SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perhaps there is something witty to quip about a player with “pool” in his name having a record-setting day against Navy, but what Chase Claypool did during No. 16 Notre Dame’s 52-20 blowout was anything but witty. Claypool was acrobatic, sure-handed and downright dominating in tying the Irish record with four touchdown receptions in a game. As a whole, Notre Dame matched Claypool’s excellence.
While the Irish struggled to consistently reach that standard early in the season, this was their second impressive performance in a row, a run that extends into the end of their 21-20 victory against Virginia Tech on Nov. 2. Head coach Brian Kelly sensed the strong play was going to continue Saturday, rather than return to only sporadic showings.
“I could tell in pregame that Navy was in trouble,” Kelly said. “They really were. And that’s just the maturation of a group of guys that needed to figure out how to go from preparation phase to playing phase.”
Maturing from preparation to playing might as well sum up both Claypool’s career and season, culminating in this record day. The first three of Ian Book’s five touchdown passes went to Claypool, making the senior receiver wait until the third quarter to tie Maurice Stovall’s 19-year-old record.
With that twisting 20-yard snag, Claypool had four scores and Book five, the third time this season he has thrown five touchdowns in one game. Ranked No. 23 in the most recent rendition of the College Football Playoff poll, the Midshipmen (7-2) were expected to be a much stiffer challenge than either New Mexico or Bowling Green.
Claypool and Book made sure they were not.
“He’s throwing the ball up and giving me a chance to make a play,” Claypool said. “I’m happy that I’m able to make some plays for him just to build that trust a little more.”
As impressive as the offensive explosion was — and few other words suffice to describe a day when Book went 14-of-20 for 284 passing yards and five touchdowns, when Claypool caught seven passes for 117 yards, when Notre Dame (8-2) gained 300 yards before halftime — the Irish defense held Navy’s triple-option attack in check just as effectively.
By holding the Midshipmen to only 151 first-half yards, on a 4.08 yards per play average, Notre Dame’s defense gave its offense a chance to build that early lead rather than sit on the sideline watching endless and mundane Navy drives. Instead of the Midshipmen draining the clock — they finally strung together a typical 18-play drive in the fourth quarter, reminding all of the impressive but numbing ability of the triple-option attack — the Irish defense set up three touchdown drives by forcing fumbles.
Notre Dame got the ball back quickly, and it never needed long to score. At one point, Book connected on four touchdowns within eight Irish plays for 156 yards. A scoreless game was suddenly 28-0.
It was that kind of day for the Irish, one of sheer dominance, which Claypool embodied, against a ranked opponent best-known for minimizing the effects of a talent differential. The Irish emphasized their talent advantage Saturday, Claypool most of all.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Claypool’s first touchdown was only from seven yards out, but it underscored how much of a mismatch he would be for Navy as much as any of the following three would. Plenty of crossing routes become scores, but not that many become so easy a player can relish the last few yards. Claypool could.
Yet, the Midshipmen put a linebacker on him on the next drive, a result of Notre Dame motion designed to create a likely mismatch. Neither Claypool nor Book had to think much about what to do next.
“We knew it was a mismatch or a miscommunication of some sort, because we hadn’t seen that on film ever, and it hasn’t even happened this year,” Claypool said. “I think Ian knew it right away. I knew it right away. I was running down the field with a big smile on my face before the ball was even thrown.”
47 yards later and Claypool had given the Irish a commanding lead. Book kept going to him, including that tough catch along the sideline for the record-tying score.
“Chase always has the juice,” Book said. “He’s always talking and he’s such a confident person, like he should be. You can tell when he gets on a roll. You want to keep giving him the ball. Even though it might not be the clearest look, he’s going to come down with it, and that’s the best. Makes my job a lot easier.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The triple-option tightens its grip only as a game remains tied or within one-possession. As long as that is the case, that offense can take as long as is needed to score, and by taking so long, it can reduce the effects of any discrepancies between the two rosters. When Navy responded to Claypool’s first score by methodically taking 11 plays and more than six minutes to move 48 yards, a tie game seemed likely, the beginnings of a long afternoon for Notre Dame.
Then, senior defensive end Khalid Kareem swatted the ball out of Midshipmen quarterback Malcolm Perry’s grasp. Fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal recovered the loose ball at the 27-yard line. Two plays later, Claypool had scored again.
“Any time you get Navy to turn the football over, [the turnovers are] going to be huge for you,” Kelly said. “We were active, we were fast, we were physical. They hadn’t played a team quite like that all year. It’s difficult, we talk so much about our inability to map the speed of the triple-option; well, they can’t map the speed of our defense.”
Kareem would force another fumble, that one coming when he was blocked but could see the ball just ahead of him as Perry pondered a pitch and Kareem “just kind of tapped it out.”
“Coach was saying, when we’re tackling this week for the option, wrap up but also have the outside hand up to tip the ball,” Kareem said. “Paul did that today and scored.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Kareem was referring to Irish sophomore linebacker Paul Moala, who forced and recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown all in one motion. He may have been cheating off his assignment a bit, but the ploy worked.
“I was supposed to play the quarterback to the pitch, so I got lucky enough to be able to get him to pitch the ball a little early,” Moala said.
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s 273-game sell-out streak reached its official conclusion with an announced crowd of 74,080 falling short of the Stadium’s 77,622 capacity. This was expected all week and was, of course, only a matter of time as attendance suffers at sporting events nationwide.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
Claypool came to South Bend from British Columbia. He got on recruiting radars by dominating games against competition that Kelly could not help but acknowledge was inferior. Back then, that served the effect of forcing Kelly to fly to the northwest to assess Claypool in person — there was no way he could be as dominant as the film suggested.
Thus, Kelly was the only person in the media room Saturday not shocked by the following exchange …
Reporter: “I know you had big games in high school, but have you ever caught four touchdown passes before in a game?”
Claypool: “I haven’t caught four touchdown passes.”
Reporter: “You ran some in or something?”
Claypool: “Yeah … [slightest of delays] … I had 10 one time.”
The entire press corps: “What?!?!”
Claypool explained it was actually a game much like the win against Navy, one in which his team — in eighth grade — knew it needed to maximize possessions against a triple-option attack.
“It was against our rival, No. 1 team in the league. They ran a triple-option, so similar to this team. We knew that every possession we got was kind of going to be important. We just had a good game plan. Went out there and ran around a little bit.”
9:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 7-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Navy 0. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:21)
3:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 47-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Navy 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:23)
12:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 3-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Navy 0. (4 plays, 39 yards, 1:35)
10:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 70-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Navy 0. (1 play, 70 yards, 0:09)
4:45 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. Notre Dame 31, Navy 0. (7 plays, 29 yards, 3:23)
1:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Navy 3. (9 plays, 72 yards, 1:24)
0:00 — Navy field goal. Bijan Nichols 27 yards. Notre Dame 38, Navy 3. (9 plays, 72 yards, 1:24)
9:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 27-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Navy 3. (7 plays, 78 yards, 2:09)
1:42 — Navy touchdown. Mychal Cooper 43-yard pass from Perry Olsen. Nichols PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Navy 10. (7 plays, 74 yards, 3:36)
14:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Paul Moala 27-yard fumble return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Navy 10.
5:31 — Navy touchdown. Olsen 2-yard rush. Nichols PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Navy 17. (18 plays, 75 yards, 9:08)
1:18 — Navy field goal. Nichols 36-yard field goal. Notre Dame 52, Navy 20. (6 plays, 25 yards, 2:01)