Notre Dame's 38-34 escape Saturday from a season-ending (yes, ending) upset at the hands of the Naval Academy won't go down in program annals among it most important, satisfying, or even thrilling wins (it's hard to be thrilled when your heavily favored, BCS-hopeful squad is taken to the mattresses by a team with zero future pros). But the necessity of the win can't be overstated.
The Irish survived, again, just as they did in mid-September against a terrible Purdue team and often last season, against both good and bad teams alike en route to 12-0.
Unlike Purdue, a bad team Notre Dame made look good, or Pittsburgh circa 2012, Navy is good at what they do, and Saturday in South Bend, they're were exceptional.
"Nobody runs this option as effectively, and when they are on and they're not turning the football over…and that's what they did today," said Kelly shortly after referring to outcome as a "great win."
"It's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on."
Ten Straight the Hard WayNotre Dame won it's tenth straight game decided by seven points or less, notable in that the beginning of the Kelly era saw his Irish fall in five of the first six such contests. They've learned to win, and because of that trait, are still positioned to fight into a BCS Bowl bid.
Ten straight is remarkable, even if a handful of the ten-spot included situations in which the Irish were the definitive favorite.
"We played the last two games here in different styles, USC/Notre Dame was a defensive effort that certainly we could talk about it all year in terms of the way our defense played, and then today we had to be flawless in the second half offensively," said Kelly. "That's the way you win football games, as a team. You don't win them on one side of the ball or the other. We were able to come up with a couple of key stops in the second half against Navy today that allowed us to put more points on the board than the Midshipmen."
Ample angst and hand-wringing over a "too close" outcome will reign through Irish nation today and thru the end of the week. It's allowed, Notre Dame probably shouldn't need 60 minutes to subdue Purdue or a USC team that traveled 48 scholarship players, or the Naval Academy. But fans and media are the only entities in college football that play the games on paper. Kona Schwenke, Ben Councell, Sheldon Day, and their still standing teammates keep getting their myriad rivals' best shot.
"I think Notre Dame goes through this every week," said Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "I mean, everybody gets up for Notre Dame. For everybody that plays Notre Dame, it's the Super Bowl for that team."
Star ratings, pre-season All-America hype, and past production vs. polar opposite offenses matter little when a determined naval officer buries his shoulder pads full bore into a defender's legs. A good block is a good block, regardless of the aggressor's recruiting pedigree, height/weight measurables, or future football stock.
"I'm so happy I'll never play them again," said 5th-year senior linebacker Dan Fox. "I'm just glad they're fighting for our country. They're bad-ass players. They way they play and how hard they run the ball, they're one of the toughest opponents I've played at Notre Dame."
Fox has faced Alabama, Stanford, Florida State, Oklahoma, USC, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Washington, and Brigham Young among others during his 47-game career.
But it was Navy (and let's assume Alabama might be on any unofficial short list), that ranked as a thorn in the veteran's side.
"There are no asterisks next to this one. This is a W, and we're excited about it. We're going to have our 24-hour rule," said Kelly of the standard time to celebrate a big win. "We're going to take all 24 hours on this one."
They're going to need it, because a short-handed Irish squad will take the field in Pittsburgh next Saturday, ready to absorb the Panthers' best shot.