Notre Dame football: Irish sputter, but survive Navy
SOUTH BEND -- With 14:20 left in regulation Saturday and Notre Dame still stuck on the wrong end of scoreboard shock, Notre Dame Stadium took an unfashionable retro turn and broke into the Wave.
It was far from the least flattering development in a 38-34 escape from double-digit underdog Navy at a point in the season where that matters to just about everyone outside of Irish head football coach Brian Kelly’s cocoon.
“There are no asterisks next to this one,” said the Irish fourth-year coach, whose 7-2 team must realistically gain three wins and absolutely climb 11 spots to No. 14 in the BCS standings in the next month, and likely lost some perceptual battles while gaining the narrow win.
“This is a W, and we're excited about it. We're going to have our 24-hour rule. We're going to take all 24 hours on this one.”
Presumably to celebrate, though spin control wouldn’t hurt either.
The most humbling, troubling, perplexing phase of a game in which Notre Dame never punted and Navy (4-4) never committed a penalty or a turnover was that the Irish never found an answer to the Mids’ precision triple-option attack until 1:08 remained in the game with Navy driving for the winning score.
Seldom-used backup safety Eilar Hardy made initial penetration on a fourth-down reverse, and freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith finished off receiver Shawn Lynch for no gain at the Irish 31-yard line, four yards short of the first-down sticks.
“We saw it in film, the reverse,” Smith said. “And we knew initially they run it every year and we hadn’t gotten it all game. So what better than do to the reverse on the last play, and luckily we were there.”
Navy came in as the nation’s fifth-most efficient team at converting fourth downs (77 percent, 11-of-14). The Irish stopped them two of three times on Saturday.
Save a career-high 11 tackles from super sub defensive lineman Kona Schwenke before leaving the game with an ankle injury, there was mostly statistical carnage on the defensive side of the ledger.
Navy racked up 28 first downs, the most ever by three in the 87-game series history. With 207 rushing yards in the first half alone as Navy took a 20-17 lead at the break, the Midshipmen were on pace to break both the series record for rushing yards (367) and the highest total pinned on a Kelly-coached Irish team, both achieved in a 35-17 ambush at East Rutherford, N.J. three seasons ago.
Navy settled for 331 on 70 carries and converted 10 of 16 third-down opportunities against a defense that had been surging in recent weeks and that handled Air Force’s version of option football much more adeptly last weekend.
“This is one, just throw it away,” Kelly said of the big picture defensively. “It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play. And it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it. And then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.
“And I said this earlier in the week. Nobody runs this option as effectively. And when they are on and they're not turning the football over -- and that's what they did today -- it's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on.”
They’ll move on with a distinction that would likely look better thumbtacked to a more-decorated opponent.
After starting 2-5 in the Notre Dame phase of his coaching career in games decided by seven points or fewer, Kelly’s teams have now gone 13-1 in such games with 10 successive wins.
That ties coaching legend Knute Rockne for the second-longest win streak in school history in white knucklers, two behind the school record 12 assembled by Four Horseman Elmer Layden in his coaching years.
“It’s kind of the mentality of this team and what this team is known for,” Irish fifth-year offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “The older guys have been on the other side of it so many times. I don’t know what it is, but this team has found it.
“It’s what (Kelly) set out to do when he got here.”
Now this team wants to get to the BCS – again.
Its cachet toward upward mobility in the polls is its strength of schedule. Heading into Saturday’s games, Notre Dame had played more teams currently in the Top 25 than all 25 teams ahead of it in the AP poll. The Irish have played four and are 2-2 against them.
Only one other team, Arizona State (3), had played more than two. Five teams had played zero -- Baylor, Miami, Fresno State, Oklahoma State and Northern Illinois.
Eleven had played only one, including the top four teams in the poll -- Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.
But it’s what ND has done in weeks when it wasn’t playing a top 25 team that has been most challenging to its upward mobility in the polls – a seven-point survival at Purdue and perhaps Saturday’s scare as the most damaging.
Air Force, Duke, Pitt and Western Kentucky all gave up fewer rushing yards to Navy than did the Irish. Duke and the Hilltoppers dominated the Mids, in fact, defensively.
The Irish offense did have plenty of headliners, though, led by freshman running back Tarean Folston, whose one-yard vault into the end zone with 3:47 left in regulation put the Irish ahead to stay, 38-34.
He finished with a career-high 140 yards on 18 bruising carries, none of which covered more than 15 yards. He became the first freshman to crack double digits in rushing since Robert Hughes versus Stanford in 2007 and put up the highest rushing total by an ND first-year player since Julius Jones’ 146 versus Navy 14 seasons ago.
“I'm extremely happy for the kid,: said Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who threw for 268 yards and worked around two interceptions. “We've known from day one he could provide another weapon for us offensively.
“It starts up front for us. We had guys in there that aren't used to playing those kinds of snaps. He did an awesome job for us. Tarean ran hard and took care of the ball. He didn't play like a freshman tonight. He played like a guy who really knew what was going on out there.”
Notre Dame, which moved to 11-1 under Kelly in November games, averaged 9.0 yards per play, the best mark since the 1998 season. The Irish were averaging 9.6 until they went into victory formation to kill the clock, which were also the only three negative-yardage plays they ran all day. The modern-day school record is 10.2 yards per play, against Navy in 1949.
Attrition hit the defensive side of the ball hard. Already missing starting nose guard Louis Nix from the lineup, outside linebacker Ben Councell and defensive end Sheldon Day joined Schwenke with game-ending injuries. Kelly said he would not know the extent of those injuries until Sunday.
“It looked like a triage in there,” he said.
ND started uncharacteristically strong. Junior George Atkinson came off the bench and capped the first scoring drive with a 41-yard touchdown run. Atkinson came into the game with a 7.8 yards-per-carry average against the Mids.
It was just the third time this season in nine games in which the Irish had scored first and the first first-quarter TD the Mids had yielded this season.
Navy, 104th in the nation in kickoff returns, got 34 yards from Marcus Thomas on Navy’s first runback, with Irish kicker Kyle Brindza making the tackle. Brindza later made a tackle on a 49-yard kickoff return from Thomas.
Navy answered Atkinson’s TD with two-yard scoring run by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, his first of three scores. The teams alternated scores for the rest of the game.
Reynolds’ second TD, a three-yard run with 2:07 left in the half, put Navy up 20-17. Chris Sloan’s missed extra point meant Navy had to get into the end zone with its final drive rather than having the option of kicking a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime.
“The biggest thing for me coming into college is it’s hard to win, and I’m actually starting to realize that,” Smith said. “So any victory, we’ll take it.”
EHansen@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6112 Twitter: @hansenNDInsider