NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly turned to special assistant Bob Elliott late last week with an admission. Notre Dame’s head coach didn’t know what else to do in preparation for Navy.
After spending the off-season drilling down the triple option, drafting a squad of scout team players to rep it and putting the plan to action against Georgia Tech last month, Notre Dame had a right to feel ready on Saturday. And they were, running away from Navy in the second half for a 41-24 victory that keeps some luster on the upcoming USC showdown.
“I was so pleased with the way that they were focused during the week, preparing for Navy, not worrying about anything else,” Kelly said. “They weren't talking about last week, they weren't talking about USC, they were focused on playing this football team. And that's really all you can ask for as a coach.”
If defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder doesn’t have the option solved, he at least has a handle on it now.
Navy’s starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds lasted just six series and those accounted for just one touchdown – that came on the Midshipmen’s opening drive – and one field goal. Reynolds suffered a shin bruise and was ultimately replaced by Tago Smith, who led a couple touchdown drives in the second quarter that Notre Dame countered with halftime adjustments.
After a 52-yard field goal from Justin Yoon lifted Notre Dame into halftime, VanGorder made his second personnel tweak. He’d already pulled Max Redfield for Matthias Farley at safety. At the half he swapped out James Onwualu for the bigger Jarrett Grace, the senior’s first serious action of the year.
Grace finished with five tackles as the Irish linebackers grew into the game. Greer Martini led the position with nine stops, which tied Sheldon Day for the team lead. Joe Schmidt added eight stops while Jaylon Smith, avoided by Navy’s offense most of the game, had four.
“It was really an incredible week of practice,” Grace said. “You talk about zoom focus, I think we had that each and every day.
“We didn’t just know what we were doing, we were executing at a high level.”
Notre Dame forced three turnovers, turning two of them into CJ Prosise touchdowns. The second one devastated Navy after Dishan Romine fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half. Two plays later, Prosise darted almost untouched into the end zone for a 22-yard score.
Prosise finished with 21 carries, 129 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, complemented by four catches for 56 yards. He’s just the third back in school history with multiple three-touchdown games in a season.
After a bleak rushing night at Clemson – Prosise put up just 50 yards rushing against the Tigers – regular service was restored against Navy.
"We know that we can run on anybody,” Prosise said. “We just had to get back to that this week.”
Prosise’s final touchdown, an 11-yard run that would have impressed a contortionist, pushed the Irish ahead 38-21 in the final minute of the third quarter. Notre Dame and Navy traded field goals in the fourth without incident, a rarity in this series under Kelly.
After Elijah Shumate picked off Smith at the six-yard line with 6:11 to play, Notre Dame leaned on its ground game to run out the clock. The Irish actually won time of possession while racking up a balanced 459 yards, split between quarterback DeShone Kizer (22-of-31 passing for 281 yards, one touchdown) and the ground game (40 carries, 178 yards, four scores).
“It’s what we expect,” said Will Fuller, who led Notre Dame with five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. “It’s what we want to do. We want to run the ball like we did today and we want to pass the ball like we did today. It’s hard to beat us when we’re playing efficient.”
Navy’s only threat came in the second quarter when fullback Quentin Ezell ripped off touchdowns runs of 45 and 22 yards. The second pulled Navy even at 21-21 late in the half before Notre Dame marched 40 yards in two plays to set up Yoon’s career-long boot.
Not that Notre Dame knew it, but the field goal would start a 17-0 run that spanned halves and virtually wrapped up the game. Halftime adjustments and turnover margin began to flow to Notre Dame. That let the talent disparity between programs show.
“I thought their focus was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Every time there's been any kind of sense of adversity, they go right back to work. I think that has everything to do with the kind of leaders we have in the locker room.”