Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace delivers in win over Navy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Almost lost in the weirdness Saturday, statistical and otherwise, was a subtle defensive adjustment that greatly impacted the bottom line.

And it came with a distinct nostalgic bent.

A blast for Notre Dame’s past, linebacker Jarrett Grace, came roaring into relevance in 15th-ranked ND’s present, learning a new position in a couple of days and helping turn a frantic battle with Navy into a comfortable 41-24 subduing.

Where it all might lead for the grad student and former starting linebacker, 24 months removed from a career-threatening injury, is unclear, but what is explicit is Grace helped give momentum to Notre Dame’s hopes of climbing back into the fringe of the national playoff discussion.

The Irish (5-1) also denied the Mids (4-1) their first nine-game winning streak since 1959-60. Their last loss was the 49-39 scorefest against Notre Dame, last Nov. 1 in Landover, Md.

“They challenge you for four quarters — their scheme, their players, their coaches,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly after defeating the triple-option for the ninth straight time following humbling loss to Navy in 2010. “They make you work for everything.”

Grace certainly did his part.

The backup middle linebacker, in his sixth game back since breaking his leg in four places on Oct. 5, 2013, had five tackles as an outside linebacker Saturday after Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plugged him in to start the third quarter. He had three tackles total in 2015 coming into the game.

The five tackles are the most he’s collected in a game since garnering nine against Oklahoma in 2013, the game before the leg injury truncated his season in a win over Arizona State.

More dramatic was his effect on Navy’s numbers. The nation’s No. 3 rushing team amassed 245 yards of total offense Saturday — all but six on the ground — before Grace’s appearance.

That included two long runs by backup fullback Quentin Ezell (45 and 22) that pulled Navy into a 21-21 tie with 24 seconds until halftime.

Grace was inserted in James Onwualu’s spot to deal with the fullback. And Navy garnered only three second-half points and 95 yards after the break to finish with a season-low 340 total yards.

“They had thrown me out there in the middle of the week, and my head was spinning,” Grace said of the position switch. “I screwed up probably every single play. But I told coach, ‘I’ll get this down.’

“They gave me a great opportunity just to prepare and we had great meetings. So come Thursday and Friday, I was really dialed into the spot, and the coaches did a great job with a great game plan. So I felt very comfortable out there in that role.”

Option specialist Greer Martini made himself at home again in a rare start, collecting nine tackles and sharing the team lead with senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day. Grad safety Matthias Farley replaced junior Max Redfield early in the first quarter and collected seven tackles.

The weirdness started with eight plays reviewed by officials Saturday, but didn’t end there.

The Irish held Navy, No. 4 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (.538), to 2-for-11 (.182) on third down Saturday, but allowed the Mids to convert all four of their fourth-down attempts into first downs.

Meanwhile, Kelly elected to give the game ball to an offensive player, but one who didn’t even play in the game. The honor went to walk-on freshman Robert Regan, ND’s special option scout team quarterback recruited specifically to prep ND’s No. 1 defense for the Navy game and Georgia Tech’s triple option attack three weeks ago.

“I think there's always things that we can work on to get better,” Kelly said. “But I think we have established something that I wanted to establish. And that is a base way of playing the option teams and something that we can carry with us and something that can be repeatable that we can work on in the spring and keep our guys familiar with our system as we defend option.”

Notre Dame had more than enough offense to make things uncomfortable for Navy once the Irish defense clamped down.

“When we’re behind, it’s tough,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “That’s not how we’re built.''

Senior C.J. Prosise was a force in the running game and the passing game. The nation’s 12th-leading rusher ran for 129 yards on 21 carries with three touchdowns. He also had four receptions for 56 yards.

The TDs give Prosise nine rushing touchdowns for the season, the most by an Irish player since Cierre Wood had nine and Jonas Gray 12 in the 2011 season.

“He kind of reminds me of Chuck Muncie (a former All-American at Cal),” Niumatalolo said of Prosise. “Just real slithery, and the next thing you know he's gone. Just a really patient back, physical. He's got good vision.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer ran for a score and threw a 30-yard TD pass to Will Fuller on a day in which he passed for 281 yards. He did throw an interception, which led to a Navy score.

But Notre Dame won the turnover battle, 3-1, which greatly figured into the outcome. Oddly, the Mids had committed just one in their first four games. And the Irish had coaxed just four turnovers in their first five games. Only eight FBS schools had gained fewer turnovers this season coming into the weekend.

“We knew we had to play perfect against these guys,” Niumatalolo said. “This was probably our worst game of the season.”

It sure didn’t start out that way. The Navy defense held ND to a three-and-out, then blew down the field to the tune of 70 yards on three plays and 74 seconds to take a 7-0 lead. Navy came into the game with a 42-7 record under Niumatalolo when it scored first.

The Irish answered with a Kizer one yard run. Then, with about 11 minutes left in the second quarter, fullback Chris Swain wasn’t able to pull in a wild pitchout, and Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith recovered at the Navy 7.

Prosise scored on the next play for a 14-7 Irish lead. The Irish led 21-7 when with a backup quarterback and backup fullback, Navy pulled even. Ezell, at 6-1, 253, the largest fullback at Navy in the triple-option era, simply outran the Irish defense once he got into the clear.

“So we went with Grace in the second half, a bigger body,” Kelly said. “And he was able to get himself down on to that fullback a little bit better in the second half.”

First the Irish moved into field goal range in the final 24 seconds of the half, with freshman Justin Yoon nailing a 52-yarder, one yard short of the school record, for a 24-21 Irish advantage.

Navy’s Dishan Romine fumbled the second-half kickoff. Nyles Morgan forced it and Devin Butler recovered at the Navy 26. Prosise scored on the second play thereafter, a 22-yard run, and the Irish played keepaway the rest of the game.

“When we’re clicking on all cylinders and everyone’s doing their job, I believe we’re the best offensive team in the country,” Fuller said. “Here and there we’re making mistakes, so the offense isn’t clicking like it should yet.

“Consistency is our next step.”

The same goes for a defense that has played to extremes at times this season but is at least finished with the triple-option until meeting Navy Nov. 5, 2016, in Jacksonville and Army the next week in San Antonio.

“I think we’ve played pretty well,” Grace said of the Irish defense, “but I think we can take this to a much higher place. I don’t think we’ve even touched where our ceiling can be right now. I don’t think we’ve played a full game yet with D-line, linebackers and secondary all together.

“I think the best football is definitely ahead of us.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's defense takes down Navy's Chris Swain (37) during the second half of the Fighting Irish's 41-24 win over Navy, Saturday, October 10, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