The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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For as exasperated as most Notre Dame fans were watching the Irish hang on for dear life (again!) against Navy, the response from the team and their coaches was much different. Facing a healthy Keenan Reynolds and a Navy team that picked themselves up off the mat and fought back after falling behind 28-7, there was no apology given for beating the Midshipmen 49-39 in a wild game Saturday night.

Nor should there have been.

That the Irish ended up in a dog fight after nearly burying the Midshipmen early was disappointing. But after injuries forced Brian VanGorder’s defense to dig deep into their reserves, that the Irish were able to stand strong in the fourth quarter after taking Navy’s best shot is a building block for November.

With Arizona State around the corner — a game with major playoff implications — it’s time to turn the page and forget about Saturday night’s struggle… at least until next year.

But before we can do that, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of the Irish’s 10-point victory over Navy.

 

THE GOOD

Starting fast. A key to victory for Notre Dame was getting out of the gate quickly. They certainly achieved that, scoring on a 78-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Prosise on the game’s second play and putting up touchdowns on the offense’s first four drives.

The Irish did that thanks to pinpoint passing by Everett Golson, great running by Tarean Folston, and excellent execution on third down. Even the defense played well, with Navy’s first touchdown coming on a pretty blatant push-off and Brian VanGorder’s defense able to force punts on Navy’s next two possessions.

It might have been downhill from here, but if you wanted the Irish to answer the bell, you couldn’t have been disappointed.

 

Everett Golson. Notre Dame’s quarterback was excellent on Saturday night. He was accurate throwing the football, and more importantly, threw the ball on time and in the rhythm of the offense.  Golson’s three touchown passes and 315 yards were only marred by a late second quarter interception, a throw that was the result of a miscommunication between Golson and Amir Carlisle, and a playcall Brian Kelly took the blame for.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about Golson was his ability to use his feet both to move the chains as well as to buy time in and outside of the pocket. His three rushing touchdowns came on just nine official carries, and while sack yardage took a hit on his totals, he was elusive and productive, especially in the red zone.

 

Tarean Folston. He was excellent on Saturday. Running for big yardage and making the type of reads and cuts that reward running backs with patience and vision. The Irish sophomore took over the No. 1 job just as Brian Kelly asked him to do, and reminded the staff of this every time they tried to give Cam McDaniel carries.

As I tweeted during the broadcast, everybody is a fan of McDaniel and the work he’s done as a leader both on and off the field. But he’s not even close to as productive of a back as Folston is, and against Arizona State the Irish absolutely need to ride Folston.

After struggling to put Navy away, the Irish turned the keys back over to Folston. He ran intelligently, then broke Navy’s back with a big play sneaking out of the backfield and converting the game-clincher on a 3rd-and-6 catch and run. (The officials marked him out at the 2-yard line. I’d have liked to see the replay.)

 

Responding Quickly. While we’re going to hammer the Irish for giving up the lead in the third quarter, it’s worth praising them for answering Navy’s lead almost immediately. Golson calmly led the Irish back down the field, converting a nice third down to Ben Koyack and marching down the field quickly. Golson capped the drive off with a much-needed touchdown.

From there, the Irish got a rare punt from Navy, and if you wondered whether Brian Kelly would feel like shortening the game and running some clock, you don’t know Notre Dame’s head coach. A big pass play down the field to Chris Brown hit on first down. And Tarean Folston dashed into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.

Just like that, the Irish were back up 42-31.

 

The Kids on Defense. No, they didn’t necessarily play all that well. But getting major snaps for guys like Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan is something that’s going to pay dividends in the future, and maybe even before 2015. The Irish defense will need Morgan to be ready for this weekend, with an Arizona State offense likely very happy that Joe Schmidt won’t be able to answer the bell.

But the fact that Martini, Morgan, James Onwualu, Jacob Matuska, Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti, Drue Tranquill and a host of other kids had to play crucial minutes as the Irish were in a flat-spin out to sea (a little Top Gun imagery for the occasion) will be something that helps the program in the long run.

Keenan Reynolds and the Navy offense took advantage of the Irish youth on the field, but it’ll pay off in the future.

 

The other guys. While it wasn’t Will Fuller‘s best day at the office (he dropped a sure touchdown on a perfect throw by Golson), it was a good day for the complementary guys. Chris Brown had two big catches for 82 yards. Ben Koyack had a touchdown among his five catches for 54 yards. And C.J. Prosise made the game’s first big play, recovered a Navy onside kick, and had another big gainer on a jet sweep. Nice day at the office by the guys behind the guys.

Corey Robinson was quiet after a big game against Florida State. But the Irish passing game got things done from their supporting cast.

 

THE BAD

Special Teams. With two opportunities to ice the football game, kicker Kyle Brindza snap-hooked one miss and had another blocked. That’s another week with really shoddy execution when push came to shove on the field goal unit.

Perhaps it was out of respect of Ken Niumatalolo’s gambling ways, but when Navy punted, Notre Dame seemed fine with the fair catch. That limited Cody Riggs’ opportunity to get any return yards on his three attempts. But Riggs had another near disaster with ball security, dropping then recovering a muffed punt that could’ve given Navy the ball deep in Irish territory.

