Five things we learned: Notre Dame 49, Navy 39

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It seemed too easy, didn’t it?

Notre Dame’s offense was rolling. The Irish were on pace for 860 yards after the first quarter. Looking unbeatable, Everett Golson was throwing strikes, Tarean Folston was cutting through Navy’s defense and Brian VanGorder’s first attempt at slowing down the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack found enough stops to build a 28-7 lead.

But those that expected the Naval Academy to pack it in and go home were ignoring 88 years of history. And after a quick touchdown drive, a Golson interception and a third-quarter Notre Dame sleepwalk, the Irish were on the ropes and trailing in a game that got out of control in a hurry.

As hopes of style points went out the window, Notre Dame scraped together just enough on both sides of the ball for a 49-39 victory. After a week of Brian Kelly paying tribute to the fight in the Midshipmen, the Irish had to go toe-to-toe down the stretch to find a way to come out alive.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s really all you can ask for is to win a football game and get some guys experience, and then not have to play Navy again until next year.”

It’s tough to say it any better than that. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned.

 

Everett Golson isn’t back. He really never left. 

For as frustrating as the string of turnovers has been, it’s worth pointing out that for all the flaws we’ve now picked out in Everett Golson’s game, we might be watching the best quarterback at Notre Dame of the modern era.

Think about it. While Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen put up some incredible numbers in Charlie Weis’ scheme, they didn’t win games like Golson does. And while Tony Rice won a title and Rick Mirer went No. 2 overall, neither had the diverse skillset that Golson showcases every Saturday.

The scary part? He’s only getting better.

While most will focus on the interception that helped turn the momentum in Navy’s favor, Golson was absolutely dominant tonight, producing six touchdowns for the Irish offense, three through the air and three on the ground. His 18 of 25 for 315 yards including a 78-yard touchdown on his first throw and an eight-yard touchdown scamper to essentially end the game.

Golson has now thrown 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His three scores on the ground add to his team leading seven rushing touchdowns. On a night where the offensive line showed cracks in the second half and the team looked frazzled, putting the ball in Golson’s hands was the only ingredient needed for victory.

Losing the 2013 season cost Golson a precious season of on-field development, and the Irish a year where they very easily could’ve been a BCS contender. But after outplaying the defending Heisman Trophy winner (according to his head coach) last week, Golson threw his name back in the ring for the most coveted individual award in sports with a singular performance.

 

Awards talk earlier in the season proved distracting, even as the quarterback tried to shut it out. But four more games this month will give Golson an opportunity to lead the Irish into the postseason, and write a very impressive chapter in the Notre Dame history books.

 

End the debate. Tarean Folston should be Notre Dame’s featured running back. 

When Notre Dame’s offense was at its best, Tarean Folston was in the backfield. The sophomore had another impressive night, running for 149 yards on 20 carries to pace the Irish ground game.

When given the opportunity to establish a rhythm, Folston looked silky smooth in the backfield, showing patience as his blocks set up, suddenness going through the hole, and vision you just can’t teach. Add to his efforts the game-sealing 30-yard catch in the fourth quarter and it’s two consecutive games where Folston has made it clear that he’s the team’s best running back.

Now his head coach needs to reward his efforts.

After spending more than half the season trying to mix and match three running backs, Kelly and the offensive staff would be best served to just turn the keys over to Folston. For as wonderfully reliable as Cam McDaniel is, and for as talented and filled with promise Greg Bryant still figures to be, the Irish have a marquee running back in their stable who’s capable of doing it all if only his head coach will let him.

Want to see the Irish offense stuck in neutral? Just look at the running plays where McDaniel got carries. This isn’t 2012, where Kelly was willing to sacrifice some explosiveness for the versatility and toughness of Theo Riddick, who took the majority of carries over Cierre Wood even if Wood put up better stats.

Folston’s the team’s best all-around back. By any measurement possible.

Want to get McDaniel his snaps? Play him in pass protection. After starting the season getting his shot, Bryant’s best days are likely in 2015, with Irish Illustrated reporting that Bryant is also banged up.

If the Irish are going to play balanced offense down the stretch, this is Folston’s job. And give credit to the sophomore for ending a platoon with impressive production.

 

Notre Dame’s defense got even younger as they traded punches with Navy’s offense and came out alive. 

Make no mistake, the game tape won’t be pretty. But after being battered and bruised by Navy’s triple option, the Irish defense stood its ground and won the fourth quarter, helping Notre Dame escape alive. And they did it behind freshmen like Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Andrew Trumbetti.

