Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Navy 34

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With the game on the line late and Midshipmen facing a critical fourth down with four yards to go, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper rolled the dice, hoping to catch the Notre Dame defense over-committing to the option that haunted them all afternoon. But Keenan Reynolds headed around the right side only to pitch the ball back to wide receiver Shawn Lynch heading the opposite direction, and a foot race to the wide side of the field ensued.

First on the scene was reserve safety Eilar Hardy, who cut beneath the block of Navy lineman Bradyn Heap and dove at Lynch’s feet, slowing him up and stretching him wide. Then came cornerback Bennett Jackson, who got a hand on Lynch before Jaylon Smith cleaned up the mess, putting the finishing touches on Notre Dame’s 38-34 victory and ending Navy’s upset bid with just 1:08 remaining.

“We had a chance. I think we were one block away from breaking it,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game.

After executing almost flawlessly all game, it was the Irish that made the game’s most important play, with Notre Dame surviving on Saturday, keeping their BCS hopes alive as they move to 7-2. After two straight 40-point victories over Navy, the Midshipmen made a sweep a Notre Dame’s option opponents hard work. And while the Irish got the victory, the win came at a price, with injuries piling up and the Irish stretched to their limits.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s wild 38-34 victory.

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After getting killed by the option in the first half, Bob Diaco and the Irish defense did just enough to make adjustments in the second half and pull out the win.

Heading into half down 20-17, things looked ugly for the Notre Dame defense, especially with Navy starting the second half with the football and an opportunity to extend the lead to a two-score game. The Midshipmen had run for 207 yards in the first half, averaging over five-yards a carry on a stunning 40 attempts, while going a perfect three for three in the red zone with touchdowns.

But with the body count piling up, the Irish came out and broke Navy’s serve, stopping a 3rd-and-6 and getting a much needed punt out of the Navy offense, the one stop the Irish defense got until their last stand.

After the game, Brian Kelly all but tipped his hat to the Navy offense, acknowledging how well quarterback Keenan Reynolds piloted the option attack.

“They executed flawlessly today. Hats off to them,” Kelly said. “Shorten the game, no penalties, no turnovers.

“If you look out at option teams, especially Navy, I’m ecstatic about getting out of here with a win. They were flawless in terms of their execution.”

That execution utilized a lot of counter option looks, with Reynolds turning away from his original read and running the option to the back-side. That look made it difficult for Notre Dame’s secondary, and a week after the cornerbacks had a field day tackling, nobody had more than KeiVarae Russell, who made just four stops.

With the Irish unwilling to commit to a single-high safety, Notre Dame was continually at a numbers disadvantage in the box. But when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had his safeties shoot the alley on the way to the pitch man, Navy caught the Irish with a well designed pass for a 34-yard touchdown.

“It’s just one of those deals where they’re difficult to defend. We just scored more points than they did today. And we got a win. I’m happy about that.”

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In a wide-open running back race, freshman Tarean Folston took advantage of his opportunities.

With Notre Dame needing to score every time it touched the ball in the second half, Brian Kelly leaned heavily on freshman running back Tarean Folston and the youngster responded with 140 yards on 18 carries, including the game-clinching touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.

Folston’s 100-yard day was the first time an Irish freshman running back went over 100 yards since Robert Hughes did in 2007 against Stanford, and effectively catapulted him to the front of the line in a running back race that seems to change every week.

Kelly talked after the game about Folston’s contributions, doing his best to measure his words, while ultimately happy about the performance from the talented Florida native.

“I don’t know if he’d have made that many carries early in the year, he wasn’t conditioned well enough,” Kelly said. “He always had the mental makeup, we felt that from the very beginning. I think this is more about his physical conditioning. And really just having the hot hand.”

Folston was far from the only back to have a field day against the Navy defense, with Folston, Cam McDaniel, and George Atkinson all averaging more than 7 yards per carry. But with the game on the shoulders of a powerful Irish running game (all the more impressive with Notre Dame playing without Chris Watt), it was Folston that heard his number called.

And Folston delivered.

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Notre Dame’s defense is hurting in a very bad way.

If there’s a worry after Saturday afternoon’s win it’s the injuries that are piling up on the Irish defense. Coming into the game already short on bodies, the Irish lost Sheldon Day with another ankle set back, Ben Councell to what looked like a serious knee injury and Kona Schwenke to an undisclosed lower-leg injury as well.

