Just when you begin to believe in the 2022 Fighting Irish, the team finds another way of reminding us how fragile they are. Drew Pyne’s career best passing performance staked Notre Dame to a 35-13 halftime lead but the Irish elected to sleepwalk through the final two quarters before holding on to survive a determined comeback by the Midshipmen for a 35-32 win. Notre Dame finished with 66 yards rushing against a significantly undersized opponent.
Navy’s run blitzes were relentless and mostly effective all day, but Pyne countered early with two quick scoring passes to Audric Estime and Braden Lenzy. After Lenzy literally stole the ball away from Midshipmen cornerback Mbiti Williams at the goal line, Notre Dame had a 14-0 lead with just over ten minutes gone in the contest.
Navy responded quickly and sent a message to the Irish that they were not going to roll over. Quarterback Xavier Arline hit Mark Walker with a 34 yard pass on third down, and fullback Daba Fofana rumbled for a 36-yard touchdown on the next play. A missed extra point left the score at 14-6 late in the first quarter.
Pyne’s passes found wide open receivers down the field as the Midshipmen continued to gamble by overloading the line of scrimmage. Receptions by Jaden Thomas and Michael Mayer moved the visitors into scoring territory before Pyne found Chris Tyree alone in the left flat for a score. Notre Dame now led by 21-6 with 12:27 remaining in the half.
The Navy battle plan was obviously to stop the Irish ground game at all costs and force Pyne to beat them with his arm. It seemed like a fool’s errand at that point but the Midshipmen remained stubborn. Meanwhile, Arline and Fofana pumped life into the Navy offense. Consecutive long runs by each of them set up a short scoring plunge by Arline after an Irish interception was negated by a holding penalty. The Irish appeared to miss safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker J.D. Bertrand, who were given the day off to heal their bruised bodies after two months of assault and battery.
Now trailing 21-13 midway through the second period, Navy tried its first onside kick of the day. Prince Kollie recovered at midfield for Notre Dame. Pyne could not take advantage of the short field, however, as Blake Grupe missed yet another field goal. The Midshipmen returned the favor by getting too cute on the next play. A reverse pass from Kai Puailoa-Ramos to Arline was well diagnosed and intercepted by Clarence Lewis at the Navy 41.
Estime broke numerous tackles on his way to the ten yard line, and Pyne scrambled into the end zone on the next play. Notre Dame now led by 28-13 with just over two minutes left before intermission. The Irish defense held on the ensuing series as Coach Marcus Freeman used his timeouts to preserve time on the clock.
I would say that what happened next was a surprise but a punt block by Notre Dame is no longer front page news. Jack Kiser got a hand on this one and Notre Dame was in business at the Midshipmen 37. Pyne wasted no time finding Thomas on a perfectly thrown deep ball over the middle to stake the Irish to a 35-13 advantage. Navy had no time to answer and the half ended with smiles on the faces of the Notre Dame players and coaches.
One would expect most teams to be shattered by the devastating finish to the first half. Navy proved it is an exception to that rule by fighting back. Their first possession of the second half turned into points when Irish safety D.J. Brown was caught holding on a fourth down pass. It was the second such foul on Brown at a very inopportune time. The Midshipmen managed only a short field goal to reduce its deficit to 35-16 but they held the ball for nearly ten minutes.
Notre Dame’s offense visibly lacked any spark when it finally got its hands on the ball. The Irish ran only five plays in the third quarter but the first play of the final period was disastrous. A Pyne pass on third and long was batted up in the air by Navy and intercepted by John Marshall deep in Notre Dame territory.
Arline hit Walker on the next play from 23 yards out for a quick score, and the slippery quarterback snuck over the goal line to complete a two point conversion. Just a few seconds had elapsed and suddenly Notre Dame led by only 35-24.
The fired up Navy defense turned up the pressure on Pyne. Three sacks on the next possession forced an Irish punt as the pass protection could not pick up blitzes from all angles. Notre Dame squandered good field position on its next two chances by failing to generate a first down. The Midshipmen added two more sacks for a total of five in the second half.
With time becoming a factor and Arline nursing a sore ankle, Navy Coach Ken Nuimatalolo brought in Maasai Maynor at quarterback to crank up the passing game. The Midshipmen got the ball back at their own 12-yard line with under five minutes remaining. Maynor got them rolling with a scramble for a first down and a pass to Vincent Terrell to move the chains. When the Irish defense backed off a bit to play more of a pass coverage scheme, Maynor handed the ball to fullback Anton Hall. Hall responded with runs for three more first downs to advance the ball to the red zone.
After spiking the ball at the 1:28 mark, Maynor fired a 20-yard strike into the end zone to Maquel Haywood, who beat Lewis on the play. Now trailing by 35-30, the Midshipmen called for another two point conversion attempt. Terrell took a pitch wide and dove across the pylon to make it a 35-32.
The game had now come down to another onside kick with 1:21 on the clock. Coach Brian Mason’s gang saved the day for Notre Dame as Matt Salerno cleanly fielded the attempt. The Irish knelt down in victory formation but also in a state of great relief.
Each half could not have been more different. Notre Dame had fewer than ten net yards of offense in the second half, including negative rushing yardage. The offensive line failed in pass protection and the staff could not figure out how to find the holes as the Midshipmen defenders gambled on virtually every snap. Defensively, the Irish defaulted back to arm tackling and coverage lapses that nearly cost them the win. Truthfully, Notre Dame’s players trudged off the field as if they were on the losing end.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions.
- Can the Irish defense cover their assigned gaps without costly breakdowns? They covered the wide plays fairly well but Navy hurt them with the fullback dive and several scrambles by Arline. The absence of Bertrand should not have been a major factor in this game but it sure turned out that way. The other Irish linebackers looked lost.
- Will Pyne and his wide receivers manage to get more closely acquainted? The first half was very uplifting in that regard. Thomas and Lenzy looked great and Pyne was more accurate than we have seen lately.
- Can Notre Dame match its Clemson game output with 263 rushing yards? Only if we’re talking about the defense giving up 255 yards on the ground to Navy. As for the Irish, they came up about 200 yards short.
- Which team will win the turnover battle? The teams traded second half interceptions, so no advantage there.
- Can Notre Dame’s special teams provide another highlight reel play? Another game, another blocked punt. The offense could not capitalize but the Irish special teams also pitched in by recovering two onside kicks.
- Will the Irish defenders tackle with the same enthusiasm we saw last week? No, it was back to impersonating a group of matadors.
- Can Freeman and his staff find playing time for the entire traveling squad? A lot of guys played on defense but I have a feeling it was because Freeman was desperately looking for someone who could make a stop.
- Will the Navy secondary survive its collisions with Estime? Audric was a battering ram in the first half and the Midshipmen ran away from him on his early touchdown reception. Unfortunately Estime and the rest of the offense could not find any room to run after halftime.
The roller coaster ride continues with this team with no end in sight. Boston College is next and they appear to be about as dangerous as Stanford or Marshall. In other words, make sure your heart and blood pressure prescriptions are refilled before next Saturday.