After a week of coasting, the Irish go back to another heart-stopper, this time against Navy, who have now beaten the Irish twice in the last three games. The Irish lost a football game without punting, which has to be a statistical anomaly, and also tells the story of this game that went so very wrong for the Irish. Notre Dame had absolutely no answer for the Navy running attack, giving up 348 rushing yards and only clamping down in the final four minutes of the ballgame when they were absolutely up against it.
It’s an incredibly discouraging loss for the Irish, though Notre Dame needs to put it behind them and get ready for a very game Pittsburgh team, a squad that could be ranked in the top ten come next week. Here’s five things we learned.
1) Red Zone offense killed the Irish.
Notre Dame absolutely killed themselves in the red zone, using a baffling mix of illogical play-calling, bad execution, crucial turnovers and missed field goals to come up empty when it mattered most. While many suspected that Michael Floyd would help kickstart the offense close to the goal line, Notre Dame still wasn’t able to get seven points when they needed to get them. Notre Dame put up over 500 yards of offense, and only managed 21 points. That’s incredibly inefficient offense and resulted in disaster against a Navy squad that seemed to capitalize on all of Notre Dame’s mistakes.
2) The Irish defense laid a huge egg… again.
The story is beginning to write itself. Notre Dame’s defense once again lets the team down, this time giving up 348 rushing yards to a Navy team that the Irish bottled up last season. After making some positive strides against Washington State last week, the Irish were continually befuddled by the option attack, with both Ricky Dobbs and Vince Murray going for over 100 yards on the ground. Murray, who played fullback in the option attack ran for 11 yards a carry, picking up 158 yards and absolutely killing the Irish defense with huge gainers.
The Irish defensive front continually conceded huge gaps around the center, seemingly giving Navy all it needed to spring the fullback, and never had a good solution for Dobbs when he came around the edge with the ball. Manti Te’o, who Jon Tenuta predicted would have a big day, was committed to tackling the pitch man, but ND never could find a solution to stopping the run.
3) Navy executed their game plan to perfection.
While the time of possession battle wasn’t as lopsided as it felt, Navy perfectly executed their game plan. Capitalizing on a early turnover by Robby Parris, Navy immediately put Notre Dame in a hole, and forced the Irish into throwing the ball almost exclusively in the second half. The Irish walked into halftime without any points, the first time Navy has held ND without first half points since 1973. The Midshipmen continually kept things in third and manageable, and when they did throw the ball, they got the big play they needed, Ricky Dobbs hitting Greg Jones for a long touchdown pass when the Irish secondary got caught with their eyes in the backfield. Navy did everything they could to win the game, and the Irish did everything wrong when it came to preventing it.
4) Irish gain a weapon, lose a weapon.
Just when the Irish attack looked to be back to full bore, Notre Dame has likely lost Kyle Rudolph to the same injury that cost Michael Floyd seven weeks. After rumbling for a nice gain on a swing pass, Rudolph landed awkwardly on his shoulder, and immediately came up hurt. Mike Ragone filled in admirably, but losing Rudolph before this tough stretch is a crushing blow to an offense desperately needing some stability, especially with Armando Allen still sidelined.
5) Notre Dame has Notre Dame to blame for what could have been.
The Irish now have lost three very close games, and have to feel like they should’ve won all three of them. Great teams win close games, and they execute to win. Notre Dame just hasn’t been able to do that. Today’s loss hinged on a few key moments, plays where the Irish came up on the wrong side of the coin, and often because of a self-inflicted wound. It’s clear Notre Dame has some of the more talented skill position players in the country and an offense with three legitimate stars, yet they continue to shoot themselves in the foot. I’m not ready to indict Charlie Weis like others likely will, but it’s tough to watch Notre Dame do everything they can to loss close football games.
Coach Ty Willingham never lived down the infamous comment of being “a few plays away,” and Weis would be smart not to go the same direction, yet the difference between being undefeated and looking at a BCS bowl game, and having three losses and staring at a mid-level bowl game comes down to execution. Right now, the Irish have proved themselves closer to mediocre than elite when it comes to playing with the precision needed to be great.