Notre Dame shut downs Army, rolls in new Yankee Stadium debut

NEW YORK -- Instead of a walkthrough on Friday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly gave his players a chance to soak in the sites at Yankee Stadium.

Monument Park and the short porch in right field. The famous white facade atop the upperdeck and the clubhouse that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez use.

"We just stood around with our eyes wide open and took pictures and marveled at the stadium and walked around here and then after they got enough of that ... we came in here and showed a video of the Army-[Notre Dame] history," Kelly said Saturday night.

The Fighting Irish returned to the Bronx for the first time in 41 years and gave their subway alumni a happy train ride home.

Tyler Eifert caught a touchdown pass a few steps away from the home dugout, Darrin Walls returned an interception 42 yards for a score and Notre Dame beat Army 27-3 Saturday night in the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium.

"Well, New York is a lot of things," Kelly said. "And what it was tonight was a college football town.

"Our kids fed off the energy that was here in New York the past 48 hours."

Freshman Tommy Rees, who got to use Jeter's locker, threw for 214 yards in his second career start.

"Every week I feel a little more comfortable, the game slows down a little bit," Rees said.

The Fighting Irish (6-5), dressed in kelly green jerseys, became bowl eligible with a second consecutive strong defensive performance.

Combined with last week's 28-3 victory against Utah, it's the first time the Irish have held two straight opponents without a touchdown since their 1988 national championship season, when they did it to Rice and Penn State.

"I feel like we're playing with a lot of energy, a lot more physical," defensive back Robert Blanton said.

The triple-option befuddled the Irish when they lost to Navy last month, but Army's version managed one long drive that produced a field goal on its opening possession and not much after that. The Black Knights (6-5) ran for 135 yards.

Second-year coach Rich Ellerson, who has the Black Knights bowl eligible for the first time since 1996, called the atmosphere "electric."

"It just makes it that much more painful to have not put your best foot forward," he said.

The 50th meeting between Army and Notre Dame dripped with nostalgia.

The Irish and Black Knights played 22 games in the original Yankee Stadium, the last in 1969, and Notre Dame built up a huge following in the Big Apple. Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper" speech was delivered at halftime of the 1928 game in the Bronx and in 1946 No. 1 Army and No. 2 Notre Dame played the Game of the Century at Yankee Stadium, a game that featured four Heisman Trophy winners and ended in a 0-0 tie.

One of those Heisman winners, former Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack, was the honorary captain for the Irish on Saturday night. Army was represented at the coin toss by 1958 Heisman winner Pete Dawkins, part of the last Black Knights team to beat the Irish.

A goal post stood about where home plate usually sits, with a dugout a few feet away from each corner of that end zone. The other goal post was a long flyball to left-center field away, just a few feet in front of the warning track. If it wasn't for the netting behind the posts, the kickers on that side of the field would have been booting balls into Babe Ruth's bronze monument during warmups.

The field was a snug fit in the $1.6 billion stadium, but not so tight that the teams couldn't use two end zones, unlike in the Northwestern-Illinois game at Wrigley Field.

With some extra bleachers in left and right fields, the sellout attendance of 54,251 set a record for the largest crowd for a sporting event at the two-year-old ballpark.

"Oh my gosh, I can't explain it in words," Blanton said. "The Joe DiMaggio sign [in the clubhouse], [Yankees manager Joe] Girardi sitting on the sidelines, it was unbelievable."

In a nod to the more recent history of the rivalry, Notre Dame dominated. The teams have played on and off since the late 1950s, and the Irish have won the last 14 meetings.

All of Army's highlights came in the first quarter. Travis Donovan intercepted a pass in the end zone to stop the first Notre Dame drive. Army went to work with its triple-option and moved with relative ease, attacking the edges of Notre Dame's defense. The drive stalled at the Notre Dame 2 and Alex Carlton's 20-yard field goal gave Army a 3-0 lead.

In Notre Dame's 35-17 loss to Navy at the Meadowlands, the Irish defense was carved up for 367 yards rushing.

Notre Dame figured out the option this time, using a four-man front to take away the inside runs by the fullback, and the Black Knights went three-and-out on their next three drives while the Irish rattled off 17 points.

"When that ball gets pitched out, that's not what they want to do," Kelly said. "They want to run the fullback. They want to run the quarterback. Those guys were not going to run the ball tonight."

Eifert's diving 35-yard catch at the 1 set up Cierre Wood's touchdown plunge. The sophomore tight end Eifert made another over-the-shoulder catch near the front corner of the end zone, heading toward the Yankees' dugout, for a 23-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter to make it 17-3.

"We knew what we were doing we just didn't execute when it meant the most," Army quarterback Trent Steelman said.

The band members barely had a chance to settle back into their seats when Notre Dame's defense broke the game open. Walls grabbed an errant pass by Steelman and raced down the sideline with a convoy of blockers leading the way to the end zone.

It was no Game of the Century, but Kelly's crew knows its season won't end with the finale at USC.