For the third time in four games, the Notre Dame defense came through with a performance that was simply dominant.
While the Irish offense garnered a lot of attention with an exciting downfield passing attack midway through the season, it's been the defense that has emerged as the true strength of this team. Corwin Brown's unit has not played stellar every time out, but it has given the Irish a chance to win every game, something that cannot be said about the offense.
"I think that since the bye week, we've just been starting to work on how drastic the improvement's been with the defense since the bye," Charlie Weis said. "I think that what the defensive staff has done and the defensive players for that matter is from week-to-week they have been able to adjust."
On Saturday, the Notre Dame defense stifled a Navy rushing attack that is chasing its third straight NCAA rushing title, but that task became a lot more difficult after this weekend. The Midshipmen came into the game averaging 308 yards, but after being held to just 178 ground yards are down to an average of 295, 30 behind current leader Nevada.
"(Saturday) was a totally different defense than what we have been playing, to match what Navy does, and really it was a very simple, fundamental game plan, which now just came down to being fundamentally and completely sound," Weis said. "I don't think they could have responded much better than they did."
After scoring touchdowns on opening drives in six of their first nine games and field goals on the other three, the Irish forced the Midshipmen into a three-and-out to start Saturday's game. Notre Dame forced Navy into six three-and-outs while the staff counted eight, including a second-down fumble and failed conversion on fourth down. Navy had just 17 three-and-outs in the entire nine games leading up to Notre Dame.
Through 57-plus minutes, the Irish held Navy to just seven points and 137 total yards. Navy did put together some quick scores in the final minutes to make the game much more exciting than it needed to be, but the Notre Dame defense was able to come up with a crucial stop to clinch the game.
Navy slotback Shun White came into the game with four of the NCAA's 43 longest runs this season and although he did hit the Irish with a 24-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter, he was held to just 14 yards on his other four carries.
The other key backfield performer that Notre Dame needed to shut down was fullback Eric Kettani. Kettani had gains of 15 and seven yards on Navy's first scoring drive, but was limited to just 20 yards on nine attempts outside of that march.
But where Brown's unit really excelled was on third downs, just as it has all year. Navy converted just one of 13 third-down attempts and the lone conversion did not come until the Midshipmen's final possession of the game. In the last two games, Notre Dame has stopped opponents on 23 of 27 third-down chances.
"What we have shown on defense is week-to-week an ability to try to gear your game plan towards your opponent," Weis said. "The coaches have done a good job of putting the players in the best chance of being successful and the players have made a whole bunch, a whole bunch of plays."
Getting off the field on third down is especially important as it gives the recently struggling offense a chance to get things sorted out. The Irish won the possession battle against the Midshipmen 35:33-24:27.
What makes the performance even more remarkable is the fact that Notre Dame lost starting linebacker Brian Smith to a knee injury early in the game. Toryan Smith, who returned a blocked punt for Notre Dame's first score, filled in nicely for the other Smith and led the Irish with 10 tackles.
Until the offense is finally able to get the running and passing games going, Notre Dame has to feel comfortable knowing that it can lean on its defense and that will give Weis more time to figure out how to get things fixed on the other side of the ball.