Second Season Still Perfect

Notre Dame passed its way to a win at Air Force Saturday night. While statistics are often misleading, Tommy Rees' performance, both in Colorado and throughout October, is anything but.

Air Force ACADEMY, Colo. -- Air Force entered Saturday's contest with Notre Dame ranked 122nd out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in pass efficiency defense.

Tommy Rees made sure they hit rock bottom.

The Irish quarterback and a host of receivers and tight ends shredded the Falcons secondary, with Rees hitting 17 of 23 throws for 284 yards and a career-high five touchdowns -- to five different receivers, making him the first quarterback in program history to hit five different targets for scores in a single game.

"It speaks more to them and their development than it does to me," said Rees. "We have all the confidence in the world for a lot of guys to go in their and make plays for us."

The plays were made by, chronologically, Corey Robinson (35-yard left side go route), Will Fuller (46-yard post score), Ben Koyack (22-yard TD down the left side), T.J. Jones (out-and-up right for 30 yards and six points), and Chris Brown (15-yard fade route). Every class was represented, with freshmen Robinson and Fuller both notching their first career scores, sophomore Brown doing the same, junior Koyack scoring his second in three weeks, and the senior Jones for the fifth straight week.

Jones is likely the team's MVP, or failing that designation, it's most consistent player each week. Its the other guys that may prove relevant as the season hits the home stretch.

"I'm really excited for those three guys for their first touchdowns," Rees said. "It's all looking up for them from here on out. I'll just keep working hard and developing that timing with those guys."

That development will likely determine the difference between a BCS Bowl bid -- attainable only through a 4-0 finish -- and an also-ran bowl, the latter not acceptable to a team that played for the sport's highest honor last January.

"Our guys have goals, and our goal is to win every week," said head coach Brian Kelly post-game. "We've broken down the second half of this season into six games and this is Week Two. Now we go into Week Three. We want to win each and every week because our guys want to win 10 games."

Notre Dame's New Math

To accomplish that best-case scenario, Rees, Jones, and tight end Troy Niklas -- the passing game's constants -- will need help. It's become apparent the Irish ground game won't hold up vs. the schedule's upper crust that remains (certainly Stanford and possibly surging BYU). The Irish defense, while improved, won't hold either the Cardinal or Cougars to two touchdowns or less as they did last fall.

Notre Dame doubtless needs to run, still likely more than it passes because Rees is far more effective throwing fewer than 30 times and thus using play-action to his advantage, but it's up to the passing game to provide the punch.

That's where the playmakers are now two-thirds through the season, and Rees' right arm will tell the final tale.

"He's played well, except for the interception against Arizona State, I thought he played very well coming off a sub-par performance against Oklahoma," said Kelly of the beginning of Rees' hot streak, one in which he's completed 48 of 81 passes for 729 yards and 10 touchdowns in just over five halves of football. "Clearly he was playing well vs. USC until he got injured. We really felt like he was playing well, doing some things and putting the ball in great locations.

"A couple of TJ's catches, the ball position was outstanding, but the one I liked in particular was Chris Brown's touchdown catch," Kelly explained. "It was put in a position where he was the only one that was going to catch it. He's making those kinds of throws, even if you're covered right now, if he can continue to make those accurate throws, throwing away from the defenders, he's going to continue to have success."

Rees has an arsenal of weapons at various degrees of development at his end-season disposal. It was a long-time coming for the freshmen, Brown, and Koyack alike.

"We think Ben Koyack is a guy we wanted to get more playing time," said Kelly. "He has good size, good hands. When you're playing a 3-4 (defense), you like two tight ends because it spreads out that 3-4 a little more, gives you some bubbles that you like in terms of the run game."

Kelly admitted post-game the inclusion of his talented young troops would have ideally occurred earlier, thus accelerating their collective development.

"I'd like to have these guys in Week One and Week Two doing this," said Kelly. "You'd like to get these opportunities for these young guys earlier because it builds their confidence. They're a confident group, when you get them involved, it's so important to their development. Sometimes you have to sit on them a little longer than you want because they're playing such tough competition."

The competition today was anything but, and it won't be, at least defensively, next week in South Bend. But it ramps up thereafter, increasing each week with a crescendo in Palo Alto. The Irish will be hard-pressed to get there unscathed and it'll take an unexpected upset for Kelly's crew to finish at their goal of 10 wins.

And it'll come down to Tommy Rees and the help he receives from his friends.


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