Seniors, WR Kevin Stepherson shine as Notre Dame beats Navy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They danced and hugged and sang in the rain until their throats were raw, appreciating the context of what had just happened more than the lack of obvious style points.

Perhaps the crowning achievement on a soggy-but-satisfying 24-17 Senior Day victory over Navy Saturday by AP No. 9 Notre Dame was that it wasn’t just about the seniors. It was also about the players they influenced and helped transform, who are left behind to fight again in 2018.

And who fought Saturday for their happy home-field ending at Notre Dame Stadium after those 26 seniors had laid and recalibrated the groundwork for the past 11 months in the aftermath of a 4-8 mark in 2016.

“They really cared about their teammates and wanting to win this football game,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, his Irish (9-2) eighth in the latest CFP rankings and headed to Stanford (8-3) next Saturday (8 p.m. EST; ABC-TV) with a chance to lock up at New Year’s Six bowl bid.

“I loved the way they kept fighting,” he continued. “We may not have won this game last year.”

The Irish seniors’ legacy-in-progress may have never looked better this season than how sophomore Kevin Stepherson wore it against the ball-hogging Midshipmen (6-4) Saturday in a cold, persistent rain.

The wide receiver — who wasn’t so much an afterthought through 15 spring practices, the entirety of August training camp and the first four games of this renaissance season — caught five passes for a career-high 103 yards, including the tying and go-ahead touchdowns.

“Well, it's been a journey, there's no question about it,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “I think I've said this many times, I'm proud of the fact that he has shown the passion and the perseverance to be here today.

“He's had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he's been under, but he's persevered and Notre Dame's been great for him. As a football player, he's grown a lot, too, by being so much more locked in.”

The Irish defense complemented his heroics by truncating the final three Navy drives by forcing a 37-yard field goal that missed wide left, getting an interception from sophomore cornerback Troy Pride Jr. inside the Irish 20, and turning the Mids over on downs at the ND 25 with 1:28 left in the game and no timeouts to prolong a victory formation on ND’s part.

“If you want games that require just a grittiness to them and a toughness and a resolve, this is it,” Kelly said. “If you want to go see 62-52, go to your local Big 12 network. It's just good, tough football.”

Greer Martini, not surprisingly, led the way for the Irish defense with a career-high 15 tackles. That gives him 61 in six career games against triple-option teams.

“(Navy coach) Ken Niumatalolo asked me if he was a senior, and he hoped that he would not be back next year,” Kelly said. “He's tried to block him; he can't block him. He was our player of the game. He got the game ball.”

Sophomore Julian Love added 14 tackles starting at safety and finishing at his normal cornerback position.

Navy, though, played keepaway to near-perfection.

The Mids, which tag-teamed quarterbacks Zach Abey and Garret Lewis, held an 80-49 command in offensive plays run and a 42:42 to 17:18 edge in time of possession. ND is the first FBS team to win a game with such little time of possession since Texas (15:58) beat Rice on Sept. 12, 2015.

Even with all the time and plays, ND outgained Navy 327-318 and held the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense to 3.8 yards per rush. The Mids came in averaging 5.9 yards.

As for the Notre Dame offense beyond Stepherson, Wimbush settled in after a 1-for-5 start to finish 9-of-18 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 163.2 pass-efficiency rating is a career-best.

Most impressive was moving the Irish 62 yards down the field in one-minute flat just before halftime. Stepherson has a hand in that scoring drive two, with a 23-yard reception on the first play of it and drawing a pass-interference penalty late in the drive to give the Irish the ball on the Navy 2.

Wimbush, with no timeouts to stop the clock of the play didn’t work, scored on a two-yard keeper with eight ticks left before halftime to tie the score at 10-10. That was his 14th rushing TD of the year, most ever by four in a season by ND QBs and three short of the school record of 17 by players of all positions.

Wimbush finished with 41 rushing yards on eight carries, pushing him to 704 for the season and past Carlyle Holiday (2001) and Tony Rice (1988) into second-place on the single-season rushing list for QBs. Only Rice (884 yards in 1989) remains ahead of him.

“The conditions weren't great to throw the football today, but I thought he was gritty, hung with it, and we went back to some tough throws, too, that he had to make. And I was really proud of the way he responded.”

Josh Adams passed the career 3,000-yard mark and moved pas Julius Jones for fifth place on the career rushing list with 105 yards on 18 carries.

After Navy pulled ahead 17-10 at the 7:59 mark of the third quarter on a 12-yard scoring pass from Abey to Craig Scott — his fifth pass reception and first ever in the end zone — Wimbush needed only 1:28 to move the Irish 78 yards and tie the game on a 30-yard strike to Stepherson.

Stepherson untied the game, 24-17, with a nine-yard reception at the 11:49 mark of the fourth quarter.

“He's been with us since January,” Wimbush said of Stepherson, “and in the process of rebuilding this program and (turning) this thing around. So I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself and being ready for this opportunity.”

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Notre Dame’s Kevin Stepherson (29) celebrates a touchdown next to teammate Durham Smythe (80) during the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN