Game story: Navy offense has its way in upset of Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Navy punted.

The official record won’t show it, but it happened. You can rewind the tape. With 2:31 to play in the third quarter on Saturday, senior long snapper Josh Antol snapped the ball from his 40-yard line, and punter Alex Barta sent a spiraling liner that angled out of bounds in Irish territory. Notre Dame sophomore wide receiver Chris Finke let it land along the sideline. The Notre Dame offense prepared to take the field.

With the football, a 24-21 lead and an offense that had scored touchdowns in each of its last two drives, Notre Dame looked primed to sink Navy for the fifth consecutive season.

Instead, an official review revealed a five-yard penalty on Notre Dame — and specifically, freshman safety Devin Studstill — for having too many players on the field during the punt-that-never-was. A fourth-and-six shrank to a fourth-and-one.

Navy converted on a two-yard burst from bulky senior quarterback Will Worth, then grinded out nine more plays before Worth spilled inevitably into the end zone.

It was an appropriate end to a 16-play, 75-yard, nine-minute marathon. For a young, struggling Irish defense, it was a soul-crushing siege in an eventual 28-27 defeat.

Imagine if Notre Dame had never substituted a punt for a penalty.

“I was standing there,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of the fatal penalty. “They had two officials who agreed with me that (Studstill) got off the field.”

Kelly added: “I asked them both, ‘What did you see? I saw him step off the sideline.’ They concurred that they felt they saw the same thing that I saw. They were clearly overruled.

“Listen, Navy won the game. I'm not here to cry over that call. We had chances to get off the field and we couldn't get off the field.”

The Irish defense’s inability to get off the field was the story of the second half at Everbank Field in Jacksonville on Saturday. After Navy took its 28-24 lead, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer led Notre Dame (3-6) 68 yards before the drive stalled on the 14-yard-line. Rather than go for it on fourth-and-four, Kelly opted for a Justin Yoon field goal with 7:28 remaining that narrowed the deficit to 28-27.

Kizer never touched the ball again.

“You’re going to have to score every time you touch the ball against Navy, and we’ve seen that on film,” said Kizer, who completed 19 of 27 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 52 yards. “We knew it going into the game, and we weren’t able to execute.”

In fact, Notre Dame scored on five of its six offensive drives on Saturday, registering three touchdowns and two field goals.

But that’s the problem: the Irish had just six total drives, including a grand total of two in the second half.

“It puts a lot of pressure on you,” Kizer said. “We knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I’ve never been a part of anything like it.”

Kizer wasn’t a part of much in the closing minutes. When the Notre Dame defense needed a stop to get the ball back on Navy’s final drive, it couldn’t find one. A Nick Coleman pass interference penalty flipped a third-and-nine into a new set of downs. The Midshipmen converted with rushing plays on fourth-and-one and third-and-three. On fourth-and-six on Notre Dame’s 30-yard line with 1:19 to play, Worth completed a pass on a crossing route to senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman for 15 yards and the game’s final first down.

It was a 14-play, 57-yard drive that squeezed the life out of a prospective Notre Dame comeback.

“Getting those stops is tough,” said senior linebacker and team captain James Onwualu, who finished with eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. “When they get into fourth down and they’re going for it and you get a third down stop and now you have to get another stop, it’s tough for a defense. We needed to make a couple more plays.”

Added senior defensive end Isaac Rochell: “The toughest part is the idea of winning third down (because) you need to win fourth down, too. It kind of takes away your ideology of, ‘Let’s win on third down.’ It is taxing. You’re not done after three.”

Navy made sure of that on Saturday, converting 8 of 13 third downs and 4 of 5 fourth downs. Worth rushed for 175 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, the most memorable being a career-long 60-yard burst in the first half. Navy rushed for 320 yards and 5.7 yards per carry in the victory, its first over the Irish since Kelly’s first season in 2010.

For the Irish offense, 104 receiving yards and a touchdown from senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. weren’t enough. Seventy-three rushing yards on 12 carries from sophomore running back Josh Adams wasn’t enough. Tight end Durham Smythe’s second touchdown catch of the season wasn’t enough.

Six offensive drives certainly weren’t enough, and one special teams penalty was too many.

“We made a couple big plays, and that substitution error hurt us,” Onwualu said. “You think you got a stop. Then you’re back on the field, and all of a sudden they’re driving again. It’s tough.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Navy’s Will Worth runs the ball as Notre Dame’s Nyles Morgan (5) gets tripped up during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA college football game at EverBank field in Jacksonville, Florida Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA