It looked like just another careless mistake—this one only caught by replay officials during an extended commercial break. But the result was another Notre Dame special teams calamity that ends up being the difference between a win and a loss.
The Irish’s 28-27 loss to Navy has many culprits, but none more striking than the 12th man on the field for Scott Booker’s special teams. And of all the catastrophic special teams blunders that have infected this season, this time it was Notre Dame’s inability to field a properly-sized unit that re-routed the football game.
Beause the 4th-and-6 mistake caught after a long TV timeout turned a Navy punt into a five-yard penalty, returning the Midshipmen to the field as they converted the 4th-and-1. That gift allowed Navy to put together their longest scoring drive of the season, a 16-play, nine-minute opus, a clock-eating, game killer that gave the Midshipmen just enough points to pull off the upset.
As the Irish fall to 3-6 and lose their first game to Navy since 2010, let’s find out what we learned.
When push came to shove, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t get off the field.
With the game on the line and the young Irish defense asked to get a stop, they couldn’t do it. Navy made all the big plays down the stretch, converting third and fourth downs to win the football game.
The Midshipmen converted eight of 13 third downs. They converted four of five fourth downs. And those chain-moving plays allowed Navy to hold Notre Dame to just six offensive possessions, the lowest in a college football game since 2008, when the Midshipmen held Northern Illinois to the same number.
At no time were those conversions more critical than in the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame’s special teams gift, the Mids capped off their nine-minute drive with a 27-yard rushing touchdown by Will Worth, a 3rd-and-7 conversion that began a string of clutch plays for the Navy offense.
After Brian Kelly decided to kick a field goal to pull the game to within a point, Navy ate the game’s final 7:28, never giving the Irish the ball back, even as Kelly used all three of his timeouts to try and control the clock.
The defense had their chances. After getting a break on Donte Vaughn’s downfield coverage, Navy drew a pass interference flag on Nick Coleman, the sophomore out of the doghouse after Julian Love left the game with a head injury. Coleman had a chance to make a play on the football, but instead ran through the receiver, moving the chains on third down with a pass interference penalty.
From there, the Navy did it again and again, gaining six on 3rd-and-7 before converting a Worth sneak on 4th-and-1.
Even as the Irish managed to get Navy behind the chains, the Mids fought their way out of it. With the Irish burning their timeouts and turning 2nd-and-9 into a 4th-and-6 for the ball game, Worth found senior receiver Jamir Tillman for the game-clinching catch. It was Navy’s fourth conversion on fourth down that afternoon, a brutal back-breaking efficiency that allowed Navy to end the game in victory formation.
With just six opportunities to score, DeShone Kizer missed one too many times.
Early in the second quarter after the defense turned over Navy with a fourth-down stop, DeShone Kizer missed his chance to go for Navy’s throat. The junior quarterback got the matchup he was looking for—freshman Kevin Stepherson against a linebacker. But Kizer air-mailed the throw, missing long when Stepherson had nobody close to him, turning an easy touchdown into an incompletion. Two plays later, the Irish would punt.
Kizer did a lot of good things on Saturday afternoon, completing 19 of 27 throws for 223 yards and three touchdowns. But being accurate with the football wasn’t one of them.
With the Navy secondary beat up and the Midshipmen defense selling out to stop the run, Kizer missed early and often with some easy possession throws. While he fought his way through the tough afternoon by converting a few critical third downs with his legs, it was missed pitch and catch opportunities—and blown reads—that ended up costing the Irish.
Kizer spoke earlier in the week about the need to convert opportunities. And even if the Irish only punted once, two of those six drives ended in field goals, the inability to get seven points costing the Irish in the end.
With just four games left in Kizer’s season, the talk with only amplify about the junior’s stay-or-go decision at year-end. And while most pundits see Kizer as a first-round talent and the prevailing wisdom around the program leads you to believe this will be at for him at the college level, there’s an awful lot of tape that leads you to believe that Kizer isn’t ready to step in at the NFL level—especially when it comes to accuracy.
