COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Brian Kelly and his coaching staff knew it was going to happen, they just weren’t sure when. So it wasn’t surprising that the three touchdown underdog took their best shot at Notre Dame right away. Kelly prepared his squad for this moment and was pleased with how they reacted.
“We told our guys that at some time during the game Air Force was going to give us a punch,” Kelly said. “That happened in the first quarter when we drove down, they blocked our field goal, and then subsequently they scored.”
“Our team was going to have to respond and they responded quite well obviously,” he continued. “That was the challenge to our football team. From then on, they really played well.”
That’s true, they did play really well, but few played as well as quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior was on fire with his accuracy and threw five touchdowns to five different receivers.
“Tommy (Rees) threw the ball very efficiently,” Kelly explained. “He was on target and could really pick his spots. When we needed a play he was able to make it. We scored 45 out the next 48 points after Air Force scored first and that was really good for us.”
Rees made a return to the lineup after missing the second half of the USC game with an injury, but Kelly had no reservations about keeping the Lake Bluff, Ill. native in the contest for as long as he had to.
“When our doctors feel like he’s cleared to play on Tuesday, that’s enough for us,” Kelly stated. “They put him through a battery of tests and they’re not going to him clear him for contact unless they feel really good about it.”
“There was no hesitation on our part to put him in the game,” he continued. “We certainly didn’t want to put him in harm’s way, but we felt confident to get him out there playing and competing.”
Not only was Rees competing, but Kelly marveled about the accuracy in which he was completing passes.
“He (Rees) is putting the ball in great locations,” Kelly said. “The one in particular that I liked was Chris Brown’s touchdown catch. The ball was put in a position where he was the only one who was going to catch it, He’s making those kinds of throws right now even if you’re covered.”
Kelly credits the success in the passing game with Notre Dame’s ability to benefit from an overzealous Falcon secondary.
“We thought their corners and safeties were extremely aggressive, a lot more than they have shown,” Kelly explained. “It gave us an opportunity for some one-on-one matchups that quite frankly, we didn’t think we were going to get and we were able to take advantage of them.”
Although many of the Irish receivers had an opportunity to shine today, freshman Will Fuller was the recipient of two deep passes, one of which resulted in a score. Kelly points to two reasons why he likes his rookie wide-out so much.
“Will (Fuller) has elite speed and he will come down with the football,” Kelly said. “He’s sure-handed and we saw him come down with a contested ball late in the game. We really like the way he tracks the ball.”
With fellow wide receivers like Corey Robinson and Chris Brown joining Fuller to make up a very talented group of new players, the future is bright for Kelly and the Notre Dame offense. He just wishes he could get them involved a little more starting in week one.
“You’d like to get these kind of opportunities for these young guys early in the year,” Kelly explained. “It builds their confidence and makes them 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 you’re playing such tough competition,” he continued. “But they’re developing and they’re growing and it was good to see them have some success tonight.”
He’s not considered a young player, but tight end Ben Koyack caught his second touchdown of the season against Air Force. Koyack joined fellow tight end Troy Niklas on the field often tonight, and the reasons for that personnel grouping were pretty straight forward.
“We think Ben Koyack is a guy we want to get more playing time for,” Kelly stated. “We felt like he was somebody that matches up well with their defense and you saw him catch a touchdown on a particular matchup we liked.”
“When you’re playing a 3-4 team you like two tight ends because it spreads out that front a little bit more,” he continued. “It also gives you some bubbles in there that you like in terms of the run game.”
A run game that struggled in the first half, but was able to get on track in the second half due to a change in philosophy which countered what Air Force was doing up front.
“We went to a little more gap run schemes later in the game,” Kelly said. “We were having problems with the nose guard penetrating. We’re an inside/outside zone team, but center Nick (Martin) was on an island with their 3-4 scheme.”
“We started blocking down on the nose and pulling the guard,” he continued. “We were having some more success with that scheme, which was a changeup from what we had been doing in the first half. That mix opened up the running game for us.”
As the Irish running game tried to find its way in the first two quarters, Air Force was pounding the outside of Notre Dame’s defense with rocket sweeps and speed option. That was finally stopped when they figured out what coverages would work out best for what the Falcons were doing.
“I thought with our defensive plan we had to make some adjustments when they got the ball out on the perimeter,” Kelly explained. “We made some checks and got our corners involved, which was a nice adjustment that we made.”
“Once we are able to play some more cover two and roll the corner to the field then we got the game back in control a little bit better,” he continued. “Once the ball was able to stay within the defense, we were in a much better situation.”
One player who looked like he was out on an island in trying to stop Air Force’s rushing attack was freshman phenom Jaylon Smith. However, Kelly was quick to point out it wasn’t Smith’s fault that he was put in that kind of bind.
“I don’t know if I would characterize Jaylon’s (Smith) game in the first half as a struggle as much as I would the coverages we were in made him the only player on the perimeter,” Kelly stated. “We didn’t help him very much, so we had to make some adjustments.”
“We got caught in some checks that we didn’t expect to make that are automatics within what we do in our normal system,” he continued. “Playing an option team, we really couldn’t go into those checks so we had to make some changes there. He battled and played well, he’s a tough, physical kid and it was just a matter of time before we gave him some support.”
That support helped curb the Falcon option attack, as well as cause two fumbles that were recovered by the Irish. Kelly believes it was those miscues that really turned the tide of the game for good.
“The turnovers were huge,” Kelly said. “Anytime you separate yourself with two scores against a team that runs the option, it’s huge. They were big turnovers, there’s no question about it.”
“You even saw in the third quarter that Air Force went to some spread,” he continued. “We got them behind the chains for one series because we went up two scores. We kept the pressure on them offensively by scoring points and that was the key.”
As the season moves on and only four regular season games remain, there’s still no looking ahead for the fourth year Irish skipper. He and his players still have a goal, but it can only be accomplished one week at a time.
“I don’t know that we look at what we’re supposed to do in terms of other people’s projections,” Kelly explained. “We want to win every game that we play and that is our goal. Our guys want to win 10 games, but you can’t win 10 unless you win six and then seven.”
“They stayed on task and prepared very well this week,” he continued. “They’ve always prepared very well and they’re going to have to do it again next week against Navy.”