Combined with big games from James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Justin Utupo and Matthias Farley, the Irish defense won the game not on the back of their stars but rather on the shoulders of their lunch-pail performers.

Especially essential was the performance of Martini. The freshman linebacker shifted inside as VanGorder decided to put Jaylon Smith on the perimeter, making nine tackles in basically his debut as a non-special teams contributor, a heady performance by a young player who was — for better or worse — the next man in.

“Greer is a very smart kid and his attention to detail is really good,” Kelly said. “And he’s the only guy we had. We don’t have anybody else.”

Martini was joined by Nyles Morgan on the inside, with the promising Chicagoland product thrust into action after an ankle injury to Joe Schmidt. Morgan showed flashes of the prep All-American who many compared to Manti Te’o, showing a burst and obvious athleticism, not to mention shoulders made of concrete, as he ran sideline to sideline chasing Navy ball carriers creating a few big-time collisions. The next step in Morgan’s game is actually knowing where and who to chase, as a few broken assignments late likely contributed to Navy’s final touchdown and two-point conversion.

With the Irish on the ropes, the Irish defense actually stepped up. In five fourth-quarter possessions, the Midshipmen managed just one touchdown, turned the ball over on downs twice and threw a critical interception. Nobody can look at the stat sheet and see much beauty, but when it was needed it was the defense, not the offense that sealed the deal.

 

Notre Dame didn’t earn any style points for beating Navy. But there’s no reason to be embarrassed — and Brian Kelly certainly isn’t — after exiting this matchup with a victory. 

Don’t expect the Irish to make a move up next week’s Playoff committee rankings. And don’t expect Brian Kelly to care.

He’ll be too worried about an Arizona State team that will likely move up in the polls after winning in overtime over Utah. But if you’re expecting Kelly and company to apologize for struggling to put away a Navy team that fell to 4-5, don’t count on it.

“I challenge anybody to put these guys on their schedule, anybody who thinks Navy is an easy team to play,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s very, very difficult. I’ve got some smart defensive coaches back there. Bobby Elliott, one of the better defensive coordinators in the country in the eighties and nineties. He’s forgot more football than I know.

“Brian VanGorder’s an accomplished defensive coordinator at the NFL and college level. Mike Elston’s been with me for a long time. These are really good coaches. It’s hard to defend what they do at Navy and my hat goes off to Navy and their coaching staff, they do a great job on offense and once again they do a great job.”

That just about every Navy-Notre Dame game feels like the same scary movie played over again isn’t really the point of it all. That’s the great equalizer called the option. Knowing that it’s coming isn’t the hard part. Stopping it is.

So while most of us will look at the blown leverage by Notre Dame’s safeties or struggling to shutdown some plays to the boundary side of the field, the Irish coaching staff will gladly pull the Navy tape and their prep into storage, kicking this mess down the street when there’s more time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

Looking for something to correct? How about the Irish’s two series that started in plus territory, with the offense unable to even get a field goal that could’ve secured the victory. But all that comes after celebrating a hard-fought victory in the most thankless game of the season.

 

A serious injury to Joe Schmidt could drastically change the complexion of Notre Dame’s defense. 

If someone told you this spring that an injury to former walk-on Joe Schmidt could be the scariest news of early November, you’d likely think they had spent too much time in the comments section below. But seeing Schmidt in a walking boot and on crutches with a still undetermined ankle injury is a scary scenario for this Irish defense.

That’s not to say Nyles Morgan didn’t look impressive. But after serving as the nerve center of the Irish defense, Notre Dame’s losing more than its leading tackler, they could be playing without their rosetta stone, the critical translator of Brian VanGorder’s scheme-heavy approach.

Kelly said Schmidt will have an X-Ray once he returns to South Bend. But after doing his best to tape up his ankle and return to the game, this could very well be an injury that takes Schmidt out of the Irish game plan for a few games, hardly the type of news you want heading into a critical weekend.

“We don’t know the circumstances of Joe, but we’re praying he’s all right,” Jaylon Smith said after the game.

We saw what the reinforcements look like. Throw Greer Martini into the mix as well, with the linebacker likely better suited for coverage duties than Morgan.

But after seeing James Onwualu play his best football of the year (and then suffer what looks like a concussion late in the game after a nasty collision with Sheldon Day) and Matthias Farley serve as the closer, it’ll be all hands on deck next weekend in Tempe.