by John Vannie
Navy overcame a 17-14 deficit by keeping the ball for over 20 minutes of the second half to defeat Notre Dame by 28-27 on Saturday. The Midshipmen made a series of winning plays down the stretch while the Irish faltered with critical self-inflicted mistakes. There were only five possessions in the second half, and Navy used their three to score a pair of touchdowns on long drives and then run out the last 7:28 of the game while DeShone Kizer and company watched helplessly from the sidelines. Notre Dame dropped to 3-6 on this joyless season as special teams breakdowns once again contributed to their demise.
Each team looked sharp on its first possession despite the early start time. Kizer threw a 26-yard scoring strike to Torii Hunter, Jr. just 3:30 into the contest. The Middies answered five minutes later in classic fashion – nine consecutive running plays. The Irish came back down the field moments later, but a third and two pass fell incomplete and Justin Yoon came on to boot a 39-yard field goal.
The teams exchanged punts, and Notre Dame missed a golden opportunity when Kizer overthrew a wide open Kevin Stepherson deep down the middle of the field. Navy quarterback Will Worth then took off on a 60-yard romp to the Irish 20, and he scored from three yards out a few plays later.
Trailing 14-10 midway through the second quarter, Kizer willed his team down the field with three strong runs that produced first downs. The drive was completed when tight end Durham Smythe took a short pass and rambled into the end zone for a 17-14 lead just before the half.
The Midshipmen were ready to roll following the intermission and followed their well-conceived script perfectly. Calvin Cass, Jr. finished off the opening drive by taking a pitch from Worth and streaking around left end for a 37-yard score. Notre Dame again responded after falling behind. This time, Kizer teamed up with Equanimeous St. Brown to put the ball in the end zone and regain a 24-21 advantage.
The ensuing series for Navy proved to be decisive. The Irish appeared to have the Midshipmen stopped in their own territory, but they had 12 men on the field when the ball was snapped to the Navy punter. Trading a fourth down and six for a fourth and one, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo elected to go for the first down. Worth was successful and a few plays later he completed a nine minute, 16-play drive to go ahead by 28-24 with just under 12 minutes remaining.
Kizer again tried to answer, but the effort fell short in the red zone as three straight passes produced only six yards. Yoon’s 31-yarder closed the gap to 28-27 with 7:28 left, but the Irish would not see the ball again. The clinching drive by the Middies featured two clutch fourth down conversions, the last of which was a 15-yard pass to Jamir Tillman with a minute left. On the whole, Navy was successful on four of five attempts on fourth down and did not punt once during the game.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions to complete this autopsy.
Will the new Irish defensive brain trust have a solid plan against the triple option? The defensive plan was not necessarily bad, but the line just got pushed around by the smaller Midshipmen.
Can the Midshipmen keep Notre Dame from making 40-yard explosive plays? Yes. The Irish ground game was unremarkable, and the one pass attempt to Stepherson was out of reach. Conversely, Navy ripped off runs of 60 and 37 yards.
Will Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be a liability? Unfortunately, such breakdowns are no longer a surprise.
Can Brian Kelly commit to the run and stick with it? He did in the second quarter as the Irish kept the ball for seven minutes and scored a go-ahead touchdown, however Notre Dame was outrushed 325-147 on the day.
Which defense will suffer the fewest missed tackles? Both sides were fairly clean in this regard, with no significant breakdowns. Greer Martini and Julian Love were particularly good for Notre Dame.
Will Adams and Folston match the productivity of Navy’s rushers? The Irish running game was not bad, but the backs were never really allowed to get into a rhythm. Same as it ever was.
Can either defense generate turnovers? Navy had a couple of bobbles, but recovered both. Neither team turned the ball over but the Midshipmen got the better of the fourth down plays.
Can the Midshipmen pull off any trick plays against the Irish? Alas, they didn’t need to resort to trickery. They were the more disciplined and physical team.
Will anyone besides me be watching this game? There were lots of empty seats in Jacksonville, and probably quite a few broken TV screens at home.
As the Notre Dame hype machine tries to generate interest in next week’s Shamrock Series game in San Antonio against lowly Army, it’s time to reflect on the declining trajectory of the football program. It’s painfully obvious that Kelly is going through the motions, and the players can’t keep up the false positive much longer before mailing in the final couple of games. Change is needed, and not just at the level of the coaching staff. The Athletic Director must also answer for the pervasive culture that tolerates this prolonged state of mediocrity.
While it’s arguable that Notre Dame cannot compete equally with programs such as Alabama and Ohio State, that is no longer the point and is simply an excuse-making exercise. What matters is that the Irish generate a product that makes its alumni and fan base proud, consistent with its values as an institution. The current state of affairs is not the best Notre Dame can do by any definition or measure. The objective should at minimum be to field a well-coached team that plays passionately and physically, what though the odds. Those traditions have all but disappeared.