NEW YORK – Army took its customary nibbles. Just not enough of them. Notre Dame took big bites. Lots of them. And that’s as good an explanation as any for the Fighting Irish’s 27-3 victory over the Black Knights Saturday night at Yankee Stadium.
“We didn’t play very well,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said, “and we got clobbered.”
Precisely. Strangely though, most of the first quarter gave very little indication of the course the next three quarters would take. It began on the first play from scrimmage, when Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood was tackled for a 6-yard loss and fumbled the ball at the Notre Dame 20-yard line. The ball could have been picked up by any one of three Army defenders. Instead, Wood was ruled down by contact and the Irish kept the ball.
Nine plays later, having moved the ball 75 yards, Notre Dame had a second and goal at the Army 5 when quarterback Tommy Rees’ pass was deflected by Army linebacker Stephen Anderson into the arms of free safety Donovan Travis. Now, it was the Black Knights’ turn, the drive beginning with a 27-yard completion from Trent Steelman to Davyd Brooks, the first play in a 17-play drive that, in customary Army fashion, ground 8 minutes, 45 seconds off the clock.
With a first and goal at the Notre Dame 8, three subsequent runs netted six yards. It’s fourth and goal at the 2. Army’s been moving. It’s already robbed Notre Dame of a near-certain score. Momentum, anyone? Instead, Ellerson opted for the chip-shot field goal, a 20-yarder from Alex Carlton.
“Yeah, again, 0-0, I wanted to be ahead,” Ellerson said. “If it was a little closer than that [and] if were having some success down there. But, again, they came out on a defense we had not prepared for, and the short-yardage defense again was something that was a little bit out of the Rutgers book, or at least how we’d interpret it. No, I wanted to get the lead first.”
“You have to take the points,” Steelman said. “In that situation, take the points.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was happy to oblige.
“Again, the real important part of this game was not to turn the football over and give Army extra possessions,” he said. “So we had already put ourselves in a bad situation, so it was absolutely crucial that our defense came up big in the red zone, which they have all year. This is not something that just happened overnight. So clearly for us it was a big stop in the game.”
Particulary since it didn’t take the Irish long to return the favor. A 33-yard pass from Rees to Michael Floyd on Notre Dame’s next possession brought the ball to the Army 35, eventually setting up David Ruffers’ game-tying 47-yard field goal on the second play of the second quarter.
Army got the ball back and began a series of no where, no how. For the first of three straight possessions, the Black Knights went three and out, and Notre Dame was further gifted with a 12-yard punt by Army’s Jonathan Bulls. On a third and 6 from the Army 36 Rees threw what was first ruled a touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert. A replay review of the play indicated that Eifert’s knee touched down at the 1. No matter. Robert Hughes punched it in on the next play, giving Notre Dame a 10-3 lead.
After another futile Army offensive series it took Notre Dame just 2 minutes, 17 seconds to move the ball 71 yards for its second touchdown, the big plays a 23-yard completion to Floyd and a 31-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Eifert. Notre Dame was unable to move the ball to within field-goal range on its last possession of the first half and punted, and Army, 6-5, looking to run out the clock, collected its first first down since its opening scoring drive. The Black Knights came up with only two more first downs in the entire second half.
Nevertheless, a 17-3 halftime deficit is far from unapproachable, and Ellerson said, “I thought coming out at halftime, I felt like if we could come out and have a good drive coming out of halftime, we could make that interesting.”
Interest increased only for Notre Dame, 6-5, when on the third play of the second half, Steelman was intercepted by cornerback Darrin Walls, who returned the ball for a 42-yard touchdown. Ruffer added a 39-yard field goal later in the third quarter, ending the scoring.
As did coaches and players from both sides, Ellerson admitted playing at the Stadium, in front of a sell-out crowd of 54,251, “was something. Electric. It makes it that much more painful not to put your best foot forward. It would have been a great night to pull a rabbit out of your hat.”
No such luck.