Defensive slide hard to figure

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Avoiding a Naval disaster thanks to a botched PAT and the only bad pitch of the football game is hardly reason to celebrate.

Notre Dame's 38-34 win over Navy Saturday was more than a few defensive steps backward.

It was a full-fledged backpedal, from which recovery may be difficult.

On the day Notre Dame discovered a running game, the Irish had their defense dissolve right before their eyes.

This was the same defense that rose to the occasion to pull out victories over Arizona State and Southern Cal. The Irish were dominant in shutting down Air Force after the Falcons' first drive last week.

Now this?

It's too easy to chalk this up to the unusual nature of the Navy option, take the victory, flush the stats, and move on to Pitt.

Notre Dame yielded 34 points, 331 rushing yards and 419 yards of total offense to the Midshipmen. Only efforts against Michigan (460 yards of total offense, 41 points), Oklahoma (450, 35) and Arizona State (427, 34) were leakier this season.

Just seven days after the Irish showed signs of being a program immune to such assaults from teams that shouldn't, insecurity returned.

Only Delaware (51 points, 589 yards of total offense), Indiana (41, 515) and Toledo (44, 514) rendered bigger numbers to Navy than the Irish did Saturday.

Now that's some elite company.

One of the hidden critical plays of the game happened late in the second quarter. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who scored three rushing touchdowns and threw for another, had just scored from four yards out.

After the TD, there was a delay of a couple minutes and the officials had quick words for both benches. Following the stoppage, during which he stood out on the field and tried to stay loose, Navy kicker Nick Sloan misfired wide right on the PAT.

Did the officials ice the kicker?

A lead that could have been four points was now three.

That missed point became a factor late in the game.

Navy started its final drive at the 50, with less than 4 minutes to play, needing a touchdown to win rather than a field goal to tie.

Big difference.

The Irish defense made an amazing play on Navy's last gasp. No doubt about it.

Fourth-and-four on the Notre Dame 31, the clock winding down to just over a minute, wide receiver Shawn Lynch, not exactly a track star, took a pitch on a misdirection play and — for a brief moment — looked like he had an opening. Irish defenders Eilar Hardy and Jaylon Smith made sure the opportunity closed.

It was the first time in the fourth quarter and the fourth time in the game (in nine attempts) that a Navy drive didn't end in a touchdown.

While the Notre Dame response to the trick play was critical, the play that actually defined that drive happened two snaps earlier.

Up until the last march, the Midshipmen offense was as close to perfect as humanly possible. No penalties. No turnovers. Not even a bad pitch in an attack in which the ball can be tossed around like a hot potato.

Reynolds ate the ball on several occasions, took the loss of a yard or two, rather than pitch in a risky situation. Second-and-five on the Irish 32, Reynolds ran to the short side of the field then tried to pitch to halfback DeBrandon Sanders. The ball went behind Sanders, rolled for a nine-yard loss and was finally covered by Sanders.

Bad time for the worst blunder.

The complexion of the last-ditch effort changed to desperation mode.

The Irish picked that spot to finally rise to the occasion.

Even if Irish coach Brian Kelly's strict 24-hour rule is enforced and the players really do put Saturday's happenings behind them mentally and emotionally, the physical toll from the encounter with the Midshipmen will likely be significant.

Healthy bodies may be in as short supply as confidence.

Stop the backpedal. Re-calculate.

The stretch drive needs an effective defense. 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Eilar Hardy, right, celebrates after a sack during the Notre Dame vs. Navy football game on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN