Highlights — Notre Dame 34, Navy 6: Kevin Austin’s 70-yard touchdown set up by defense


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Highlights become videos atop articles. Highlights end up in headlines. Highlights drive search-engine traffic. But so much of football can be lost when looking at highlights.

The highlight that mattered most in No. 10 Notre Dame’s 34-6 win against Navy on Saturday was a 70-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Kevin Austin at the end of the first half.

“No doubt it helped,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after his ninth win in 11 meetings in the longest-standing Notre Dame series.

Austin gave the Irish (8-1) a two-possession lead against a ground-bound offense that was struggling on the ground. Kyren Williams’ touchdown a couple minutes earlier proved to be the winning score, but Austin’s catch-and-dash sealed the game for Notre Dame no matter how much time remained.

It would not have been possible without the Irish defense. That was where the real success hid.

After Williams’ score, the Midshipmen got the ball back with 2:46 remaining in the half. A triple-option offense can devour 2:46 without even trying to. A single first down would have essentially ended the half.

“Thought we managed the back half of the second quarter pretty good,” Kelly said. “We wanted to see how we were playing there defensively to decide how to use timeouts.”

If Notre Dame could keep Navy to a gain of four yards or fewer on first down, essentially not letting the Midshipmen get ahead of the chains, then the Irish would proceed with expectations of getting the ball back before halftime. And note, Navy was likely content to chew the clock considering it would get the ball to start the second half and the idea of scoring in 2:46 is a terrifying one to a triple-option offense.

Fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish got to the Midshipmen ball carrier for a loss of one yard. Navy was going to struggle to gain 11 yards on two plays when it had managed just 57 yards on 22 plays to that point, including a trio of three-and-outs on four possessions.

After the Midshipmen gained one yard on second down, Notre Dame called its first timeout of the half. The second followed a third-down rush for no gain.

Why wait to call that first timeout? Could it not have been used after Hinish’s tackle for loss.

“Anytime we have one timeout with 1:10, 1:15 (remaining), we feel like we’re in pretty good shape to be aggressive,” Kelly said.

The thought tracks. Simply having that timeout makes the defense defend the entire field in a way the additional 35-40 seconds on the game clock would not, not to mention the calming effects it could have preceding a field goal attempt.

The Irish had the ball back with 1:50 to score, needing to cover 95 yards. Time to throw, right? Not so fast. These deliberate and planned thoughts are what lead to the highlight, not just the situation.

“Typical two-minute drive, if you try to get too much too soon, you end up punting the football back to them,” Kelly said. “I thought we were going to be able to get the ball out of what was, in our eyes, a vulnerable position at the end of the half.”

In other words, throw an incompletion on first down and suddenly the possibility arises of junior Jay Bramblett punting from Notre Dame’s own end zone, a moment temping disaster. A few runs from Williams could create the space to operate while also eating some of the clock to deprive Navy of the chance to deploy any low-risk, high-reward gimmicks.

“If you don’t get out to at least the 30-yard line — I was happy to run the football there, get a little bit of breathing room, and then take some shots,” Kelly said.

The Irish got to exactly the 30-yard line on a check-down pass to Williams. That play did little but deprive Austin of three more yards on his stat line of six catches for 139 yards.

“We ran the same play before, I knew I was open the play before,” Austin said. “So I was like, ‘I’m open, I’m open,’ on the sideline. Coach Kelly is yelling at [quarterback Jack Coan]. We run the play again, and obviously, the result speaks for itself.”

A defensive stand, plotted timeouts, patience in the shadow of the goal line and sideline communication, albeit perhaps confrontational sideline communication. That’s what led to the highlight that sealed the Irish victory before halftime.

Kelly said Notre Dame planned that play all week, running four verticals in a moment ripe for a big shot, though the plan may have not included running the play twice. The Irish defense had no such luxury in planning, done in not only by the scout team helmed by defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, but also by injury.

Kelly gave the game ball to Hinish, who finished with 10 tackles including two for loss, not to mention being part of the pressure that forced a fourth-quarter safety. Deserved, but credit should go to fifth-year linebacker Drew White, as well.

White has been playing through injury for a few weeks now, something Kelly acknowledged on Monday, but then this week he added a PCL tear to his concerns. Against an opponent best defended by veterans who already remember the frustrations of facing the triple-option, losing the captain would have been a near crisis. Freshman Prince Kollie has a promising future, but this was not the moment Notre Dame wanted to be his first notable action.

“We’re banking on Hinish and Drew, didn’t know if Drew would be able to play,” Kelly said. “He’s a warrior. [Director of athletic training] Rob Hunt was amazing, he moved in with [White] this week and got him ready. Drew just had the mental toughness to play through it.

“You had Hinish, you had Drew as the inside guys that really needed to come up big for us and they did.”

While White finished with only two tackles, in a very real way he may have been the most irreplaceable piece of the Irish defense. As White and junior JD Bertrand fight through injuries, only senior Bo Bauer can really fill in for either, and he is already playing plenty.  Next up on the depth chart would be Kollie and after him, a quandary.

“Drew is one of the most gritty, hard-working dudes that is on this team,” said Bertrand, who finished with nine tackles. “It’s crazy to see someone like that, questionable whether he’s going to be able to play, and then comes out here and has an amazing performance.

“It’s just awesome to follow his lead, learn from someone like that, be able to have someone that is able to lead our defense just like that.”

Back in 2012, playing in Dublin, Navy threw for 192 yards on 14-of-20 passing while rushing for 149 yards. In Kelly’s 11 games against the Midshipmen, that was the only occasion they rushed for fewer yards than Saturday’s 166.

Only once before had Kelly’s defense held Navy to fewer than 327 total yards, giving up 229 in 2011, a hefty step up from Saturday’s 184 total yards allowed.

“The keys were just eye discipline, knowing your role and knowing your job, making sure that you were at where you’re supposed to be,” junior linebacker Jack Kiser said after his afternoon-long cameo at safety. “That’s for any position against this offense. If one guy is out of position, they can be very explosive.”

This was, quite clearly, tangibly and literally, the best Notre Dame defensive showing against the Midshipmen during Kelly’s 12 years. Coming a week after North Carolina found some success against the Irish defense, any stout showing is a pertinent stout showing, especially one against the incessant triple-option.

“This is a work in progress for us,” Kelly said. “We like the step we took today because the communication was really good and the tackling was much better.”

Admittedly, some of Navy’s struggles tied to its own personnel. There is a reason it is 2-7. 

“The ‘19 team that Navy had had better all-around talent across the board,” Kelly said before pointing out that exact dynamic is part of the logic behind the triple-option. “This could have been, in terms of fits, inside-out, as good as we’ve fit the option in quite some time.”

That game took two hours and 59 minutes.

Facing the triple-option can be frustrating for players and monotonous for fans, but it can also be an exercise in viewing efficiency. The 2017 tilt took 2:52. Even when the Midshipmen disassembled Notre Dame in 2010, winning 35-17 thanks to 367 rushing yards, the game lasted only 2:50.

“I don’t want to play against him, let me tell you that.” — Kiser on Hinish.

The Notre Dame record-holder for games played, whose season was in question just a few weeks ago, made his mark Saturday, over and over again. In his fifth season, his career has been underappreciated. If leading the way in the best defensive performance against the Midshipmen during Kelly’s tenure is what Hinish ends up remembered for, there are worse accomplishments to remember a career by.