit.

Wide Receiver: B+

With all of the offense in this game it felt like the receivers had a big day, but the box score was pretty tame for these players in relation to the points and yards piled up.

Michael Floyd had a somewhat quiet day for him (6 catches, 78 yards, 1 touchdown) and TJ Jones was limited to one long 23-yard catch.

However, this was the breakout game for Theo Riddick who was finally one of the focal points of the offense and ended the day with an impressive 8 receptions, 83 yards, one touchdown, to go along with a nice 14-yard run.

I'm not sure why it took 6 games to finally get Riddick going, but let's hope it continues because if he's this dangerous the offense as a whole might be unstoppable.

This unit's grade is boosted by a nice touchdown catch by Robby Toma, while John Goodman chipped in one 8-yard catch as well---but this was a perfect example of Floyd-Riddick-Eifert being the team's big go-to guys in the passing game.

Running Back: A-

I felt like this was a frustrating game for the running backs, with only 17 total carries split between Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. I can imagine they would have been frustrated a little bit too, knowing that if they received more carries they could have put up some really big numbers and kept the Air Force offense off the field.

Nevertheless, Wood and especially Gray played well whenever they were called upon.

I thought Wood danced around a little too much and didn't run downhill enough though, but Gray continues to run like a man possessed, finishing with his first 2-touchdown day of his career.

On his current pace, Gray should finish just over 100 carries on the season which is a good amount for a backup, yet through 6 games he's averaging an insane 8.4 yards per carry. At this pace, Gray will surpass the Notre Dame record for a season set by George Gipp in 1920 who ran for 827 yards on 102 carries (8.1 average).

Elsewhere, the backups finally got a little bit of action which was nice to see. Cam McDaniel was bottled up on one carry, but ripped off another nice run that showed his potential in this offense.

George Atkinson got a couple runs and punched in a touchdown for his first career rushing touchdown too. Atkinson is an odd player to me as he doesn't seem like a running back or a wide receiver. I'm very curious to see where he ends up playing as an upperclassman.

Quarterback: A

Preface this with the fact that the Air Force's defense had no chance at stopping the Irish offense, but this was Tommy Rees' finest game in a Notre Dame uniform. He continues to remain under control as the leader of the offense and 72% completions with 261 yards and 4 touchdowns is simply surgical.

He was helped by excellent protection throughout the game, but Rees did a great job taking the underneath routes, the short throws, and keeping things simple. Best of all, Rees didn't turn the ball over and had nary a bad, dangerous, or foolish pass attempt (except maybe the throw preceding Riddick's touchdown.)

Rees played wonderful (and is now over a 2:1 TD-INT ratio this season), but what a debut by sophomore Andrew Hendrix!

I'm not going to lie, I've been pining for Hendrix to see the field for a very long time, and I was fairly impressed with what he was able to do in his first career action. Yes, it was Air Force but in just a short glimpse we were able to see how much the youngster can open up the offense.

Hendrix was 4 for 4 on short pass attempts, showing off his quick release and very strong arm---while also leading the team with 111 rushing yards on just six carries, buoyed by his 78-yard almost touchdown late in the game.

I'm excited to see more of what Hendrix has to offer.

Defense: C++

Due to the maddening nature of the triple option, flexbone, throwing more than you think, Air Force offense, I have decided to forego unit grades for the Irish defense and give that whole side of the ball one overall grade.

While watching the game live I was disgruntled with the defense---yeah disgruntled is a good word. I thought we would put in a better effort, and while I certainly wasn't upset with the defense, there wasn't a whole lot to like.

Now with that said, I would admit that the Air Force offense and its propensity to throw the ball, really makes it hard on any defense to control its run game. Notre Dame also didn't do itself any favors by marching up and down the field and scoring touchdowns within a few minutes and giving the ball right back to the Falcons.

