Five things we learned: Notre Dame 44, Army 6

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In a season filled with unpredictable results, Notre Dame’s one-sided victory fit the bill. Because even if the Irish had the Black Knights over-powered and out-manned at every position, their 44-6 blowout victory wasn’t one many saw coming.

But a week after Navy’s triple-option kept the Irish offense off the field, Notre Dame’s defense responded. And lined up against the nation’s No. 6 defense, the Irish physically dominated with a 38-point first half that made for a extraordinarily comfortable final 30 minutes.

In a Shamrock Series game that lacked any distinguishable storylines, the Irish—to their credit—made sure this one featured no drama. And after C.J. Sanders took back the opening kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown, the Irish forced a punt, scored on their next drive, and were on their way.

In a much-needed easy win, the Irish got their fourth victory of the season. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Army isn’t Navy. But the Irish did a much better job of dictating terms. 

Fast starts are the name of the game against a triple-option opponent. And with C.J. Sanders spotting the Irish an early special teams score and the Notre Dame’s defense breaking serve on the first series, the Irish made sure they didn’t allow last weekend to repeat itself.

Of course, playing Army helped. So did a few early yellow flags—thrown against the Black Knights but kept in the referees’ pockets against the Midshipmen.

But credit is owed to the team who sprinted out of the gate and ended this football game before halftime. And scoring on all six first-half drives (five touchdowns) while forcing Army to punt on their first two touches made certain that the latest Shamrock Series game in San Antonio was just as one-sided as the series debut back in 2009.

 

DeShone Kizer’s confidence is growing just in time for two games that’ll test him the most. 

We knew Army’s defense hadn’t played many tough offenses on their way to a statistically dominant season. But that doesn’t take away from DeShone Kizer’s impressive afternoon. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played another efficient game, throwing for three touchdowns while completing 17 of 28 throws and running for 72 yards as the Irish offense rolled.

Once again, Kizer played distributor. This time, with the Notre Dame offense without senior captain Torii Hunter, he spread the ball around to 11 different receivers, as Hunter’s replacement, freshman Kevin Stepherson, paced the attack with five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. (That number would’ve looked a lot better had Stepherson reeled in a well-thrown deep ball that went through the freshman’s hands.)

A second-half red zone interception ruined an otherwise perfect day, but Kizer continues to make improvements, with the offense incredibly efficient on third downs, converting 10 of 13 as Notre Dame won the possession battle, controlling the ball for over 34 minutes.

“He’s maturing as a quarterback. He got the game ball,” Kelly of Kizer postgame. “I liked his leadership all week. I liked his toughness.”

 

An additional week of preparation and a simplified scheme helped the Irish slow down Army’s triple-option. 

The chess match that Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper won last week flipped the other way this weekend. And simplification of the defensive scheme might have helped. Postgame, Army coach Jeff Monken said the Irish played them with just one coverage scheme and alternated between two fronts. That’s down from the five different looks that Monken saw Irish throw at the Midshipmen on tape.

Some of that was because Army quarterbacks Chris Carter and Malik McGue can’t throw the football like Will Worth. The Irish surviving in man coverage all game certainly helped the front seven. A big part of that was the trust the staff continued to put in freshmen like Julian Love and Donte Vaughn.

Love slid to safety and delivered another solid game—a goal-line interception and a tackle for loss highlights for the true freshmen. Vaughn did a nice job not being noticed (always a good feature for a cornerback against an option team), tipping a ball that Cole Luke nearly intercepted on one of Army’s eight passing attempts.

More important than the play of the young secondary was getting off the field. A week after Navy kept possession of the football by converting 12 of 18 third and fourth-down attempts, the Black Knights were just four of 14 on the same two critical downs.

Postgame, captain James Onwualu, who led the Irish with 13 tackles and a sack, was asked about what made the difference. Familiarity was a big key.

“I think it’s more of just getting guys used to it,” Onwualu said. “Having that back to back helped a lot.”

 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame won the special teams battle. 

We’ve been tough on Scott Booker’s special teams unit. But Saturday it was the Irish who preyed on a deficient third phase. So between the opening touchdown and taking advantage of Army’s inability to kick and punt, Notre Dame had a rare win in all phases of the game.

Sanders opening touchdown was a nice start. But don’t discount the Irish learning from their previous mistakes, with Durham Smythe routinely fair-catching an Army pooch kick that tried to catch the Irish napping was a win.

So a nice day by Chris Finke returning punts, no attempts by Tyler Newsome and the Irish routinely winning the field position battle all added to a rare clean day on special teams.

 

It wasn’t flashy. But a win in the Shamrock Series lets the Irish continue to fight for their postseason life. 

There are no grand declarations after a victory over Army. Especially in a game where Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken pointed out the obvious—these two teams don’t really belong on the same field. But as the university puts to rest (temporarily) their annual barnstorm, a win over Army on Veterans Day weekend reminds everybody—on a week where sports certainly took a backseat—that games against the service academies have a different importance as well.

“We play these games for a reason,” Kelly said after the game. “Navy and Army are tough teams to play. But when you’re done playing the game, there’s just a natural respect for how they do their business. In the classroom, out of the classroom, their preparation, their sacrifice. And then to go on the football field and compete against them and share in signing the alma mater together, it makes it a special event.”

A fourth win at least guarantees that this won’t be a historically terrible season. And getting out of the game healthy ensures that Notre Dame will be ready next week to battle a Virginia Tech team that just saw how difficult it is to stop the option themselves.

The win does little to advance any cause—big or little, macro or micro. But it does allow a young team the chance to build confidence against the option for next year and go into Senior Day with some positive momentum.

You can only win one game a Saturday. And in a season where the Irish have found new and depressing ways to lose them, a win is a win is a win. And with the triple option behind them, Onwualu said it best postgame to Kathryn Tappen.

“We’re going to have to get back to playing normal football.”