When asked after the game if the Irish depth chart had reached a point of concern, Kelly was quick to respond.

“We’ve reached it and surpassed it. We’re past it,” Kelly said.

Sundays medical update will likely give us a better idea of the type of toll Navy’s option attack took on Notre Dame’s defense. But it’s easy to see just how deep Notre Dame had to dig into its roster when little-used fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton is playing with the game on the line.

“They’re all banged up. They all will require some attention that I’ll have to get further information,” Kelly said. “It was a triage in there.

“We’ve got some guys that didn’t play today and we’ve got more guys that are banged up.”

***

In a game where the Irish needed to be efficient, turnovers and missed opportunities nearly cost them the game.

There were varying degrees of mistakes made by Notre Dame, but all of them played a key factor in Navy nearly pulling the upset.

There were opportunities missed, like the touch pass Tommy Rees missed to Troy Niklas in the end zone that forced the Irish to kick a field goal instead of get seven points. There was the sloppy playing surface that took down TJ Jones in the middle of a route and resulted in an interception. There was a “holding” call on Troy Niklas that likely took seven points off the board, and a bizarre personal foul called against Justin Utupo that gave Navy a critical first down, keeping alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown.

For Navy, they needed to play not just a near-perfect football game, but they also needed the breaks to stay in the football game.

“For us to beat them, that’s what’s got to happen,” Niumatalolo said after the game. “They had a couple turnovers, we didn’t have any. We didn’t have any penalties. We’ve got to play almost perfect to even have a chance.”

As Navy kept the game within reach throughout the afternoon, Niumatalolo felt like the game was playing exactly by the script he had envisioned when he plotted Navy’s upset bid. And after a second big kickoff return by Marcus Thomas, the Midshipmen had the ball at midfield with the game there for the taking.

“I thought we had a perfect scenario. We got the ball at the 50 yard line, all of our timeouts left,” Niumatalolo said. “I didn’t want to give them the ball back. So if we were going to score, I wanted to score with nothing on the clock. We had a chance.”

Ultimately, the Irish defense made the plays when it needed to, helped out by a poor pitch by Keenan Reynolds that stacked Navy into a crucial 3rd-and-long that they converted to get to 4th-and-4. But Notre Dame’s defense made the play when the game was on the line.

“It wasn’t good enough though, we didn’t win,” Niumatalolo said. “We struggled against Notre Dame the last couple years. I thought our kids played well, but it still wasn’t enough.”

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Ugly wins are part of the evolution of a football program now on very solid ground.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to apologize for winning a close game against Navy. And don’t expect the Irish to celebrate any less after squeaking out a victory against a service academy.

“We haven’t made any excuses about guys being out of the lineup,” Kelly said. “We just went out and battled the best we could.

“There are no asterisks next to this one. This is a W, and we’re excited about it. We’re going to have our 24‑hour rule. We’re going to take all 24 hours on this one.”

While there was plenty of griping among fans that fail to understanding how difficult it is to win every week, seeing Brian Kelly’s team continue to find ways to win has to be encouraging. That’s ten straight victories for Kelly in games decided by a touchdown or less, matching some guy named Knute Rockne for second-most in program history.

There will be a full calendar year for the Irish to work on playing against the option. But when the chips were down and the game was on the line, it was a full team effort to pull out the victory, with talented freshmen emerging next to unheralded veterans.

The Irish move to 27-4 over their last 31 regular season games. Only Alabama and Oregon have gone on a better run, putting into context just how strong this program is after Kelly took it over from Charlie Weis.

“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. I think it’s always about blending in some true freshman,” Kelly explained. “It’s really nice to see some of those young players, because they’re extremely skilled, it gives you a glimpse of some of those guys that are going to be here for the next three-and-a-half years.”

The Irish don’t win the football game if Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston don’t play big down the stretch. But they also don’t win if Eilar Hardy and Kona Schwenke come up big, as both did on Saturday.

Niumatalolo talked about the weekly challenge Notre Dame faces, a target on their back courtesy of the rich tradition that turns a .500 opponent into hopeful world beaters.

“I think Notre Dame goes through this every week. Everybody gets up for Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “For everybody that plays Notre Dame its the Super Bowl for that team. For us to come to the mecca of college football, our kids were excited about it. We played really really hard.”

This Saturday, playing hard wasn’t enough, as Notre Dame used almost their entire roster to hold off Navy’s charge. And in doing so, they kept their postseason goals alive.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL