COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Air Force opened the window. Notre Dame quickly closed it, and then knocked the glass out completely en route to a 45-10 shattering of the Falcons.
Tommy Rees threw touchdown passes to five different receivers, and after the Falcons (1-7) marched 71 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive, they never reached paydirt again as Notre Dame (6-2) stayed on track for what once seemed like an improbable BCS run.
After Colton Huntsman's 10-yard run for a touchdown midway through the first quarter, the Irish scored 45 of the final 48 points of the game, quickly eliminating any thoughts of an upset and notching their third straight victory.
"We made some adjustments in our defensive plan, we started to make some checks, and we got our corners involved," said Brian Kelly of Notre Dame's approach to Air Force's triple-option attack.
"Offensively, Tommy threw the ball very efficiently. He was on target. He could really pick his spots. When we needed a play, he was able to make it."
Rees threw touchdown passes on three straight possessions after Air Force took a 7-0 lead. Kyle Brindza, whose first field-goal attempt was blocked, tied a Notre Dame record with his third career field goal of longer than 50 yards, which helped turned the touchdown deficit into a 24-10 halftime lead.
Freshman wide receivers Corey Robinson and Will Fuller scored their first career touchdowns, and tight end Ben Koyack scored his second touchdown in three games as Rees joined Ron Powlus, Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen among Irish signalcallers who have thrown more than 50 touchdown passes in their collegiate careers. Rees now has 53 to move past Powlus, and trails Clausen (60) and Quinn (95).
"We knew we were going to play a lot of guys," said Rees, who improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio to 20-to-6. "We wanted to make sure guys were fresh, especially with the change of altitude.
"We had a lot of different bodies in there, and we had confidence in those young guys to make plays for us. It speaks more to them and their development than it does to me."
Rees finished 17-of-22 for 284 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, one week after missing the second half of Notre Dame's 14-10 victory over USC with a neck injury.
"Except for the interception against Arizona State, I thought he played very well against (the Sun Devils)," Kelly said. "Clearly, he was playing well against USC until he got injured. He's been putting the ball in great locations."
Air Force quarterback Nate Romine led Air Force's 290-yard ground attack with 76 yards on 21 carries. But after gaining 183 yards rushing on 34 attempts in the first half, the Falcons managed just107 yards on 31 attempts (3.4-yard average) in the second half.
For the sixth time in eight games, the Irish fell behind first as Air Force followed Brindza's blocked 46-yard field-goal attempt with a 10-play, 71-yard that was capped by a 4th-and-2 conversion, a 21-yard pitch-and-run by Anthony LaCoste, and Huntsman's touchdown scamper.
The Irish took over from there, scoring touchdowns on their next three drives and then adding a 51-yard Brindza field goal. Robinson made a leaping catch along the Air Force sideline, stayed on his feet, eluded cornerback Gavin McHenry, and easily pranced into the end zone for a 7-3 lead to cap a five-play, 75-yard drive.
"A lot of guys on the team make fun of me because I always catch it and fall down," Robinson laughed. "Today, somehow, I stayed on my feet. Once I turned around, I was like, 'Wait a second, I'm still up!' So I tried to get the touchdown as fast as possible."
The Irish made it 14-3 with a six-play, 91-yard drive with TJ Jones - who finished with a game-high seven receptions for 104 yards -- accounting for a 23-yard reception, followed by a 46-yard pass by Rees to Fuller for the easy score.
"I can't even remember," said Fuller of his first career touchdown. "I was just excited. Once I saw the ball in the air, I didn't know how to judge it. It was a good pass by Tommy."
After Air Force cut Notre Dame's lead to 14-10 on Will Conant's 47-yard field goal, it took the Irish just three plays to cover 51 yards, two of which were a 27-yard pass to DaVaris Daniels and Koyack's 22-yard score.
Air Force never threatened in the second half. In fact, the Falcons coughed it up on consecutive possessions to close the second quarter and open the third quarter.
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell pounced on LaConte's mishandled pitch at the Irish 17 with a minute to go in the first half. Outside linebacker Ben Councell then stripped the football from Romine to start the second half. Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith recovered and took it the distance. The ruling on the field - an incomplete pass - was overturned, and the Irish took over at their own 38.
Six plays and 62 yards later, Rees hooked up with Jones for a 30-yard score. Rees would add a 15-yard touchdown pass to Chris Brown, and Andrew Hendrix - who struggled mightily a week earlier against USC - connected on a 47-yard pass to Fuller before slamming his way into the end zone with 13:31 remaining for the final points of the game.
Cam McDaniel led a modest Irish ground game with 61 yards on 10 carries. Freshman Tarean Folston doubled his carry total for the year with 47 yards on 11 attempts.
"We had a few big plays early in the first half where we moved the ball pretty well against a good defense," said Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, whose team's streak of six straight bowl games will come to an end.
"But we gave up too many big plays, and in the second half, we weren't able to put a drive together at all. The big plays in the passing game were a huge part of it."
Meanwhile, the Irish remain on track to achieve their second half priority of winning all six games to qualify for inclusion in a BCS game.
"Our guys have goals, and the goal is to win every week," Kelly said. "This is the second win of the last six games. Now we go to week three. We want to win each and every week because our guys want to win 10 (regular-season) games. We can't win 10 unless you win six and seven…
"They've stayed on task, and they prepared very well this week. They've always prepared very well, and I'd like to do that again against Navy."