Completing 70 percent of your throws is hardly the game to make this point. But in four of nine games this season Kizer has completed less than 60 percent of his throws. Add last year’s games at sub-60 percent against Clemson, Boston College, Stanford and Ohio State and that’s enough film to punch holes in the narrative that Kizer’s a premier quarterback, ready to change an NFL franchise’s fortunes.
That’s not to say Kizer won’t be the Irish quarterback to break Notre Dame’s cold streak at the next level. But before anybody punch’s the Toledo native’s ticket into the first round, he’ll need to show that his accuracy is ready for the challenge of the next level.
In an evenly matched football game, Scott Booker’s special teams let the Irish down. (Again.)
Each team had 21 first downs. Two yards separated the two teams offensive totals. Third down conversions, red zone attempts and yards per play were all closely aligned.
That’s what makes Notre Dame’s latest special teams nightmare so maddening. And that’s what makes the decision to keep Scott Booker in charge of this unit so difficult to contemplate moving forward.
Brian Kelly won’t likely fire his second assistant mid-season. But a week after watching C.J. Sanders give away a touchdown and Jalen Elliott brain-cramp in the middle of an onside kick attempt, Devin Studstill’s 12-men penalty is the latest self-inflicted mistake to cost the Irish dearly.
Kelly said after the game that two referees told him that Studstill had gotten off the field in time. The replay booth disagreed. And the head coach made it clear that he didn’t hold the referees accountable for the momentum changer.
“Navy won the game. I’m not here to cry over that call,” Kelly said.
So even if the rest of the special teams performance was fairly anonymous—it was Chris Finke in for Sanders on the punt that didn’t count—it still found a way to change this game. And at this point, we’re running out of excuses to make for Booker’s unit.
Another tight game, another coaching decision that went the wrong way for Brian Kelly.
With the Irish facing a 4th-and-4 and down four points in the fourth quarter, Kelly decided to trot out Justin Yoon to kick a 31-yard field goal. That brought the game to within one point, and necessitated the Irish defense to get a stop—one they couldn’t get.
After the game, Kelly was asked about the decision to take his offense off the field and put the game on his defense’s shoulders.
“I certainly thought about going for it. In hindsight, we didn’t get the ball back,” Kelly said in his postgame comments. “Even if they scored a touchdown we’d still have the opportunity to score and get the two-point conversion.”
That logic seemed understandable in real time, considering Kizer’s struggles and the Irish ground game’s modest production. But even without the benefit of hindsight, another conservative coaching decision gives you the feeling that maybe even the head coach has become gun-shy during this nightmarish run.
Notre Dame’s sixth one-possession loss follows the trend of coin-flip sequences that haven’t gone Notre Dame’s way. But at this point, you’ve got to wonder what Kelly is waiting for—the stats to change, or his team to go out and seize the moment.
Not going for two against Texas in overtime of the season opener is one thing. Not trying to rip back the lead in the middle of a mostly meaningless November game against Navy is another.
So if the head coach’s edict for his team is to play fast, play loose and play to win, it’s time for the coaching staff to do the same thing. And with a chance to take the lead and play aggressive, Kelly went the other way—and lost.
One team executed their game plan. The other team goes home with their sixth loss.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo won his third game against Notre Dame, clinching a bowl bid for the Midshipmen with the clutch victory. And after the game, all the kind things Kelly could say about his teams effort and passion were eclipsed by his praise for the Midshipmen.
“They executed flawlessly. It’s what we expect every time we play Navy,” Kelly said. “They made the plays necessary late.”
Those plays took the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands. That flawless execution included an incredible 12 of 18 conversion rate on third and fourth down. And with the Mids doing everything right and the Irish doing just enough wrong, the loss adds another black mark to a season that most wish would just end already, a bowl berth now requiring the herculean task of beating Army, Virginia Tech and USC.
Just days after putting the emphasis on a strong November, the Irish now go back to the drawing board. They’ll need to fix their safety play against the option to beat Army. They’ll need to get their offense on track to keep up with Virginia Tech and USC. And they’ll need to make all the right moves on the coaching front to get Kelly’s program back on track after this multi-car pileup.