Quinn tossed four touchdowns – three in the first quarter – and Lambert returned a blocked, second-quarter field goal 76 yards for a score as the Irish jumped out to a 27-3 halftime lead despite several Falcon drives that ate up most of the second and third quarters.
"The biggest point of emphasis to the offense was that we had to score early and often because you never know how many possessions you're going to have," Irish coach Charlie Weis said.
The Irish were only able to muster one possession in the second period – a three-play drive that ended in a half-ending punt from Geoff Price – as the Falcons hogged the clock. Air Force's two second-quarter drives – a 17-play, 9:13 marathon that ended in Lambert's touchdown return and a 15-play, 5:47 drive that finished when an exhausted Notre Dame defense stopped Air Force quarterback Shaun Carney on fourth and 3 from the Irish 24.
The drives kept the Irish offense off the field, but Air Force was unable to convert in the second period – managing just three points.
"You cannot trade field goals for touchdowns against [Notre Dame]," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, whose career record against the Irish dropped to 3-11.
Notre Dame senior receiver Rhema McKnight's first-quarter touchdown reception was the 158th catch of his career – moving him past Tom Gatewood into first place on the school's all-time list.
McKnight snatched a Quinn pass at the five, shook off an Air Force defensive back and scampered into the end zone to put Notre Dame ahead 20-3. Notre Dame's next two scores – Lambert's second-quarter return and tight end Marcus Freeman's scoring grab with 8:33 left in the third quarter – gave the Irish a 33-3 lead that the Falcons never seriously challenged.
Quinn finished 14-of-19 for 207 yards and four touchdowns. He has thrown 223 passes without an interception - 48 short of the NCAA record held by Fresno State's Trent Dilfer. He also moved into 11th on the NCAA all-time list with his 87th career touchdown, passing former Miami (Ohio) star Ben Roethlisberger.
The Heisman candidate's final scoring pass was a 23-yard post pattern to Freeman, who filled in for tight end John Carlson after he left with a right knee injury in the first quarter and returned to the Irish bench in street clothes for the second half.Weis said Carlson, who caught a 1-yard touchdown pass with 9:21 remaining in the first quarter, is expected to be out two to four weeks – including next week's home finale against Army and the Nov. 25 showdown at Southern California. He will hopefully return for Notre Dame's bowl game, Weis said.
Air Force quarterback Shaun Carney had an efficient day, finishing 14-of-17 for 205 yards and two touchdowns – one to receiver Beau Suder and the other to fullback Jacob Kendrick. Carney also ran 15 times for 42 yards.
"I thought we were significantly better [defending] in the running game," Weis said. "But we game them some plays in the passing game. There's some give-and-take."
The Falcons – ranked third nationally in rushing entering the game with a 267-yard average – finished with just 200 yards and no touchdowns on the ground. Halfback Chad Hall led the squad with 67 yards on 20 carries. Ten Falcons all had at least one carry.
Leading the way for the Irish rush defense was strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe, who finished with 22 tackles – the most by a Notre Dame player since Bob Golic registered 22 against Pittsburgh on Oct. 14, 1978 and the third most in school history. Given Air Force's option offense and the number of opportunities it presented him, Ndukwe wasn't too impressed with his career-high day.
"I think my professor could have made a few of those tackles," he joked.
Despite Quinn's hot start – completing all eight first quarter passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns to three separate receivers – Air Force dominated time of possession the rest of the game, finishing with a 38:35 to 21:25 advantage. The Falcons tallied 24 first downs compared to Notre Dame's 19 and out-rushed the Irish 200-176.
Darius Walker gained 153 yards on 15 carries – just over a 10-yard average – and scored his fifth rushing touchdown this season. The junior running back also caught one pass for eight yards – his 25th consecutive game with a reception.
The kicking game was inconsistent on both sides of the field. Notre Dame failed to convert three extra points – Irish kicker Carl Gioia had two blocked and one sailed wide right. Zach Sasser converted a 32-yarder for the Falcons with 6:02 left in the first quarter, but his second attempt of the game - another 32-yarder - was blocked by Irish defensive tackle Trevor Laws and scooped up by Lambert for the score.
Freshman running back James Aldridge saw his earliest game action of the season, carrying three times in the first quarter and finishing the day with 27 yards on five carries.
Linebacker Joe Brockington finished second on the Irish defense with 14 tackles and defensive tackle Derek Landri came in third with 11. Landri led Notre Dame in tackles for loss (two for five yards) and sacks (one).
The Irish received the opening kickoff on a chilly day at the Air Force Academy and needed just two plays – 29 - and 51-yard completions from Quinn to Jeff Samardzija – to go up 7-0.
Samardzija led the Irish with six receptions for 106 yards and his 51-yard touchdown grab just 54 seconds into the game was the longest connection of the day for either team.