• Notre Dame put an end to a strong early-season trend for the Midshipmen while reversing one of their own.
Navy came into the game with one – count ‘em, one – turnover in its first four games. Ironically, that came in the opening series of the opening game against Colgate. Over the next 258 snaps, including 231 rushing attempts, the Midshipmen did not turn the football over another time.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s defense entered the sixth game of the season with just four turnovers gained – two fumbles recovered and two interceptions on 154 pass attempts.
After losing the turnover game with Clemson by a 4-to-1 count, Notre Dame forced Navy into an uncharacteristic three turnovers – an early second quarter fumble, a fumbled kickoff to start the second half, and Notre Dame’s third interception of the season by Elijah Shumate in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame’s defense is just not a big turnover unit under Brian VanGorder. The Irish recovered just seven of 13 fumbles caused last season while intercepting 14 passes. Due largely to Everett Golson’s penchant for turnovers, the Irish were a minus-three in turnover margin in 2014.
The Irish entered the Navy game minus-three for the 2015 season. Jaylon Smith’s presence probably had as much to do with Chris Swain’s fumble early in the second quarter as anything. It was an unforced error, although Smith has a way of putting doubts into the head of a skill-position player. He also showed great determination to wrestle the football away from Swain for the recovery.
Nyles Morgan made the big hit on Dishan Romine to start the second half with Devin Butler pouncing on the fumbled kickoff. As the Irish did following Smith’s fumble recovery, they capitalized with a touchdown. Shumate’s interception didn’t lead to Irish points, but it stymied Navy’s final scoring opportunity of the game.
• Notre Dame took great advantage of a rarity for Navy football. The Midshipmen have led the nation in the fewest penalty yards per game in five of the last six seasons, which is a remarkable feat. Last season, the Midshipmen were whistled for just 24.7 yards in penalties per game.
Sure, by seldom passing, they don’t set themselves up for nearly as many holding penalties. But plays are plays, and the fact is Navy rarely violates the precepts of the game.
The numbers had “ballooned” this year to 40.3 penalty yards per four games, and by halftime of the Notre Dame game, the Midshipmen already had 41 yards in penalties. All three (which is what they finished with) were costly to them.
It was a 7-7 game late in the first quarter when Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds broke loose deep into Notre Dame territory. But left tackle Joey Gaston was whistled for holding and the drive eventually stalled into a punt.
A personal foul penalty against Navy “Raider” Kevin McCoy on a 2nd-and-10 C.J. Prosise run gave the Irish an automatic first down at the Navy 26. Although that didn’t lead directly to a Notre Dame touchdown, the Irish regained field position and scored on a seven-yard Prosise run after Jaylon Smith recovered the fumble.
The third penalty was a personal foul on nose guard Bernard Sarra on an incomplete pass on 1st-and-10 from the Navy 47. Notre Dame returned the favor on the next play as Aliz’e Jones was called for holding, but it bought the Irish time – specifically DeShone Kizer – who maneuvered through a collapsing pass protection, scrambled to his right and found Will Fuller for a 30-yard touchdown that gave the Irish a 21-7 lead.
Uncharacteristic behavior by the Midshipmen turned into a significant first-half advantage. Credit to Notre Dame for forcing Navy into some undisciplined play.
• What a letdown by the Irish defense after Keenan Reynolds exited the game with a left knee injury with 9:11 left in the first half. Quarterback Tago Smith – a small (5-foot-10) but stout (201-pound) junior – entered the game with just 50 rushing attempts in his career, including a mere seven this year. He’s caught behind Reynolds on the depth chart for the third straight season.
Smith made the best of his opportunity, snapping off a 22-yard run on his third snap, and then audibling into a fullback dive that saw another backup – 6-foot-1, 253-pound senior Quentin Ezell – burst for a 45-yard touchdown.
Navy’s super-subs weren’t done. After DeShone Kizer was picked off by cornerback Brendon Clements at the Irish 41, Smith handed to starting fullback Chris Swain for an eight-yard gain on 4th-and-3, and correctly called Ezell’s number again for a 22-yard score to tie the game at 21.
Fortunately, the Irish were able to squeeze a field goal out of the remaining 23 seconds of the first half when Justin Yoon connected from 52 yards. But just when the Irish had Navy by the jugular without its maestro at quarterback, the Mids found an answer in Tago Smith.
Give Brian VanGorder and the Irish defense credit in the second half. Not only did Notre Dame limit Navy to three second-half points, but they corralled a rushing attack that had gained 245 yards on 30 carries in the first half and limited it to just 73 yards on 19 carries as a bigger-bodied Jarrett Grace replaced James Onwualu to add a little bulk to the equation in the second half.
Everybody gets gashed to a certain extent by Navy. Only the better defenses find a way to finally get things under control. A second game against an option-based team obviously helped with adjustments along the way.
• DeShone Kizer wasn’t at his most accurate early in the game, making relatively easy throws challenging for his receivers, misfiring on two-of-three and completing a third for no gain.
But the resourceful red-shirt freshman just hangs in there. He’s learned how to slow down the world around him, buy himself some time, and create positive plays when it doesn’t appear any are available.
He finished 22-of-30 for 281 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His 73.3 completion percentage was aided by those shovel passes, taking a page out of Clemson’s book. But he heated up as he went along with the most magnificent of his plays a 30-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller after artfully dodging around the Navy pass rush, pushing himself wide right, and finding Fuller for the score and a 21-7 Irish lead.
With the way Kizer’s progressing, if the Irish don’t ultimately qualify for the playoffs, it won’t be h is fault. He’s played well enough to be 4-0 as a starter.
• C.J. Prosise is a warrior. Not sure whether the general public is aware how banged up the red-shirt junior is. If you’re watching it on TV, you don’t see some of the agony he goes through to get off the field for a snap or two and allow the pain to subside.
This time, it looked like his left shoulder as he tried to keep his arm pinned to his body as he trotted off the field. The pain had yet to fully clear when he was summoned back into action with Notre Dame’s lead reduced to 38-24.
Prosise still managed to clip off seven and 13-yard runs in what proved to be a field-goal drive as the Irish quickly negated the only points the Midshipmen were able to score in the second half.
With his 129 yards rushing, Prosise has now netted 779 yards in six games (129.3-yard average) while adding 156 yards in the passing game the last two weeks combined. He’s topped the 100-yard rushing mark four of six games and, including receiving yards, he’s topped the 100-yard mark combo each of the first six weeks. Prosise has 966 yards total offense.
He’s not only good, but he’s tough. He’s been banged up in some capacity pretty much since the Texas game, yet he refuses to yield.