While the Irish certainly were effective with their 5.1 yards per carry and with Josh Adams (6.1) and DeShone Kizer (5.8) individually, Notre Dame’s 29 rushing attempts were the fewest of the season by a Navy opponent. Notre Dame’s 148 yards on the ground was the fifth highest total of the eight games by Navy opponents.
Adams’ 73 yards on 12 carries and Kizer’s nine carries for 52 yards was enough to keep Navy honest, to keep Notre Dame’s first field-goal drive alive, and actually run the football 12 times in a 14-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that put the Irish ahead late in the first half.
But the two second-half possessions that totaled 20 snaps and 143 yards gave the Irish limited chances to run the football. After rushing for 113 yards on 21 carries (5.4) in the first half, only eight of the second-half plays were on the ground for a total of 34 yards. Whatever physical superiority the Irish had could not be exploited.
The raw numbers – 19-of-27 (70.3 percent) for 223 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and just one sack – indicate that DeShone Kizer had a pretty good day. But in a game in which perfection was needed due to Notre Dame’s paltry six possessions, Kizer’s miss on a deep ball to Kevin Stepherson that would have given the Irish a 17-7 lead two minutes into the second quarter was critical.
Kizer converted his first 3rd-and-5 for nine yards on a crossing route to Hunter and a 23-yarder to Hunter on 4th-and-4 moments later, which set up the 26-yard score to Hunter, who caught four passes for 69 yards on the opening drive alone. Kizer also aggressively scrambled to convert a 3rd-and-9 before an eight-yard pass to tight end Durham Smythe gave the Irish a 17-14 lead with 30 seconds left in the first half.
Notre Dame was 9-of-13 on third down and 1-of-1 on fourth down with most of the success through the air. Kizer was 5-of-5 for 55 yards and a touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown when the Irish took a 24-21 lead.
Hunter caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown after going down temporarily from a blow just above his left knee. St. Brown finished with five receptions for 62 yards and a score. Stepherson – who had four receptions for 48 yards and tried to bail out the Irish when they had to settle for a field goal and a 28-27 deficit – fell short of converting a 3rd-and-10 reception that was thrown well behind him.
Kizer also missed an open Torii Hunter, Jr. on the final field-goal drive, but when the corner route was taken away, the quarterback and receiver tried to ad-lib on a route that has little-to-no leeway to ad-lib.
Of the few chances the Irish had, Kizer and Co. maximized most of them. One more “maximization” was the requirement for victory.
The subjective nature of grading a rush defense against Navy always makes this a tough call. On one hand, the Midshipmen rushed for 320 yards on 56 carries (5.7-yard average) with four rushing touchdowns. There were runs of 60 and 27 yards by quarterback Will Worth, who finished with 176 yards on 28 carries (6.2) and two scores, and a 37-yard touchdown run by Calvin Cass, Jr.
By the same token, of the 56 rushing plays by Navy, only nine reached 10 yards. Only four drives resulted in touchdowns after the Midshipmen scored 46 points against Houston, 42 points versus Memphis and 45 points against South Florida in the last three games.
Notre Dame’s defense did not cost the Irish the game, although they were unable to create a turnover and became less effective as the game unfolded. The touchdown drives were nine plays for 73 yards, eight plays for 80 yards, seven plays for 75 yards and 16 plays for 75 yards with a 14-play, 57-yard drive to chew up the final 7:28.
The Irish have done much worse against Navy’s triple-option than they did in this game, although 320 yards rushing on just six possessions and a decisive 10-minute second-half advantage in time of possession showed the wear and tear. Navy also converted 12-of-18 third/fourth downs, mainly on the ground.
Greer Martini (11 tackles, four solo) played a quality game against the triple-option while freshman Julian Love (eight tackles, five solo) was the most solid open-field tackler for the Irish. James Onwualu rallied to finish with eight stops. Nyles Morgan had 11 tackles, but just one solo and was a frequent felled bowling pin against Navy’s triple-option attack.
