Lesar: Time was right for Notre Dame to be bold in fourth quarter

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When the game’s on the line, it’s time to be bold.

Navy’s selfish offense, which refused to share the football with Notre Dame very often, completely changed the trajectory of Saturday’s game.

At crunch time, Irish coach Brian Kelly refused to adjust.

Conservative and stubborn came up short.

There were some pretty significant quirks and turns in Saturday’s 28-27 Irish loss to Navy. One that lots of people will talk about was Notre Dame freshman Devin Studstill not getting off the field before the Midshipmen got off their only punt. The five penalty yards opened the door for Navy to continue a 9-minute drive that yielded what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Just another of a season’s worth of boneheaded plays by the special teams.

But, beyond that, there’s Kelly’s misplaced confidence in his defense. It eventually ended up costing the Irish dearly.

Fourth-and-four at the Navy 14. Irish trailed, 28-24, just under 8 minutes left in the game, and they are coming off that long Navy possession.

Do the math.

Navy quarterback Will Worth was a beast – 175 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. He was a bull whenever the Midshipmen needed one.

Remember, Notre Dame, which had just two second-half possessions, was 9 of 13 in third-down conversions and successful on its only fourth-down try.

Pretty good odds, right?

Receivers had been open. While navigating the ball to the Navy 20, DeShone Kizer had completed three passes for 48 yards. He then misfired to Torii Hunter, Jr.; came up empty to Kevin Stepherson; and completed a pass for six yards to Stepherson, to set up the big decision.

Go for the first down with an ultimate goal of a touchdown? Or settle for a chip-shot field goal and count on the defense to get the ball back?

“Well, (I) certainly thought about going for it,” Kelly said of the play. “Now in hindsight, it's something that we didn't get the ball back.

“But 28-27 made sense to me at the time. Even if they score a touchdown, we still have the opportunity to score and get the two point conversion. It made sense to me at 28-27. (It) was the right call at fourth-and-four. I think if it's fourth and one or two, maybe …”

Justin Yoon converted on the 31-yard field goal. Navy got the ball back with a one-point lead and 7:28 to play, and ran out the clock. The Midshipmen converted on two fourth-down situations – the second, with about a minute to play, was fourth-and-six.

“Those are the decisions you’ve got to make,” said Kelly. “Again, I don't question the decision to go for the field goal other than the fact that we couldn't get the ball back.”

He’s the only one who didn’t question it.

Granted, it’s the heat of the battle, the sideline is chaos, and emotions are running high, but …

Facts are facts. If Notre Dame was going to win that game, it was the offense that was going to do it. Not the defense.

Navy was realistic enough to figure out that if it was going to beat the Irish, it would have to hold onto the ball. Besides 8 of 13 third-down conversions, the Midshipmen were 4 of 5 on fourth down.

“They just needed a field goal,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said of his team’s final possession. “I just thought we couldn't give them the ball back. I just didn't want to give them the ball back. We're going to put the pressure on the offense to eat the clock, put it in Will's hands, and (told offensive coordinator) coach (Irvin) Jasper to come up with a play. Fortunately coach called some great plays and Will executed them.”

The last of those critical fourth down plays, from the Irish 30 with six yards to go to ice the victory, featured Navy deviating from its MO of an option run game for Worth to throw a 15-yard pass to Jamir Tillman.

A pass at the most critical time?

“Everything is run first,” Irish linebacker Greer Martini said of the plan to handle the Navy attack. “If they throw the ball, you just scramble to get back.”

When the Notre Dame offense is forced to score on five of six of its possessions just to stay within a point of Navy, the margin of error has been greatly reduced.

Crunch time is when bold wins the game. Niumatalolo was bold. He was wise enough not to leave anything to chance with his defense.

Kelly should take notice.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks at the scoreboard during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA college football game at EverBank field in Jacksonville, Florida Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA