The game definitely wasn't the Rumble in the Rockies as advertised, and it looked early like it should have been called the Rout in the Rockies. Brady Quinn and the offense were pretty much moving the ball at will, leading the Irish to a 33-3 lead midway though the third quarter.
Style points do matter no matter what head coach Charlie Weis says, and the Irish offense along with a big special teams' play put them on the table. On a day with a couple top-10 teams faltering, Notre Dame could have cashed those points in with the voters, but the defense wasn't able to get a grip on those points or Air Force's slippery option offense. Other than the first possession, the Falcons moved the ball well against the Irish, they just failed to finish off several drives. Kind of like the Irish failed to finish off the game.
With two games remaining in the regular season, it's still tough to tell if the Irish are a top-five caliber team or not.
Weis said after the game he was ready to insert the second-team offense with the 30-point lead, but Air Force and its never-say-die attitude kept the pressure on and found the end zone for the first time, cutting the lead to 33-10.
That's about when the thoughts of a dominant victory went down the drain.
The Irish (9-1) were poised to dominate early, as Quinn and Jeff Samardzija went 80 yards on the game's first two plays to put the Irish up quick, deflating the sold-out crowd. The defense goes three-and-out and the Irish march right back down the field again, capped off by Quinn to John Carlson for a one-yard Heisman-inflating touchdown pass. Quinn was 6-for-6 on the two drives for 119 yards.
Though the Irish only finished with 383 total yards, this was the offense's best performance. They pushed the smaller Falcons around to the tune of 176 yards rushing, 153 by Darius Walker, who averaged over 10 yards per carry in his best game of the season. Quinn had years to throw the ball, so Weis could have chose to chuck it on every play. Quinn was sacked a couple times, but not because of great pressure, just simply holding onto the ball to long. When he did throw it, Quinn completed 14-of-19 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns, in a very efficient performance. As usual, Quinn was not intercepted.
The defense was playing bend but don't break most of the afternoon, making a big play on every possession to end an Air Force (4-5) threat. But the last quarter and a half, they couldn't look much worse. The Falcons were not only beating the Irish on the ground in gaining 200 yards, but they got 205 yards through the air. Quarterback Shaun Carney was good on 14-of-17 passes for 205 yards and zero interceptions. The Falcons came in averaging just 67 yards passing per game.
The Irish were again susceptible to the big play, the Falcons just didn't have the speed for a homerun. If things don't shore up quick, the defense could be exposed by Pete Carroll and USC in two weeks. It has happened before.
It was good that a lot of young guys got in and played meaningful downs. John Ryan at defensive end made a few nice plays. Justin Brown likewise. Toryan Smith saw his most extensive action at middle linebacker. James Aldridge getting carries in the first quarter was surprising, but a sign that he really is close to spelling Walker while the game is still in doubt. Or maybe it was because the game seemed like it was in total control by that point. Michael Turkovich and Eric Olsen came in on the offensive line during mop-up duty.
Mop-up duty needs to come sooner next week against a terrible Army team. The Irish could use a perfect performance in the home finale, getting the momentum rolling into the two toughest games of the season, USC and the bowl game. For those two games, the Irish will have to be better than typical.