I'd also agree with Brian Kelly in that the yards given up really don't matter against an academy team, but it's all about the points. 19 points surrendered with a 30 point lead is very serviceable with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

I was a little puzzled with the lack of push that the defensive line was getting, especially on shotgun passing downs, but it seemed like controlling the gaps was a major focus for the defense. As a result, Notre Dame was fairly effective in slowing down Air Force's running game in between the tackles---and this is a big positive to take away from the game.

Manti Te'o had a very strong game once again, despite being a little hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in practice on Wednesday. Darius Fleming also had a strong game and was singled out by Kelly in his post-game comments.

This Air Force offense really put a lot of stress on the Irish secondary, especially the safeties, and overall they had a decent game.

Both safeties in Smith and Motta made their fair share of mistakes and lost contain or whiffed on tackles, but they were also very steady at other times. Harrison Smith in particular made a couple really big stops.

I thought the trio of Gray-Blanton-Slaughter really played some of their best football of the season. They were far from perfect, but they all seemed to settle down and make some huge plays that kept Air Force buried and out of the game for good.

After re-watching the game, I felt the defense played a lot better than I originally thought---but they still left a lot to be desired.

I went back and kept track of what Air Force was able to gain on two plays we'll see heavily from Navy in the option pitch, and fullback dive, and what I found was interesting.

Before Notre Dame's backups were in the game, Air Force ran 12 plays in which quarterback Tim Jefferson ran some sort of play where he went to either side (sometimes faking to the fullback) and pitched the ball to the running back. On those 12 plays the Falcons gained 106 yards for a very impressive 8.8 yards per rush.

That's not very good defense, but again, you could tell Notre Dame was playing with its safeties deep to protect against any long passes from Jefferson and corralling the triple option wasn't a huge priority for the Irish. That may sound bad, but you have to pick your poison with this Air Force offense because Jefferson is too much of a passing threat to sell out on the pitch plays on the edge like Notre Dame likely will against Navy.

Conversely, Notre Dame did make a stronger effort to stop the fullback dive which was a play that killed the Irish against Navy last year. Air Force once again gave the ball to the fullback 12 times and gained a decent 65 yards on them, good for 5.4 yards per rush.

However, 30 of those yards came on one play where the ball carrier bounced off Louis Nix and rumbled for a big gain on a play Nix stops for a small gain probably 9 times out of 10.

Take away that one big fullback dive and Air Force was basically shut down with just 3.1 yards per rush on the other 11 carries.

There is a lot to work on and prepare for when Navy comes to South Bend in a few weeks, but the big numbers Air Force put up doesn't really reflect a terrible defensive performance by the Irish.

Final Thoughts

Offensively, I'm not sure how much we should take away from this game because it was painfully obvious that it was men among boys out there. 560 yards on just 65 plays, good for 8.6 yards per play, is just ridiculous and by far the biggest output for Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly era.

I'd really like to ask Brian Kelly why it took so long to get this multi-dimensional offense on the field though. At any rate, it's exciting to envision the rest of the season with the offense we saw yesterday: great line play, strong running game, the top three receiving targets getting theirs, smart play by Rees, coupled with a change of pace by Hendrix.

Defensively, perhaps we should be happy with a comfortable win and no major injuries?

Air Force did rack up 363 rushing yards and more total yards than Notre Dame has given up in a very long time, but they did only gain 281 rushing yards on the first team defense. Take away the fake punt and that drops down to just 262 rushing yards---which isn't all together awful.

Now, the Irish get to enjoy a bye week and get healthy before facing Southern California under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Trojans were idle this week and will play California this upcoming Thursday.

Other observations:

  • Per Kelly's Sunday meeting with the media: Floyd asked to field punts and worked hard late after practice on it.
  • On wearing green jerseys against USC Kelly said, "I didn't know we had green jerseys. If we did, we would think about it."
  • Kelly praised freshman Stephon Tuitt and his versatility.
  • Chase Hounshell played 38 snaps with Ethan Johnson out of the game with an injury.
  • It was pretty much said without being said, that Everett Golson will redshirt this year.
  • Davaris Daniels' father tweeted that his son will also redshirt this year.
  • Notre Dame still remains unranked in both the AP and Coaches Polls.