Both mistakes — missing field goals and muffing punt returns — are tight-rope acts that will burn the Irish sooner than later. And it’s something that needs to get cleaned up ASAP.

 

Letting Navy Back Into It. Things looked in perfect control. With just over seven minutes to go in the half, the Irish had Navy in a 2nd and long after Max Redfield made a nice breakup on a pass play.

But from there, the Midshipmen got after the Irish. Navy started to rip off big plays running to the boundary side of the field. That left an offensive tackle blocking a safety, nobody on the pitchman, and a three-man front to give up massive yardage. On two straight plays with a three-man front, Navy responded with gigantic gainers by the pitch man.

Navy used a counter option to get the Irish defense out of position, leading to another big play for a touchdown. Then came Notre Dame’s interception, a score on the first possession of the third quarter, and we had a ball game.

If you’re looking for a recipe on how to let an opponent back in, just pull up this 15 minutes of football whenever you’re wondering.

 

Injuries.  The loss of Schmidt is a killer. But if the injuries to Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day linger, the middle of the Irish defense could be really suspect at a time where they’re really needed.

We’ll hear more on Tuesday about the health of this football team. But another year and another costly injury loss against Navy.

Situational Defense. Writing RUSH DEFENSE in the bad column is kind of a joke, because it’s a mediocre observation you could make by simply looking at the box score. But if there was something really disappointing about the performance on the defensive side of the ball it was the lack of situational success the Irish had.

For as frustrating as Everett Golson’s interception was, it’s even more ridiculous that it turned into anything more than a missed opportunity. That Navy managed to get a receiver behind the Irish defense when everybody in the stadium knew they were throwing is ridiculous. Kelly mentioned that there was a collision between Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini, but that’s a back-breaking play that just can’t happen.

Also, the Irish were in great position to short-circuit Navy’s first offensive series of the second half when they had the Midshipmen backed up in 3rd-and-9. But once again, the Irish got beat to the short-side of the field on an option pitch play, moving the chains, keeping the drive alive and starting their rally.

Leading 28-24, Navy escaped after being in a 3rd-and-13, too. It turned into a 4th-and-2, and then one play later, Navy had the lead. You’re going to give up some yardage to Navy. That’s going to happen. But you can’t make critical, big-picture mistakes against the Midshipmen.

 

Sealing the Deal. For as good as Notre Dame’s offense looked early — the Irish had 215 yards in the first quarter — the Irish offense plain stunk when they had a chance to end the game without any more drama than necessary.

The kids on defense put Notre Dame in perfect position to end this game with ten minutes remaining. Already up 42-31, the Irish defense stopped Navy on a 4th-and-3 in their own territory, a huge stand by a group that had been picked on for the entire third quarter.

Well the offense laid an egg from there, with the offensive line unable to open anything up for Tarean Folston on first and second downs, and failed to convert on a 3rd-and-7 screen pass where the Irish really wanted to keep the clock running. Kyle Brindza’s snap hook gave the ball back to Navy with no harm done.

The very next series, Notre Dame’s defense made the play needed, intercepting Keenan Reynolds on an acrobatic play by Justin Utupo and quarterback pressure by Sheldon Day and James Onwualu. And again, the Irish offense stunk it up, this time missing a pass on first down, having McDaniel go for next to nothing on second down and the Irish failed to convert on third down. This time, Brindza’s field goal attempt was blocked after Matt Hegarty was steamrolled up the middle. Navy went down and scored a touchdown and converted the two-point play.

Two key opportunities to score points and end this game. Two critical misses by the Irish.

 

Quick Hits:

* Niumatalolo certainly has a feel for the dramatic. Last year, he went for the throat on a critical fourth down, calling for a reverse instead of being happy with getting a first down conversion. It burnt him. This year, Navy went for the jugular, with Noah Copeland attempting a throwback pass on 3rd-and-6 that Keenan Reynolds couldn’t reel in. While Jaylon Smith was in coverage, it was a ball that Reynolds probably should’ve had.

That’s two straight years where Navy’s big trick play didn’t connect. And two straight years where Notre Dame’s very happy they didn’t.

(Maybe Cody Riggs felt badly and decided to muff the punt out of pity. Or not.)

* I know Brian Kelly can’t wait to put the Navy files away until next year. But after talking about analytics last week and self-scouting, he and Brian VanGorder are going to want to stay out of three down linemen sets. With rare exception, they were disastrous.

* Time to spend a few plays working on the screen game. It was pretty shoddy after being an effective part of the offensive game plan against Florida State.

(And for those that looked twice at Golson’s throw to Chris Brown that was overturned on video replay after falling short, it was a bad job not just by Golson, but Ronnie Stanley, whose whiff on the block made it hard for Golson to step and throw.)

 

THE UGLY

Wasn’t it all pretty ugly? After looking like a very good ugly through about the first 18 minutes, the Irish let Navy back in the game, a reminder to this young team that a killer instinct isn’t a part-time hobby.

But between the multiple injuries, a number of scares and a game that was competitive way longer than it should’ve been, it was your average, ugly game between Notre Dame and Navy.

For the faint of heart, take this Saturday off next fall and just check in on Sunday.