Hansen: Best part of Notre Dame's 52-20 rout of Navy is that the best may be yet to come

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A Notre Dame team grudgingly stuck in big-picture land since its soggy crumbling at Michigan three weeks ago had reason to readily linger there and soak it on Saturday.

Something far more valuable than control of its postseason destiny — which, for the record, the Irish still doesn’t have — emerged from CFP 16th-ranked ND’s 52-20 dismissing of 23rd-ranked Navy at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish (8-2) got better.

Better at the quarterback position. Better defensively. Better tangibly, palpably and probably sustainably as well.

There are many ways to arrive at 10-2, still the regular-season ceiling for this Notre Dame team, but to be driving and surging and burgeoning toward the 2020 season is only the template worth embracing and the one the Irish may have incrementally unlocked the past three weeks.

“They found out how to be present,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of his players, winners of 17 successive home games. “They found out how to avoid listening to all of the expectations and the noise — and just play football. They play fast. They play free. I could tell in pregame, Navy was in trouble. They really were.

“And that’s just the maturation of a group of guys that needed to figure out how to go from preparation phase to playing phase, and they learned that at Michigan. They learned that it’s not just about preparation.

“You can work as hard as you want. You have to flip the switch. And they didn’t at Michigan. … Since that time, they’ve learned how to do it. And we’ll be tough to beat down the stretch.”

They were tough from the outset Saturday in front of the first non-sellout crowd (74,080, with 77,622 being capacity) to watch a game at Notre Dame Stadium in 46 years, a span of 273 home games.

Notre Dame pushed the ball down the field, mostly through the air or scrambles from Ian Book, on the first offensive possession of the game. The Irish converted a fourth-and-1 at the Navy 23 and capped the 75-yard, 11-play drive with the first of four Chase Claypool TD receptions — this one a seven-yarder.

With 9:39 left in the first quarter, a Navy team (7-2) that hadn’t trailed in the last 15 quarters-plus coming into the game and only 39:01 all season found itself in a 7-0 hole that swelled to as large as 45-3 at the 9:55 mark of the third quarter.

Other than Paul Moala’s 27-yard fumble return 21 seconds into the fourth quarter, the deeper parts of the Notre Dame depth chart camouflaged, if not shredded, much of the statistical context of just how dominating the Irish were in the 93rd rendition of ND-Navy and the most lopsided since the 2012 Irish prevailed 50-10 in Ireland.

By game’s end Notre Dame held a modest 50-yard advantage in total yards (410-360), got outrushed 281-105 and late Navy play keep-away 36:00 to 24:00 in possession time. All benign.

What mattered were the four fumbles the Irish coaxed, two forced by senior defensive end Khalid Kareem, and recovered by linebacker Asmar Bilal, defensive end Jamir Jones in his first college start, linebacker Drew White and Moala.

“We were active. We were fast. We were physical,” Kelly said. “They (Navy) haven’t played a team quite like that all year. And it’s difficult.

“We talk so much about our inability to map the speed of the triple-option. Well, they can’t map the speed of our defense.”

White, whose ascent to starting middle linebacker this year started in a relief appearance against Navy last season, continued his impressive growth curve Saturday with a team-high 10 tackles.

Claypool’s four TDs mattered, too. The recipient of the game ball from Kelly, the senior was on the receiving end of half of QB Ian Book’s 14 completions, good for 117 yards.

For the third week in a row, Book further distanced himself from the career-low 69.73 pass-efficiency mark in the 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26.

Against Virginia Tech, he was at 112.88. Last week at Duke he improved to 132.51. Saturday against the nation’s No. 23 pass-efficiency defense — and a unit in the top 25 in virtually every major defensive category — Book put up a 271.78 mark, less than one point off his career best.

Translated into standard numbers, that’s 14-of-20 for 284 yards and five TDs. That included a 70-yard connection with swift sophomore Braden Lenzy for a TD, the longest completion of Book’s career.

“He can throw the ball deep, so you can take that one off the list ... of many,” Kelly said defiantly but with a smile. “I mean, I knew what we had. I knew what he was going to give us. If it’s major league baseball, he had a little slump. I knew what he was capable of.

“We maintained confidence in him. The only thing I ever said to him was, ‘Don’t lose confidence in yourself. Stay confident in yourself.’

“He works so hard. He does all the right things. It was just a matter of there was too much noise and he had to find a mechanism, as the quarterback at Notre Dame, to eliminate all the noise that comes with it. And he has and he’s found it. He’s in a great spot and he’s going to continue to progress.”

And the next two weeks to end the regular season, Book faces the No. 126 team in total defense (out of 130) in Boston College next Saturday, and No. 87 in Stanford on Nov. 30.

As to where this might all lead this postseason, it’s still the Cotton Bowl at the high end and Camping World Bowl as a nice worst-case scenario. And there’s a not-entirely-convoluted path that would re-couple Notre Dame and Navy in the Cotton.

But where the Irish distancing themselves from Michigan might lead beyond this postseason is more intriguing.

“We’re at our all-time high and, hopefully, next week we create a new high,” White said.

“You talk about success,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t have to have a quantitative bowl game or championship. It has to do with days like today where you see it all come together.

“You see your guys excited, happy, fulfilled. Just an exciting day to watch our football team have so much enjoyment by execution through an outstanding game plan. So a fun day. Fun day for everybody associated with Notre Dame.”

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Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) strips Navy’s Malcolm Perry (10) during Saturday’s game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) scrambles against Navy Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.