Analysis: Navy bullied Notre Dame where and when it mattered most

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most condemning image for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, in an autumn full of equal parts disappointment and distortion, can’t be tucked away as a negative memento in a forgettable season.

Instead, it should be at the very core of his offseason rallying cry, an offseason that may be getting an early start, on Nov. 27.

In a 28-27 loss to Navy Saturday at Jacksonville, Fla., one play after an American Athletic Conference replay crew botched a rule interpretation to ND’s disadvantage, a much more disturbing sequence unfolded.

Navy, with the second-most inexperienced offensive line in the 128-team FBS and with a quarterback in Will Worth originally scripted to be an understudy to injured QB Tago Smith, surged and domineered an Irish defensive front on a fourth-and-1 play to perpetuate a drive that led to the eventual go-ahead score.

This wasn’t coach Ken Niumatalolo trickery or algebraic schematic nuances at work.

This was smash-mouth, in-your-face, brazenry from a team that shouldn’t have had the raw, physical material to pull it off.

And the Irish (3-6) flinched. And more than once.

When Kelly was asked Sunday what his roadmap back from close-loss purgatory looks like, with the last three regular-season games of 2016 syncing with the promise of 2017, the seventh-year Irish coach argued against seismic changes.

“I think you have to look at how your team is playing,” he said. “And you've got to look at what your football team looks like, what's their preparation like, what's their attitude like.

“We've got a lot of inexperienced players that are gaining great experience. And we're still growing up, and I love the way we compete and play hard. … It's hard for me to want to make any significant changes. I know we lost the football game, and the first thing is to look to make some changes.”

An exception needs to be rediscovering the toughness in the trenches, on both sides of the ball.

Beyond that, where does ND go from here?

To San Antonio, Texas of course, to play another triple-option team in Army (5-4), with statistically a vastly better defense than Navy (6-2) but against decidedly inferior competition to the Mids’. Army is sixth nationally in total defense, the Mids 86th.

The Irish big picture is scrambled, though, because the questions are so scattered. So here then is a smattering of perhaps disjointed but, nevertheless, pertinent observations that matter most or are at least semi-amusing.

• Notre Dame opened Sunday in Vegas as an 11-point favorite over Army for Saturday’s Shamrock Series matchup, which quickly moved to 11½, just as the Navy line moved ND’s direction. But, as has been the case for the past several weeks, ticket prices have gone in the other direction on the secondary market.

On StubHub, the cheapest ticket you could get for ND-Army was $3 less on Sunday than it was on Friday — $19 (face value $45-$250). Strangely, the least expensive parking pass is $63.

• An unofficial count of plays logged Saturday by the reigning Bronko Nagurski National Player of the Week, nose guard Jarron Jones, was roughly a quarter of the 64 the Irish defense was on the field against Navy.

When Kelly was pressed about it Sunday in light of Jones’ domination of Miami (Fla.) the previous Saturday, his response was: “It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He's got a job to do, and he can't be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set, because he's got to play gap and he has a responsibility.”

Kelly went on to say that even if Jones dominated inside, Navy could take him out of the game by running more plays to the perimeter.

Jones ended up with zero tackles in the game, one fewer than what little brother Jamir, a reserve outside linebacker, garnered against the Mids.

The odd part is Jarron Jones excelled against the option in his two previous shots at it. He missed last year’s triple-option encounters with Georgia Tech and Navy because of a torn MCL. But he flourished in 2014 against Navy, a 49-39 Irish victory, with five tackles before an ankle injury ended his night.

And in 2013, the Navy game was a career breakthrough for him. He came into the game with three tackles over eight games that season as an enigmatic backup defensive end. Severe attrition at the interior of the Irish D-Line prompted the Irish coaching staff to plop him into a tight game with the Mids.

In limited duty, Jones responded with four tackles in his first taste of nose guard, more than doubling his season tackle total in a 38-34 Irish survival. Three weeks later, he drew his first collegiate start.

So, did a Lisfranc (arch) injury at the end of 2014 and an MCL tear in preseason 2015 change who Jones is mentally and/or physically against option teams? Saturday’s playing time and production against Army may be very telling.

• Concussions have come in bunches for the Irish. Three players left ND’s 30-27 win over Miami on Oct. 29 with concussion symptoms. Two — offensive guard Colin McGovern and linebacker Greer Martini — returned to play against Navy. Nose guard Daniel Cage did not.

On Saturday, safety Drue Tranquill (four tackles) and cornerback Julian Love (eight tackles) were concussion sufferers. They’ll go through concussion protocol this week to determine their availability for Saturday’s Army game.

• Quarterback DeShone Kizer is ascending again. After going 19-of-27 passing for 233 yards with three touchdowns in just six Irish offensive possessions Saturday, the junior ranks 23rd nationally in passing efficiency after sinking to 35th.

If you extract the hurricane game against a middling North Carolina State pass defense (59th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, 91st in passing yards allowed), Kizer’s amended 162.8 rating would place him ninth nationally in passing efficiency.

• Longtime statistical trends have even turned against Kelly this season. Five such ones did in the Navy loss.

Kelly came into the season 42-18-2 in his career in games decided by three or fewer points. This year? 1-3. … In games decided by seven or fewer points: Career 75-33-2. This year 1-4.

Games in which his team scored first: 154-29. This year 3-5. … Games in which his teams were leading after three quarters: 189-13. This year 2-2. … And finally, games as the ND head coach in which his teams went turnover-free: 19-0. This year 0-2.

• A loss in any of ND’s final three games would seemingly eliminate the Irish from bowl eligibility, but it may take two losses to make that happen.

Because of the over-proliferation of bowl games, three 5-7 teams made last year’s bowl lineup, chosen on the basis of their Academic Progress Rate scores.

And all three teams — Nebraska. Minnesota and San Jose State — won their respective bowl game.

• Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie is bowl-eligible at New Mexico, despite his Lobos (6-3) dropping early-season decisions to New Mexico State and Rutgers. But after a 35-26 win over Nevada Saturday night, Davie’s team is in contention for a divisional title in the Mountain West Conference at 4-1.

All of which further increases the chances Davie will be New Mexico’s coach when it plays at Notre Dame Stadium in 2019. And, yes, he now runs the triple-option and can lay claim to being the nation’s No. 1 rushing team, edging out No. 2 Army by almost 40 yards a game.

Perhaps more uncanny is former Irish coach Lou Holtz, on his national satellite radio show Sunday, calling his former defensive coordinator “a very good coach and an outstanding person.” Holtz, who had a terrible falling out with Davie after Holtz left ND and Davie took over, said he actually went and visited Davie in Albuquerque.

It should be noted, Holtz did refer to the Lobos coach repeatedly as Bob “Davies.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has infused enthusiasm and better fundamentals in the Irish defense since taking over on Sept, 25, but can he coax toughness? (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)