By Ralph D. Russo
NEW YORK (AP) Notre Dame returned to the Bronx for the first time in 41 years and sent the subway alumni home happy.
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.
Freshman Tommy Rees, who tweeted on Friday he got to use Derek Jeter’s locker, threw for 214 yards in his second career start and 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.
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 ran for 135 yards.
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.
At halftime, the Band of the Fighting Irish, in a tribute to Notre Dame’s 35-13 upset at Army in 1913 – the first meeting between the teams – recreated a touchdown pass from quarterback Gus Dorais to Rockne with about a dozen people dressed in brownish-orange costumes chugging down the field in a cluster to simulate the ball.
One 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 Monument Park during practice.
The field was a snug fit in the $1.6 billion stadium, but not so tight that the teams couldn’t use both 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.
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.
But Notre Dame fans must have had an uncomfortable sense of seen-this-before after the first two drives of the game.
The first Irish drive was a steady march to a first-and-goal at the 7, but Rees’ pass was tipped and picked off in the end zone by Travis Donovan.
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 last month, the Irish were stopped on a fourth-and-goal on their first drive and the Midshipmen’s option went on to carve up the Irish for 367 yards rushing.
Unlike their last trip to the New York area, Notre Dame figured out the option and after the first drive, the Black Knights went three-and-out on their next three drives while the Irish rattled off 17 points.
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.
Army had five first downs on its first drive and didn’t have another until the last play of the first half.
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 Trent 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 coach Brian Kelly’s crew knows its season won’t end with the finale at USC.
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