Bronx cheers for old Notre Dame

NEW YORK -- Notre Dame, arguably the most storied program in the history of college football, made a little more history Saturday night.

The Fighting Irish, playing in the New York metropolitan area for the second time in a month, won the inaugural college football game at the new Yankee Stadium, 27-3 over Army, in front a record crowd of 54,251.

In the process, Notre Dame clinched bowl eligibility in Brian Kelly's first year as coach, moving to 6-5 on the season with one game to play, at USC next Saturday.

"New York's a lot of things, and what it was tonight was a college football town," Kelly said. "It was an exciting atmosphere, and I know that our kids fed off the energy that was here in New York for the past 48 hours."

The Fighting Irish will undoubtedly leave the Big Apple a much happier bunch than they did the last time around. Four Saturdays ago, the Irish were thoroughly embarrassed by Navy at the nearby New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., 35-17 -- and the game wasn't even that close.

Notre Dame fans had reason to be concerned about this game. Army is much-improved under second-year coach Rich Ellerson; the Black Knights entered with a record of 6-4, bowl-eligible for the first time since 1996. Plus Army, like Navy, runs the triple-option offense, which completely stymied Notre Dame on Oct. 23.

What's more, the start of this game was eerily similar to the start of the Navy game. On the first possession, Notre Dame drove the length of the field but ultimately failed to score -- this time because of an interception in the Army end zone.

The Black Knights took the ball and subsequently marched 78 yards down the field before having to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.

The rest of the game couldn't have gone more differently. Army accumulated just 96 yards and three first downs the rest of the game.

Ellerson summed it up succinctly: "We didn't play very well and we got clobbered."

Turns out Notre Dame made a major defensive adjustment from the Navy game. This time the Irish employed a four-man front, letting those four guys focus on stopping the initial ball carrier, while letting the rest of their defenders chase down the secondary carrier if the pigskin was pitched outside.

Ellerson admitted it was a look he and his team weren't expecting. "Something again that was not on our short list of things to work against," Ellerson said.

On offense, Notre Dame was led by freshman quarterback Tommy Rees -- making the second start of his young career in place of Dayne Crist, who is out for the season with a knee injury. Rees looked comfortable, completing 13 of 20 passes for 213 yards, one touchdown and just the one interception, on the first possession of the game.

In fact, Rees could have had two touchdown passes -- both perfect, 30-yard-plus lobs to tight end Tyler Eifert -- but one was called back after replay revealed Eifert's knee touched the ground at the 1-yard line.

Rees sounded just as comfortable after the game, saying he's not pinching himself about the position he finds himself in -- the starting quarterback for Notre Dame as a freshman.

"I've worked hard to get where I am, and my teammates have done a great job supporting me all the way," Rees said. "But I'm definitely appreciative for the position I have right now. I just gotta keep working hard and making plays and making the most of my situation."

That situation included a special treat prior to the game. Notre Dame, as the home team, was given the Yankees' clubhouse to use as its locker room -- and Rees was given the locker of another cool customer, Derek Jeter.

"It's an honor and a privilege," Rees said. "He's an unbelievable player. It's pretty humbling to have a guy like that's locker."

After back-to-back wins without allowing a touchdown -- last week at home versus No. 14 Utah 28-3, and this week in New York City against Army -- Notre Dame is suddenly on a roll.

Who would have predicted that after the Navy disaster?

"We were moving in the right direction," Kelly said. "Certainly winning helps the message, let's face it. But [the players] were doing everything that I asked them to do, even when we hit a rough spot."

The Meadowlands was one heck of a rough spot, but Yankee Stadium must feel like home sweet home.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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