There are Sundays where it’s hard to think of the negatives and then there are Sundays where it’s hard to think of the positives. This is one of those Sundays, where retrospection doesn’t always help.
Navy’s convincing 35-17 victory over Notre Dame was clinical. The Midshipmen accomplished just about every objective they had laid out in front of them, many made easier by the inconsistent play of the Irish offense and the mediocrity of the Irish defense.
Act Two of the Irish season ends on a considerable down beat, with the Irish loss to Navy bringing out the contrarians who scream from their soap boxes indicting any coach with the gall to lose to the Naval Academy. (Never mind that over the last seven seasons, Navy has won 13 more football games than the Irish while losing 11 less.)
With the loss to Navy, Brian Kelly joins a list that not only includes former head coach Charlie Weis, but also June Jones, Jim Grobe, Al Golden, and Gary Pinkel — whose Missouri Tigers lost by 22 points to Ken Niomatalolo’s Navy squad in the Texas Bowl last year… and also defeated the No. 1 team in the country last night.
Here’s the good, bad, and ugly from yesterday’s 35-17 loss.
It’s telling when the best thing that happened to the Irish is their backup quarterback playing well in garbage time. Tommy Rees’ impressive drive in the fourth quarter was a sign of great progress. After a Notre Dame debut that started with an ugly 0 of 2 with one interception, Rees came in and methodically walked the Irish down the field, with a 10 play, 76-yard drive that took just over four minutes.
After Cierre Wood’s loss of five yards back the Irish into a 2nd and 15, Rees completed three straight throws of over 20 yards, moving the Irish quickly into the Navy red zone. Rees was six of seven on the drive for 79 yards, and showed an ability to hit open receivers on high-percentage reads — a job that seems easy enough, but one that doesn’t always get achieved with Dayne Crist back in the pocket.
I’m not an advocate of opening up the quarterback competition, but Kelly’s decision to pull Crist and let the freshman take the snaps was a great one not only for Rees’ morale, but also for the rest of the team. Competition will be a constant on a Brian Kelly football team, and not even the no-doubt-about-it starting quarterback will be immune.
There’s plenty to choose from here, but I’m going to put the bad on the Irish offense. It’s difficult to quantify just how short-handed the Irish offense was on Saturday afternoon (I’d argue that there hasn’t been a Notre Dame offense this ravaged by injury in the two decades), but regardless, they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Thanks to a Navy gameplan that included running the play-clock down from the opening of the game, the Irish only had 10 possessions, with one of those coming with just 14 seconds remaining in the half.
Kelly mentioned on Tuesday that he knew the Irish would get limited possessions, and Notre Dame just didn’t do enough with their opportunities. After an opening drive got the Irish 1st and goal from the 8, they weren’t able to to get into the endzone, getting stuffed inside the one-yard-line on 4th and goal.
From then on, the Irish just weren’t good enough, with Crist throwing two critical interceptions. The first pick came at the end of the first half when the Irish were down four points and looking to score at the end of the half. Instead, Crist’s interception led to Gee Gee Green’s nine-yard touchdown run and a 21-10 halftime lead.The second led to another Navy touchdown, this time putting the game officially out of reach.
The Irish were unable to run the ball effectively, getting a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry out of the 30 times they officially ran it. And while Duval Kamara stepped up and played a nice game in place of Michael Floyd, the offense seemed unable to work at the frenetic pace that helped confuse and tire out defenses that weren’t completely undersized like Navy’s defense was.
You can hardly kill Dayne Crist for struggling with his three best receivers out of the game. But the Irish offensive line did nothing to help an offense that would’ve been buoyed by a competent running game.
It’s hard to call Notre Dame’s defensive performance anything but ugly. A year after getting completely gutted by a Navy offense that moved the ball at will, the Irish seemed to put together a gameplan worse than the one that got defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta savaged. Whether Navy added a veer-option component to their attack or not, the Irish were unable to tackle the fullback or get stops out of the Navy offense, something that not many people saw coming.
To his credit, Brian Kelly knew his defensive game plan wasn’t good enough, and rightfully defended his defensive coaching staff.
“I have great trust in my staff,” Kelly said. “Defensively we didn’t have a great answer today. But you know what, we’ve had answers all year defensively. And so we didn’t have the answers today. We’re going to have to go back and look at the film and find out. I got smart coaches. I got dedicated coaches. They’re not dummies.
“The first thing I’d look at, I’d go, ‘Shoot, basic fundamentals is stop the fullback.’ Well he had 200 yards today and I don’t have a bunch of dummies on my staff. We know that. My guys didn’t have the plan today.
“We got to go back and look at the plan, we got to evaluate the plan, and if we have to change the plan moving forward, we’re going to change the plan. but we’re going to get it right. We’ve got too many guys committed to making sure Notre Dame gets back to where we believe it should be.”
The Irish have a second chance at stopping another triple-option attack when they face off against Army next month. While they don’t run their attack with the precision of Navy, they’ve rattled off four wins, and nearly upset Rutgers last week before falling in overtime. I’d be shocked if the Irish decide to take the conservative, react approach to stopping the option after seeing it fail so miserably yesterday, and instead bring pressure up the middle, taking away the fullback schematically.