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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.