NOTRE DAME, Ind. – More trend than tradition, Notre Dame followed Navy to the southeast corner of the stadium on Saturday evening to swap school songs.
The Irish stood at attention as the Midshipmen sang “Navy Blue and Gold” in the wake of Notre Dame’s 41-24 win. Navy returned the favor during “Notre Dame, Our Mother” before exiting up the tunnel, offering function to the Mutual Respect Bowl that was built on Under Armour fashion.
Notre Dame and Navy wore matching cleats and the coaches had similar gear because two schools and one apparel manufacturer wanted you to know how much everybody liked each other. The game also included three personal fouls, a couple injuries and a reminder of a Brian Kelly era low point when Navy blew out Notre Dame five years ago.
There was no chance of a repeat on Saturday. Because when it comes to defending the option, the Irish are no longer at a decided schematic disadvantage.
Coincidentally, it was Charlie Weis who started this mutual admiration postgame behavior, one of his better legacies here. Maybe forcing football players into a joint glee club is a bit much, but it’s one of the best parts of this series.
College football is nothing without tradition. This rivalry, which came back to life eight years ago, has a lot of it.
Kelly has now won five straight against the Midshipmen, but this was perhaps his best because it proved he has a formula for beating option football. Few would have taken that bet before the season. Navy still rushed for 318 yards – it’s done that 19 times in the past 25 games – but it never put Notre Dame on skates, even with a couple second quarter touchdowns.
“Very pleased. Very pleased,” Kelly said. “I think there's always things that we can work on to get better but I think we have established something that I wanted to establish and that is a base way of playing the option teams.”
Notre Dame wasn’t perfect this weekend, but it was prepared.
In a season where everybody has flaws, that’s all Kelly can ask. Last week’s loss at Clemson isn’t going away. Alabama doesn’t get a do-over against Ole Miss, which doesn’t get a second take against Florida. Stanford can’t replay Northwestern, which doesn’t get a mulligan at Michigan.
TCU almost lost to Texas Tech and Kansas. Michigan State sleepwalked past Purdue and Rutgers. Ohio State seems infected by boredom.
Everybody is beatable, which means just about everybody is going to get beat.
If Notre Dame runs the table through Stanford, its performance this weekend will probably be forgotten in the College Football Playoff discussion. That’s fine. Maybe an 11-1 Notre Dame makes the real postseason, maybe it gets shipped to Phoenix or New Orleans. When the Irish let pressure and precipitation get to them last weekend, they lost control of their playoff case. You don’t get a second chance to go undefeated.
All Notre Dame can do now is win out with this what-you-see-is-what-you-get roster that’s grown in the past six weeks into a mature group. Thanks to injury, this is no longer Kelly’s deepest team. But it might be the one he’s handled best. Kelly now knows what buttons to press and which ones aren’t worth the effort.
There’s an air of semi-certainty about Notre Dame now, at least as much as there can be for a bunch of teenagers playing football under a national spotlight.
“It’s what we expect,” said receiver Will Fuller. “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.”
Notre Dame’s offensive line snapped back into shape, even down starting guard Quenton Nelson. It allowed a couple sacks but kept DeShone Kizer clean otherwise. The sophomore went 22-of-30 for 281 yards, one touchdown and one pick, showing some inexperience on that baited turnover.
Kizer simply had to keep the chains moving against Navy with CJ Prosise putting up 185 yards rushing/receiving to go with three touchdowns.
Some want Prosise pushed for Heisman consideration. Forget that. His season’s real significance is how it backs up Kelly’s ability to develop talent.
“You really gotta stay on your blocks with CJ because he can spring anything,” Fuller said. “He does something to shock me every week.”
Prosise’s 11-yard touchdown late in the third quarter qualified with its five-yard spin move across the goal line. Notre Dame also got steps forward from freshman kicker Justin Yoon, safety Elijah Shumate and linebackers Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace. Take safety Max Redfield’s benching out of the equation and the staff had the roster almost perfectly tuned.
Grace said Notre Dame’s defense has progressed so much against the option that it had “swagger” against Navy. Think back to that disaster at the Meadowlands and the past two years of barely hanging on. That’s real progress and a compliment to Kelly as the CEO head coach.
Because of rampant injuries, it took Kelly longer than usual to get a handle on this team. Now he seems to have one. That means the Irish should avoid another Virginia performance or a Clemson slipup.
Yes, by season’s end you probably won’t remember a single snap from the Navy game. The players probably won’t either aside from Prosise’s final score or Shumate’s pick. But this win still matters for reasons beyond choir practice and novelty apparel. This might be the weekend when Notre Dame became predictable in the best possible way, executing and adjusting at levels most Kelly teams haven’t.
Brian Kelly probably didn’t learn anything about Notre Dame yesterday.
Maybe he’s already mastered the subject.