JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One of the keys Irish Illustrated mentioned in Notre Dame’s quest to defeat Navy was preventing the Midshipmen from stringing together consecutive scores.
It had plagued the Irish in five of eight games this season, including four losses (Texas, Michigan State, Duke and Stanford) and even one victory.
This game was not added to that list, unless you count Navy’s final possession of the first half that ended up in the end zone midway through the second quarter and then on Navy’s opening possession of the second half.
In a game that always features a limited number of possessions, this one went the extra mile. Notre Dame had six possessions, scoring three touchdowns and two field goals.
That was one field goal too many and one touchdown short.
While it’s an easy second guess to say that Brian Kelly should have attempted to convert a 4th-and-4 with 7:28 left to play instead of opting for a 31-yard Justin Yoon field goal that made it a one-point game, it certainly doesn’t take much of an imagination to consider the strong possibility of Ken Niumatalolo’s offense devouring the balance of the game clock to secure a 28-27 victory.
Niumatalolo is the second Navy coach in the 90-game history of the series to defeat the Irish three times.
What’s the opposite of “everything he touches turns to gold”? Everything Kelly and his staff touch grinds into sawdust, at least in this star-crossed 2016 season.
This is no upset. While it may be too harsh to say Notre Dame has repeatedly gotten out-coached this season – although dissenting voices would be sparse -- the Irish certainly don’t have an advantage over anyone they play this season.
That included Navy’s 4th-and-6 conversion to seal the victory when knowing the Irish would be a) expecting a run or b) expecting a pass downfield to Navy’s best receiver – Jamir Tillman – the Midshipmen did neither. Navy faked the handoff, sent slotback Darryl Bonner down the middle of the field, and had quarterback Will Worth throw underneath to Tillman to cap the victory.
In 2016, there’s no such thing as an upset of Notre Dame, regardless where the line-maker sets the mark.
SPECIAL TEAMS WEEKLY
Just when it looked as if the Irish actually would go 60 minutes without conjuring up a special teams gaffe that contributed to a loss, they just couldn’t help themselves.
It would have been one thing if Navy had been in a 4th-and-short and Notre Dame was caught in a defensive personnel switch, unsure of whether the Midshipmen were going for it or punting.
But the substitution penalty late in the third quarter that kept Navy’s possession alive and led to a 16-play, 75-yard, 9:00-minute drive was a 4th-and-6 following a fumbled pitch that the Midshipmen recovered at their own 40.
In fact, Navy had already punted it and it looked as if the Irish – holding a 24-21 lead with about three minutes left in the third quarter – would have an excellent chance of sealing the victory with a long touchdown drive to make it 31-21.
But that’s not what happened. The officials told Brian Kelly that two players running off the field both made it out of bounds in time. The officials in the booth disagreed, and Navy capitalized on the break on 4th-and-1.
There is no excuse legitimate enough because each week, Notre Dame offers another delightful morsel of special teams ineptitude that leads to defeat.
THE TURNING POINT
After Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead four-and-a-half minutes into the game, and then Navy tied in five minutes later, neither team led by more than four points over the final 53:30.
That’s how close this game was and that’s how slim the margin for error was for both teams. Navy won the battle of the margin for error when DeShone Kizer – with the Irish leading 10-7 in the second quarter and on the heels of a 4th-and-4 stop at the Irish 45 – had a wide open Kevin Stepherson prancing down the middle of the field for what would have been a 55-yard score.
The pass was overthrown and Notre Dame punted three plays later. Navy responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive that gave Navy the lead instead of trailing the Irish 17-7 about two minutes into the second quarter.
By no means would that have put the Midshipmen away. At the very least, Navy would have had a late-game possession with a chance to tie or take the lead. That’s just the way it is against Navy.
But in a game in which the Irish needed to “put some air” between themselves and the Midshipmen on the scoreboard, that was the most advantageous time to do it. Kizer overshot it and Notre Dame’s biggest leads after the 7-0 advantage would be 10-7 late in the first quarter, 17-14 with 30 seconds left in the second quarter, and 24-21 for a nine-minute period in the third-to-fourth quarter.
Much like Notre Dame, only offered through the running game as opposed to DeShone Kizer and the passing game, Navy’s quarterback-driven offense was enough to pull off the victory.
Will Worth rushed 28 times for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Five slotbacks rushed for 118 yards on 17 carries. The fullbacks accounted for just 32 yards on eight carries. Jamir Tillman – who led the Navy receivers with four of the five receptions for 41 yards – had one carry for six yards.
With the exception of Worth’s 60-yard and 27-yard run and Calvin Cass’ 37-yarder, the other 53 carries were 17 yards or shorter. In other words, it was a slow death for the Irish defensively, particularly in that 16-play, 75-yard, nine-minute drive for the game-winning score. Most of the blows appeared superficial.
The Irish had a plan defensively. Allowing 14 points in each half is a helluva accomplishment against Navy. The Midshipmen had scored 46, 42 and 45 in its last three games. Notre Dame’s defense continued to do its job post-Brian VanGorder, and with the exception of last week’s victory over Miami, Notre Dame’s offense continues to come up short, due in part this week to the limited number of possessions.
Only nine plays went for double-digit yardage. Small consolation when the offense accounts for 27 points against an opponent that normally surrenders in the 40s to Notre Dame.