by John Vannie
I’m rarely at a loss for words after a Notre Dame football game, but Saturday’s stunning 46-44 loss to Navy in three overtimes was difficult to process. The notion that an undersized team of overachievers could defeat a powerful group of highly recruited players is as old as David vs. Goliath, but Appalachian State had already used up this season’s allotment of miracles. In looking more closely, however, the result was not surprising at all.
The search for an explanation reminded me that I had predicted the loss a few days ago. Many people scoffed at this article and I began to doubt my own sanity as game day approached, but much of it turned out to be correct. Let’s break down the game in that context.
This should finally be the week that Notre Dame establishes the run and sticks with it. Since Navy’s offense is capable of long scoring drives and ball possession, it is incumbent on the Irish to demonstrate a little ball control of their own.
Overall, Notre Dame did well to establish the run and keep Navy from dominating time of possession. The statistics show that the Irish matched Navy’s output on the ground and held a slight edge in time of possession. The problem is that Coach Charlie Weis strayed away from the running game at crucial points, and it cost the Irish dearly.
Notre Dame held a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when it recovered a Midshipmen fumble at the Navy 30. Three solid running plays produced a first down at the 15, but Weis inexplicably went away from power football in favor of three consecutive passes. This resulted in a fourth down and 15 situation, and Weis then compounded his error by calling for a fake field goal. The Middies were not fooled by Evan Sharpley’s slow-footed attempt to run through them, and momentum shifted back to Navy.
It will be interesting to see if he [Weis] can resist the temptation to call an inordinate number of pass plays against the suspect Navy secondary. Sharpley and his receivers have not demonstrated the proficiency needed to sustain an effective passing game regardless of the opponent. A pass-oriented approach will not be a winning formula on Saturday no matter how vulnerable the Middie defense appears on paper or on film.
The Irish recovered later in the half and took a 21-14 lead into the locker room when Duval Kamara scored late in the second period, but Weis’ passing fancy again proved to be his undoing. Navy took the second half kickoff and drove more than eight minutes for a touchdown, but a missed extra point left Notre Dame with a 21-20 edge. The Irish needed to regain control of the game and the clock, but two straight incomplete passes killed a drive that had moved the ball into scoring territory on the strength of ten running plays. Notre Dame came up empty when Brandon Walker missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Midshipmen responded with a missed field goal of their own as the game moved to the fourth quarter. Still nursing a one point lead, the Irish took over at its 30. Once again, Weis took to the air. After a first down incompletion, Sharpley was sacked and stripped of the ball. Navy defensive lineman Chris Kuhar-Pitters picked it up and rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown, and the Middies added a two-point conversion before Notre Dame could recover from the shock.
Now trailing 28-21 with ten minutes left, the Irish again put themselves in a difficult spot after a sack and a holding penalty. Sharpley made up some of the lost ground with a third down scramble, and then avoided a corner blitz before hitting John Carlson with a desperation fourth down heave. Notre Dame had a new life near midfield and wisely returned to the ground game. Armando Allen then carried seven straight times for fifty yards and Travis Thomas covered the last three for the tying score with 3:28 remaining in regulation.
The Irish got the ball back and had a chance to win when a determined Tom Zbikowski returned a Navy punt to the Midshipmen 38. They moved to the 24 yard line with a minute left, but Navy showed how much they wanted this game by stopping Notre Dame. On fourth down, Weis eschewed a game-winning field goal attempt in favor of another pass. Unfortunately, Sharpley did not even have time to look downfield. The inspired Middies, led again by Kuhar-Pitters, recorded their fourth sack of the day despite earning only six for the season prior to this game.
Johnson also has a talent for knowing when to call for a trick play or deep pass in order to keep a defense off balance.
Overtime became a nervous chess match between Weis and Navy’s Paul Johnson. Both teams quickly covered the 25 yards to paydirt in the first session, and each was able to manage only a field goal in the second. When Joey Bullen’s 32-yard attempt squeaked between the uprights to tie the game at 38, a third overtime period became necessary.
Johnson then surprised the Irish defense with a well conceived pass play to Reggie Campbell on the first play. Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada picked an opportune moment to make his best throw of the day, and Campbell easily beat the Notre Dame secondary. This pair teamed up again for the mandatory two point conversion before the stunned Irish knew what hit them.
This game should be one in which the outcome is in doubt until the final play.
Notre Dame kept hope alive when Thomas scored on a fourth down run to narrow the margin to 46-44. Navy was called for pass interference on the conversion attempt, and their celebration was temporarily halted. Thomas was swarmed under by the Middies on the retry, however, and 43 years of frustration evaporated in a single improbable moment.
Navy and Johnson won because they extracted every ounce of effort and performance out of its athletes. Conversely, Weis and the Irish cost themselves points with ill-advised play calls and poor management of their final possession in regulation. Defensively, Notre Dame did not attack the option and was a step slow in its reactions to the ball for most of the day. Still, it amazing that the Irish lost the game despite the fact that they did not punt even once.
Here’s a review of the key questions that helped to determine the outcome:
Which team will force the other to pass more than is desirable? – Navy did not force Notre Dame to pass excessively, but Weis made that mistake all by himself.
How long will it take the Irish defense to adjust to (and slow down) the option attack? – The defense finally started to play well in the fourth quarter, but overtime was a disaster.
Will Allen finally be able to display the game-breaking ability Irish fans expect? – Yes, but we should have seen more of him.
Will Navy fool the Notre Dame secondary with well-conceived play action passes? – Only a few times, but they did execute the game winning play and force a pass interference penalty to keep a fourth quarter drive alive.
Which team will be most successful on first down? – Both teams were able to move the ball on first down, except when the Irish tried to pass the ball.
How well can Notre Dame’s cornerbacks tackle in the open field? – Not very well, but the linebackers were not much better.
Can Navy avoid costly turnovers? – Navy’s lone turnover should have been costly, but Weis was too cute in the red zone.
The Irish have three winnable games remaining, but no one can predict how the team will react in the wake of this landmark loss and a 1-8 record. Hopefully, Weis will finally realize that he does not have Tom Brady or even Brady Quinn at quarterback when he calls the plays, but this nightmare season will mercifully be over soon whether he does or not.