In a half in which Notre Dame was outgained 166 yards to 18 and 13 first downs to one, outscored 19 points to 0 and outcoached by a 16-year coaching veteran facing first-year head coach Marcus Freeman, few Irish moments qualify as highlights. But one tackle early in the second half, before No. 20 Notre Dame (7-3) had begun to worry, both summed up the triple-option experience and likely saved the Irish from the stresses of overtime in their 35-32 win against Navy on Saturday.
Xavier Watts made his first impressions on defense a year ago against the Midshipmen, and with veteran safety Brandon Joseph sidelined by a sprained ankle, it should have been little surprise Watts led Notre Dame with eight tackles in Baltimore. When the game was still lopsided, 35-13 coming out of halftime, Watts correctly diagnosed Navy’s first-and-goal play call.
He scraped across the face of the entire play and got to Midshipmen slotback Vincent Terrell, taking him down for a one-yard loss, Watts’ sole tackle for loss. A one-yard loss may not sound like much, but Watts knocked Navy off schedule for the first time on its lengthy drive. For 13 straight plays, the Midshipmen had marched through the Irish a few yards at a time.
Watts stopped that.
As soon as the triple-option is knocked behind the chains, it struggles to catch up, as one should expect from an offense predicated on gaining three-to-five yards at a time. Watts single-handedly turned a Midshipmen scoring opportunity into a field-goal likelihood.
Maybe the Midshipmen would not have gotten into the end zone, but given 17 of 20 opponent drives into the Irish red zone have yielded touchdowns, entering the weekend, it was more likely than not as long as Navy kept the pressure on Notre Dame. Instead, Watts forced a 2nd-and-10. The Midshipmen gained one yard. Freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke up a third-down pass attempt, forcing a field goal.
Turning that presumed touchdown into a field goal provided the Irish the winning margin, even if the game was not yet in contention.
And to say it again, Watts did it single-handedly. Slot back Maquel Haywood backed up fifth-year safety DJ Brown. Receiver Jayden Umbarger engaged Mickey. Neither block was ideal, an embodiment of the new NCAA rules outlawing cut blocks outside the tackle box, but Terrell had a path to the 5- or 6-yard line. Navy would have remained on schedule.
Those little moments define both the triple-option offense and defending it properly. A one-yard loss costs a triple-option attack more than it does a usual offense, but it does not bestow significant glory on the defender making the tackle.
“Going against a triple-option, you have to be in the right spot at the right time,” sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie said after making seven tackles. “As you can tell, the dive will hit you if you’re not in the right spot.”
Notre Dame thought it had evaded such worries only four plays into the lengthy drive when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete. In retrospect, that could have turned the first-half rout into a game-long laugher, the Irish taking over inside Navy’s 30 and not yet devoid of offensive rhythm. But Brown was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Midshipmen a first down and 10 yards. Another 10-yard penalty on the drive would create the first-and-goal on which Watts stalled Navy.
“You’re up [35-13] at halftime, you kind of say hey, let’s be smart in the second half,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “We started really well, got to fourth-and-one, the [Brown penalty] or we stopped them — they got a pass interference, I think, on the fourth-and-one, and it kind of bled throughout the series and led to three points.”
It may have spoken to Freeman’s frustration with the penalty that he identified it incorrectly, though the difference between a defensive holding and a pass interference is minimal. Anecdotally, Freeman is quick with details after games. A few moments later, he caught his mistake.
“It was a 10-minute drive. It was really, the pass interference call, that kind of got you a little bit, because you stop them and then the flag comes in. I think it was defensive holding is what they called. You see the drive extend.”
That flag on Brown may have been the turning point of the game, what Freeman dwelled on afterward, but it was Watt’s subtle tackle that saved the eventual winning margin.
PFF has Xavier Watts down for 10 tackles, 2 assists, zero missed tackles, 6 stops, and 0 for 1 in coverage. Very good game from him in place of Brandon Joseph.
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) November 13, 2022
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame ran five plays in the third quarter.
The flag on Brown kept the drive alive, but more than anything else, that was Navy football. Criticizing Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees for a three-and-out after waiting 10 minutes into the third quarter before getting the ball misses the crux of the Midshipmen approach.
“The offense doesn’t get the ball until about a minute left in the third quarter,” Freeman said. “Really, that second drive was going into the fourth quarter. So one true drive in the third quarter, a three-and-out, that’s not what you want.”
The next drive, that one going into the fourth quarter, ended with yet another batted Pyne pass landing in the hands of a defender, gifting Navy a short field. Notre Dame may have given up 10 points to make things stressful, but the first drive would have ended if not for Brown’s flag and the second covered 23 yards total.
The third Midshipmen scoring drive in the second half, to make it a one-score game, was clearly the byproduct of garbage time.
“Little bit of a chess match, you don’t want to be able to just let teams run down the field, but at that moment, you’re up 10 or 11 points, and you say okay, we know it’s a two-score game, let’s be smart and not give up any easy big play pass,” Freeman said. “Make them earn every inch and keep the clock — because they were out of timeouts. That’s kind of what happened.”
#SCTop10 and it’s not 10@blspeedy21
🎥: @jon_asher #GoIrish pic.twitter.com/wC3H11vnuC
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 13, 2022
PLAY OF THE GAME
Play of the year, really. Play of Braden Lenzy’s career.
And it was underthrown.
Irish quarterback Drew Pyne saw Lenzy come open, a common moment this season, and he put his whole body behind the throw, only for it to end up behind the defender in front of Lenzy, also a somewhat common moment this season.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life,” Pyne said. “I’m so happy for him. He’s going to continue to keep getting better, as well.”
Lenzy breaks open more often than broadcast cameras highlight, a flaw of elevated sideline views.
“Braden is a guy that all season he has been open a ton of times,” Pyne said. “He runs as hard as he can. He’s a guy that in practice, he always has a smile on his face.”
As casual as reaching around someone at a crowded bar to grab a drink. (Photo: @mgoldman626, Getty Images) pic.twitter.com/lxMknRFUEc
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 13, 2022
QUOTE OF THE GAME
“As I told the team, first and foremost, no victory should be taken for granted,” Freeman said when he opened his postgame comments. “Congratulations on a hard-fought win.”
Sometimes Freeman can sound like he has been coaching Notre Dame for 12 seasons.
STAT OF THE YEAR
With its seventh punt block of the season and sixth in the last five games, the Irish special teams continued their dominance of opponents’ third phases.
They have a long way to go to be remembered in history. In 1975, Arkansas State blocked 11 punts. That team went 11-0, of course denied any national championship claim by its Southland Conference schedule.
Strong and true#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/C0tytsIePo
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 12, 2022