How times have changed with the Irish rushing attack. In recent years, a slowed Irish running game meant about 60 yards on the ground. Last week’s 116 yards against Clemson was a disappointment. This week’s 60 yards rushing in the first half, 178 yards for the game and 4.45 yards per carry are considered average numbers, and that’s with a 21-carry, 129-yard effort by C.J. Prosise.
Prosise made sure Notre Dame’s sudden-change offense was productive at the start of the third quarter when a fumble recovery on a kickoff resulted in a 22-yard touchdown run on the second play to give the Irish some much-needed breathing room, 31-21.
As the second half wore on, Notre Dame’s offensive line took over. In addition to his 22-yard touchdown run, Prosise scored the second touchdown by the Irish from seven yards out. His 11-yard scoring jaunt midway through the fourth quarter gave Notre Dame its first 17-point lead, which also would be the final spread.
Prosise’s 14 second-half carries netted 95 yards. Josh Adams added 38 yards on eight carries for the game. DeShone Kizer continues to add a component to the running game. He gained 22 yards (14 net due to sacks) and banged around enough on nine carries to keep Navy honest, particularly in the red zone.
Kizer gained just three on 3rd-and-5 in Notre Dame’s first scoring drive. But he pounded his way to the one-yard line on the 4th-and-2 before scoring on the next play. Kizer also converted a 3rd-and-1 just prior to Prosise’s third touchdown. Kizer’s 3rd-and-1 conversion in the final minutes was the only other 3rd-and-short rushing attempt by the Irish.
It wasn’t a dominant performance, although Navy came into the game allowing a respectable 147 yards rushing per game and 3.8 yards per carry. Notre Dame topped that by 31 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. It certainly was an effective-enough job to complement a passing attack that accounted for 281 yards.
Just like the bar has been raised in the rushing attack, so too has the passing attack produced numbers in larger chunks, although by Notre Dame’s big-play standards through the first five games, Navy did better than anyone at preventing “explosives.”
Notre Dame’s longest pass play of the game was the 30-yard touchdown reception by Will Fuller, although there was Chris Brown’s 29-yarder, Torii Hunter, Jr.’s 28-yarder right before Justin Yoon’s 52-yard field goal, and a C.J. Prosise 25-yarder. Fuller also had 23- and 19-yarders.
Notre Dame didn’t take the chunks it’s accustomed to, but DeShone Kizer still averaged 12.7 yards per completion and 9.0 yards per attempt while completing 22-of-30 (73.3 percent) for 281 yards with the one touchdown pass to Fuller and an interception, which gives him four (one in each game) in four starts.
Kizer benefitted from four shovel passes for 33 yards. But after a shaky start in the opening series, he distributed the ball well to his weapons. In the first scoring drive, he completed passes to Prosise, Brown, tight end Nic Weishar and Fuller. In the third, he found Prosise (shovel for eight), Brown for 29, Josh Adams for a couple and Fuller for the 30-yard score, featuring a beautiful escape, scramble and strike for the touchdown.
The interception was a bad one on a nice jump of the route by cornerback Brendon Clements, but none of Kizer’s other 29 throws were threatened by a pick. Yet another solid passing performance by Kizer.
It was a tale of two halves. The Irish allowed 245 yards rushing on 30 first-half attempts (a whopping 8.1 yards per carry), including quarterback Keenan Reynolds’ 51-yarder on Navy’s first snap of the day, a 22-yard burst by Reynolds’ backup, Tago Smith, and the 45- and 22-yard touchdown bursts by 6-foot-1, 253-pound fullback Quentin Ezell to erase Notre Dame’s two-touchdown, second-quarter lead.
Then in the second half, with Jarrett Grace replacing James Onwualu to add some bulk against the run, the Irish limited the Midshipmen to 73 yards on 19 carries (3.8). Navy’s longest runs were a nine-yard pitch to slotback Demond Brown, an eight-yard run by fullback Chris Swain, an 11-yarder by Reynolds, another 12-yarder by Brown and a 10-yarder by Tago.
