AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — For the first time in the Troy Calhoun era, Air Force will not finish its season with a trip to a bowl game.
After taking a 7-0 first-quarter lead, the Falcons fell prey to a career day by Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees in a 45-10 loss at Falcon Stadium on Saturday.
Rees' career-high five touchdown passes helped the Fighting Irish (6-2) turn the tables on Air Force (1-7), which will miss its first bowl game after six consecutive appearances.
"You're not bowl eligible," Calhoun said. "That's a tough pill to swallow."
The Falcons blocked a Notre Dame field goal attempt, then took a 7-0 lead on a 10-yard touchdown run by Colton Huntsman 9:55 into the game, but could not maintain the momentum.
Less than two minutes later, Notre Dame tied the game on Rees' first touchdown toss of the night, a 35-yarder to freshman Corey Robinson, whose father, former NBA star David Robinson, was in the stands. The Fighting Irish then took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter on a 46-yard pass from Rees to William Fuller.
Another touchdown pass and field goal gave the Fighting Irish a 24-10 advantage with 3:57 remaining in the half.
Right before halftime, the Falcons had a chance to slice into the lead, but Anthony LaCoste fumbled inside the red zone and KeiVarae Russell recovered the ball to preserve the two-touchdown lead.
On the opening drive to start the second half, quarterback Nate Romine led the Falcons down the field only to lose the ball as he scrambled away from pressure. Jaylon Smith scooped it up and raced 62 yards for what appeared to be a score, but officials ruled it an incomplete pass and blew the play dead. After a brief review, the call was reversed to a fumble, though, with Notre Dame getting the ball at the 38.
It didn't take long for Rees to capitalize as he found Jones for his fourth TD of the game, matching the total he had against Air Force on Oct. 8, 2011, and again on Oct. 30, 2010, versus Tulsa.
"When you make mistakes against really good teams, they're magnified even more," Calhoun said. "I do think it would have been a more closely contested game, especially in the second half (if not for the fumbles). We gave up too many big plays."
Romine started for Karson Roberts at quarterback for the Falcons, becoming the fourth different signal caller the team has used this season. Romine was fourth-string out of fall camp, but moved up the depth chart due to injuries and an academic ineligibility.
Roberts suffered a concussion two weeks ago against San Diego State, but recently returned to practice. He entered the game in the fourth quarter in relief of Romine.
At times, Romine effectively ran the triple-option attack of Air Force, gashing Notre Dame's defense for big gains. But the Falcons' fumbling problems thwarted promising drives with the game still close.
"They were big," Romine said of the fumbles. "We had a spark, but just didn't dial in enough and make the easy, routine plays we make day-in and day-out."
Romine led Air Force with 78 yards rushing on 21 carries, helping the Falcons pile up 290 total yards on the ground against the Fighting Irish.
Even without a bowl game to shoot for, Air Force players are determined to finish the season strong.
"Every week, we try to win every game, so these next games we have, we just need to win out," Falcons safety Dexter Walker said. "That wouldn't be satisfaction — not for me — but it's something you can go into the next season saying, 'We finished way stronger than we started.' That's just what we've got to do."