Navy doesn’t throw it much normally, but when it did, Will Worth completed 5-of-8 for 48 yards with a long of 15. The most crucial of those five completions was the last one to Jamir Tillman, which converted a 4th-and-6 and sewed the game up for the Midshipmen.
Worth completed a 10-yard pass to Tillman on 3rd-and-9 that ultimately led to the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter. An interference on Nick Coleman on a 3rd-and-9 from the Navy 26 led to its ability to run out the clock.
Most pass defense grades against Navy start at C and work from there. Considering there were two crucial third-down completions and another inference penalty on 3rd-and-long, we’ll take it down a notch.
The gaffe of the game – an illegal substitution penalty on what would have been Navy’s lone punt of the day – came late in the third quarter with the Irish leading, 24-21. It would have given Notre Dame just its second opportunity of the game to take a two-score lead with a touchdown.
Whether the illegal substitution penalty was the correct call, or whether it should have been reviewable by rule, one of the reasons the Irish lost the game was because of the penalty. Thus, add another game to the ever-expanding list of losses impacted by Notre Dame’s special teams.
Justin Yoon quietly has put together another streak, as he did as a freshman in 2015 when he nailed his last 12 field-goal attempts. Yoon has converted each of his last seven over a four-game span, including 39- and 31-yarders against Navy.
C.J. Sanders’ 31-yard kick return was noteworthy against a top 20 kick-coverage unit, although his other two netted just 30 yards total. Yoon’s kicks/Notre Dame’s coverage allowed a long return of just 21 yards on two attempts. Tyler Newsome missed an opportunity to drop a punt inside the 20 when his 32-yarder went out of bounds at the 20.
As has been the case in recent weeks, this grade largely has been determined by a) a solid if not spectacular effort by the Irish defense, b) an underachieving, inconsistent offense and c) a game-altering special teams unit, and that’s game-altering in an extremely negative way.
A game plan that nets just 370 yards total offense against a defense that allows 497 yards per game against non-Power 5 competition is a failed game plan, regardless how many possessions the offense gets. It’s up to the opponent to forge more possessions and the opponent’s coaching staff not to allow Navy to so strongly dictate the tempo.
Added to the equation this week is Brian Kelly’s decision to kick a field goal on 4th-and-4 from the Navy 14 with 7:28 remaining and the Irish trailing by four. If Notre Dame goes for it and misses, and Navy marches down and scores a touchdown, the game is over. If the Irish miss on fourth down and Navy kicks a field goal, the Irish still have a chance to tie the game with a touchdown.
By kicking the field goal, the Irish cut the deficit to one and would give themselves a chance to win with a hot kicker…if the defense could force Navy to give the Irish the ball back, which it obviously couldn’t.
The problem with kicking the field goal is that the Irish needed another possession, and as games carry on against triple-option offenses, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get the football back. Ultimately, Navy – with it’s game-ending 7:28 drive – won the second-half possession battle, 20:20-to-9:40.
If the Irish were 6-1 or 5-2 and had something to preserve, Kelly’s decision would be more defensible. But at 3-5 entering the game, his players – who have given their hearts to this program and remained committed to the cause – needed a winning scenario, particularly an offense that just scored the final 10 points of the Miami game the week before to claim their first late-game win in six tries.
It’s Notre Dame’s offense versus Navy’s defense for four yards on fourth down. That’s a battle Notre Dame/Kelly should expect to win with the game on the line. Ken Niumatalolo won a 4th-and-6 battle through the air to ice the game, which is not a favorable matchup for the Midshipmen.
Although it’s too strong to say Kelly’s decision was wrong – there have been plenty over the last seven years that have been more questionable -- it certainly didn’t prove to be the correct decision, which adds to a growing list nearly as long as the special teams miscues.
The rule states that an illegal substitution penalty is not reviewable by the official in the booth. If that is indeed correct, the ACC officials should know that. So should Kelly, and if not him, one of his assistant coaches or analysts or someone within the organization.