SAN DIEGO — Brian Kelly let out a sigh and then he began his remarks.
“I’m glad this game’s over,” said the Notre Dame head football coach.
He could celebrate both a 44-22 victory over Navy Saturday night and the encouraging news on linebacker Drue Tranquill’s right ankle injury.
It wasn’t jubilation in his voice. More like relief.
The No. 3 Irish (8-0) had escaped with a win at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium. And the two-time captain, who crumbled under a falling Navy offensive lineman on the second offensive series for the Midshipmen, had already ditched the protective boot he was sporting on the sideline in the second half.
X-rays showed no broken bones for Tranquill. Kelly wasn’t even sure if Tranquill would miss next week’s game at Northwestern.
“He may be jogging when we get back to the hotel,” Kelly said. “He's just a unique individual. I wouldn't count him out.”
Notre Dame’s defense recovered with remarkable success in the first half without Tranquill. Sophomore Drew White, making his season debut as part of the Irish defense, replaced the experienced Tranquill. Notre Dame held Navy scoreless in the first half and limited the Midshipmen to only 70 rushing yards and one two-yard completion in the first 30 minutes.
Earlier this season, multiple linebackers would have entered the game ahead of White. But Kelly praised the 6-foot, 228-pound White for pushing himself.
“I’m really proud of players that persevere within the program when at times it looks like their place has not been defined,” Kelly said. “It's almost not delayed gratification; they can't see the end in sight for them.
“But yet he continued to work through injury, dedicated himself to get bigger, faster and stronger. He found his opening in special teams. He found his niche this week with the triple option. He went in there and did a nice job for us.”
The game started in dubious fashion for Notre Dame. Wide receiver Miles Boykin fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. Navy had chosen to defer after winning the coin toss, but it didn’t have to wait long to get its offense on the field.
Unfortunately for the Midshipmen (2-6), their offense couldn’t capitalize. Notre Dame’s defense forced a four-play turnover on downs by stuffing quarterback Zach Abey on a fourth-and-two attempt.
That’s when Notre Dame’s offense started humming. Running back Jafar Armstrong, in his return from a three-game absence with a knee infection, capped an eight-play, 73-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
Sophomore kicker Jonathan Doerer, subbing for a recovering Justin Yoon, missed the ensuing extra point. After the game, Kelly said Yoon probably could have played if needed, but he wanted to give him more time to heal from a groin injury.
Doerer attempted his first extra points and field goals of his Notre Dame career. He finished 5-of-6 on extra points and made his only field goal attempt, a 30-yarder.
The Irish offense needed only four plays for an 80-yard drive on its next series. Running back Dexter Williams scored on a 12-yard touchdown run. He later tacked on touchdown runs of nine and two yards to extend the lead to 27-0 at halftime.
Williams received the game ball from Kelly.
“What's starting to come clearer to us is that Dexter is clearly becoming that top back, if you will,” Kelly said. “But he's becoming a complete back. He has not been that for us. He got the game ball because of his blocking tonight. He was outstanding.”
His rushing and receiving weren’t bad either. Williams finished the night with 142 rushing yards and 27 receiving yards.
“Just being out there with the offensive line, they were creating holes for me,” Williams said. “Also just being patient, just letting them set up the blocks, then I made the right cut. Just really running hard for them, because I know they're going to block hard for me.”
Williams was running behind a shuffled Irish offensive line. Sophomore left guard Aaron Banks made his first career start. To make room for Banks, senior Trevor Ruhland moved over into the starting right guard spot. Former starting right guard Tommy Kraemer didn’t see action until the fourth quarter.
“We did some decent things,” Kelly said of the offensive line play. “We pass protected very well (Saturday). I want to exert our will at any time, and we're not there yet. We have to be able to be more effective at running the ball when teams know we're going to run the football. We're not there yet.”
The Irish finished with 254 rushing yards, the second-most allowed by Navy this season, with Armstrong and quarterback Ian Book pitching in with 52 and 50 yards, respectively.
Book put together another efficient performance for Notre Dame. His 27-of-33 passing (81.8 percent) for 330 yards and two touchdowns made him the first FBS quarterback to win his first five starts of a season while completing more than 70 percent of his passes since Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson in 2011.
Book threw an interception early in the fourth quarter as Notre Dame was trying to put the game away. Navy safety Jacob Springer intercepted the pass to set up a Navy touchdown drive. Fullback Mike Martin ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run to cut Navy’s deficit to 37-22.
Book redeemed himself on the next possession with a 27-yard completion to Armstrong on third-and-10. He scanned the field for a long time before finding Armstrong.
“That last third down, (he) had a long time back there, stayed alive, stayed alive,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “That was a back-breaker. We feel like we're two scores at that point. If we could have got a stop there, that would have been huge.”
Book ended the drive with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Boykin, who finished the game with two touchdown catches and who has scored in the last four games.
After the strong first half, Notre Dame’s defense played more passively to finish the game. Kelly said defensive coordinator Clark Lea opted to use a similar defensive strategy to the one the Irish used against Army in 2016. That aggressive approach didn’t necessarily carry over in the second half.
“We played it very, very well,” Kelly said. “We liked our plan. We thought it was comprehensive in what we wanted to do.”
“They came out in the second half and did exactly what we thought they would do. (We) had a guy unblocked twice that did not make a play. They made some adjustments that we needed to adjust to. We got out of man coverage, got into zone, because we were up pretty big.”
Navy didn’t fold in front of the sellout crowd of 63,626. But the Irish were able to come up with defensive stops — including a fumble recovery by defensive end Jamir Jones.
“I'm just excited to move on to the next week with a victory,” Kelly said. “They (the Mids) play hard. They never give in. You saw that. We were up big on them. That doesn't faze the Midshipmen.”
The Irish weren’t fazed either. They avoided another speed bump on the path to the College Football Playoff and appear to have escaped without a major injury.
“They're ranked No. 3 for a reason,” Niumatalolo said. “Just a really solid, focused group. We played them before, played coach Kelly's team before. This is one of his better teams.”