Old School

Notre Dame's players, five recruiting classes strong, responded to a week of discourse and drama with an old fashioned beating of recent foil Navy.

Less than 48 hours after Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pushed his team's internal problems between the lines into a needless national, controversy outside them, he and his Fighting Irish squad turned back the clock with a 56-14 beating of visiting Navy.

Kelly's commanding victory avenged a 35-17 loss at the hands of the Midshipmen last season, as well as the 23-21 defeat many of his players suffered while playing under former head coach, Charlie Weis.

And therein, unfortunately, lies the story.

Kelly's Thursday comments regarding the players "he recruited" vs. those brought in by the previous regime were widely circulated. Players admitted anger, confusion, and disgust.

And not all of those emotions were masked by the convenient cloak of social media outlets.

"I don't have a Twitter. I kind of found out via text," said team captain Harrison Smith. "When we came in and had our first thing on Friday, I started talking to everyone to get a feel of the team.

"There was a lot of confusion; misunderstanding," he continued. "That happens in a game like football where emotion plays such a big part."

It played a part in Saturday's destruction of Navy, previous winners of two straight at the Stadium and three of the last four in the series overall. Notre Dame rushed for seven touchdowns including three from Jonas Gray, a senior making his first start for the Kelly regime and one that has been a destructive backfield force since he opened the season with the fumble that won't go away.

"I was just a guy people can lean on; people can talk to," Gray said of the weekend controversy. "Always trying to stay positive. There was only one way for us to go; things could only go downhill if we took the latter (route) and that was my role: being a leader, but also letting them know what to expect and how to handle it."

Gray has run with a vengeance since his oft-referenced first carry, yesterday rushing for 69 yards on a game-high 12 carries; augmented by a 11-rush, 66-yard, two-touchdown effort from junior Cierre Wood.

"I played extremely angry. I had a bad week last week," Wood said of his paltry five rushing yards and costly fumble in a loss to his home state team USC. "I practiced hard all week and the results showed."

Notre Dame out-gained the Midshipmen by a 442-229 margin – more important, it held Navy to just 196 rushing yards on 50 carries (3.9 per) and a mere 127 on 38 rushes during the game's three competitive quarters.

Take Back the Trenches

Navy's fullback Alexander Teich and Vince Murray combined for an astounding 420 rushing yards over the teams' previous two matchups. Teich returned after his 210-yard effort last season but was held in check Saturday, earning 62 yards the hard way on 15 carries, few of which carried consequence.

"A great victory for our football team today against a team in Navy that has been very difficult for us to defend, obviously," Kelly noted post game. "I think we can put to rest our ability to defend against a very, very good offensive football team."

An overstatement, considering Navy was operating without starting quarterback Kriss Proctor? Sure, but one rendered irrelevant when Kelly's crew finished 7 for 7 in the red zone – scoring seven touchdowns, to boot.

Gray's three scores gave him eight on the season; Wood has the same, the pair both posting the highest total for a Notre Dame runner since Darius Walker rumbled for 12 rushing scores in 2005.

"We're used to adversity," Gray said. "We're strong-minded individuals and our coaches do a great job of communicating to us how to come back from adversity. We rally around each other each time our backs are against the wall."

As for handling success rather than adversity going forward?

"That's the next step. That's where this program needs to be headed."

The program is headed in a positive direction because of its young defensive front seven, notably true freshman defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who starred in his first career start. Tuitt posted seven tackles for the second straight week in support of Game MVP Manti Te'o.

Te'o, named this week as a semi-finalist for both the Butkus and Lombardi awards, registered a game-high 13 tackles including 2.5 for lost yardage. Te'o did not play in the fourth quarter due to the game's wide margin. He made an impression on Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo nonetheless.

"We could not block Manti," he said. "We've been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him but the kid played phenomenal.

"Give Bob (Diaco) credit," Niumatalolo noted of Notre Dame's recently embattled defensive coordinator. "I thought they had a good plan and Manti played well."

Kelly offered that the Irish defensive alignment was similar to that used in wins over option teams Army (2010) and Air Force earlier this month.

"Our front was outstanding. Our two inside guys didn't give much, you're not going to talk a lot about them – Tuitt and (Sean) Cwynar – they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played well."

Redshirt-freshman Louis Nix added to the interior push, notching six tackles in a reserve role.

Moving On…

Kelly chose to keep the terms of his apology and/or explanation of his words regarding his team's "DNA" in-house, noting post-game that it was a rough week for the Notre Dame family.

"As a family, we all have good days and bad days. And you work through that as a family, and we had to work through some things this week," he offered. "We communicated with each other as a team and as a family and you saw it today. You saw a team that played together."

Smith, Notre Dame's most accomplished statistical player defensively and its longest tenured starter, concurs that the squad has put Kelly's surprising comments in its rear view.

"I felt I needed to step up and let the players and the coaches know how I felt," he said. "I tried to talk to a lot of guys (Friday) and see how everyone else felt. Being a barrier between players and coaches, I felt I needed to play my part.

"Everyone wanted to know what was in each others' hearts," he continued. "We laid it on the line. We already know that we have each others' backs but it was a re-assurance."

Did Kelly's verbal sticks and stones Thursday play a part in the team's convincing win Saturday?

"I honestly think it had a big impact on it," Smith said. "Not that it went into the game plan or the scheme but it showed that we're all in this together and we all play for each other and Notre Dame.

"I think there are a lot of things that go on if you play football here or you coach here. It's very emotional," he offered. "Things happen and you deal with them and move forward. I think maybe it was a good thing that all this happened; it tested our bonds and maybe even strengthened them."

Curiously, Notre Dame's sideline appeared far more animated prior to the opening kickoff Saturday against 2-5 Navy than it did vs. arch-rival USC last week.

And whether the team or staff would admit to the reality or not, they were better prepared and more focused this week than when they had a chance to regain college football (on field) relevance entering the prime time showdown last week vs. the Trojans.

Its par for the course for Notre Dame's puzzling present, but today, a win was all that mattered.

But it was one win, and in the words of Gray – Notre Dame's most improved player this season – its time for this program to take the next step...handling success through November would suffice.


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