What bumps up the grade after a poor start is Notre Dame’s third-down success. True, Navy converted all four of its fourth-down attempts. But the Irish held the Midshipmen to 2-of-11 (18.8 percent) on third down, which is no small feat against Navy’s No. 4-ranked third-down conversion rate (53.8). The key stop came on 3rd-and-3 early in the second quarter when Jaylon Smith recovered Chris Swain’s fumbled pitch.
Overall, the Irish run defense was gashed. Reynolds rushed for 110 yards on 15 carries (7.3). Ezell had 75 yards on just six carries (12.5). Swain added 59 yards on 15 carries (3.9) while Tago Smith accounted for another 47 on nine carries (5.2). Navy scored a touchdown on its only entry into the red zone, and that was in Navy’s first drive of the day.
A first half D became a 60-minute C+ because of the strong second-half performance and third-down defense.
The Irish weren’t challenged much in the passing game while yielding negligible yardage on six attempts with a long throw of 11 yards by Keenan Reynolds. His other completion went for five yards while Tago Smith’s only completed toss of his two attempts was a six-yarder.
Navy’s only third-down pass was a 3rd-and-12 completion for 11 yards. Sheldon Day’s first-quarter sack negated another one. Romeo Okwara netted Notre Dame’s only sack. (The Irish caught a break on this play when Reynolds didn’t see a wide-open Chris Swain to his right). Okwara joined Andrew Trumbetti in the quarterback hurries category.
Elijah Shumate did a nice job of jumping a deep-middle route for his first interception of the season, second of his career and third by the Irish this season.
Not much to grade, nothing to critique.
The fumble caused by Nyles Morgan (with Elijah Shumate) on the second-half kickoff and Devin Butler’s fumble recovery was the most significant special teams play of the day. It led to a quick Irish score for a 31-21 lead as Notre Dame maintained a double-digit advantage the rest of the way.
Justin Yoon suddenly has found the range, nailing a 46-yarder last week at Clemson in terrible weather conditions and then converting 52- and 36-yarders vs. Navy. The 52-yarder came as time expired in the first half and helped ease some of the pain of coughing up a two-touchdown lead. His boot with 9:48 left in the game gave the Irish the much-coveted three-score lead.
Tyler Newsome’s punt caught on the fly at the three-yard line by Matthias Farley swayed the first-half momentum in Notre Dame’s favor en route to a 21-7 lead. Newsome’s other punt was a roller, but it still traveled 46 yards without a return.
Neither team returned either of the other team’s two punts. Of four kick returns, C.J. Sanders’ longest was just 23 yards.
Notre Dame continues to show a chink in its armor defending kickoffs. Dishan Romine snapped off a 58-yarder immediately after the Irish capitalized on Chris Swain’s fumble. Navy kicker Austin Grebe missed a 44-yard field goal, which was the first of his career after making 10 in a row.
Yes, Notre Dame went three-and-out and Navy scored on a three-play drive on its first possession. The first reaction by Brian Kelly’s critics is to declare the head coach’s inability to get his team to come out strong for the second week in a row.
But the response for the vast majority of the remaining 57:48 was very positive. The offense turned it over just once and totaled a solid 459 yards of offense. Of Notre Dame’s 11 possessions, the Irish scored seven times: five touchdowns and two field goals, which is productive enough when you’re limiting the opposition to three points over the final 30 minutes.
Penalties were kept to a minimum with Alex Bars jumping early, a snap infraction by center Nick Martin and a borderline hold on Aliz’e Jones. Notre Dame had just four penalties, including none in the second half.
Brian VanGorder’s defense had its typical spasm in the second quarter. But he made the adjustments at halftime to limit Navy to just 340 yards total offense, including a mere 95 yards over the final 30 minutes.
To beat a good team after a tough loss with your main rival up next is no easy task. Kelly and his staff had the team ready to play quality football over 60 minutes with the typical hiccups against Navy’s triple-option. But it wasn’t nearly as many hiccups as the Irish usually have against the Midshipmen, and as the game wore on, Notre Dame’s mental and physical toughness showed.
A mostly well-prepared football team recorded a quality win over a quality opponent.