Notebook: Notre Dame's Paula Moala reminded of Penn High days in win over Navy

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The biggest play of Paul Moala’s Notre Dame career to date gave him flashbacks of high school.

Moala’s role as a senior at nearby Penn High in Mishawaka, Ind., was so featured that he moved to offense on occasion and totaled two touchdown passes. Up until Saturday’s game at Notre Dame Stadium, the sophomore struggled to see the field as a backup behind burgeoning rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

The moments Moala has received time have been rewarding for the most part, especially in No. 16 Notre Dame’s 52-20 thrashing of No. 23 Navy (7-2). Moala capped the Irish scoring onslaught with a 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown near the beginning of the fourth quarter.

“I knew that in order to be able to have an opportunity like this,” Moala said, “I’d have to have faith and belief that I’d get the opportunity. That was the first step I think. Then to be able to get that opportunity was just a great experience. It’s truly a blessing from God.”

Defending the vaunted Midshipmen triple-option offense required the Irish (8-2) to remain disciplined. All 11 players must stay to on task of looking to take away the hand-off, quarterback run or toss option. But Moala’s responsibility on his touchdown called for handling two of Navy’s options.

The 6-foot, 216-pound Moala had the quarterback until the pitch. He would then swarm to the ball after the slotback received the pitch. As backup quarterback Perry Olsen tossed the football backward to slotback Myles Fells, Moala batted the ball upward with his left hand. He then secured the football and scored after coming off the edge unblocked.

“I was lucky enough to be able to play both the quarterback and the running back,” Moala said. “I got lucky to be able to play the ball at that moment. The ball just fell into my hands. It felt a little bit like high school, so it was an exhilarating experience.”

Moving from safety to rover this past offseason ascended Moala to second-team status after being buried in the depth chart his first year. He even earned high-leverage reps in the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville. Owusu-Koramoah’s elite play quickly secured himself as Notre Dame’s top rover, however.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has changed his defense’s strategy and personnel groupings on a weekly basis. The opponent’s strengths and weaknesses may dictate how the Irish defense operates. Moala continuing to take advantage of his opportunities may earn him more time.

“He’s a really good football player,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got to find a place to get him on the field because (Owusu-Koramoah) is a really good player, too. Paul is smart, he’s savvy, he’s athletic.”

Defense flexes its muscles

Notre Dame (281) and Tulsa (214) are the only two of nine teams to hold Navy under 290 rushing yards this season. The Midshipmen averaged 4.4 yards over their 64 carries and found the end zone on a two-yard run from Olsen.

Seven of Notre Dame’s eight tackles for a loss came in the first half. Irish linebacker Drew White tallied nine of his team-leading 10 tackles before the break. Notre Dame has held five of its 10 opponents scoreless in the first quarter.

The Irish are allowing 3.4 points per first quarter and have yielded double-digits in the opening frame only once, against Louisville. With Lea as defensive coordinator, the Irish have held 22 of their 23 opponents to 30 or fewer points. Michigan represents the lone opponent to exceed 30 points, defeating Notre Dame 45-14 on Oct. 26.

“Doing our job. As generic as that sounds, we did our job to the best of our abilities,” Irish defensive end Khalid Kareem said. “Everyone was where we needed to be. In their fits, spilling pullers, making tackles.”

Book on the ascent

Quarterback Ian Book finished 14-of-20 passing for 284 yards and five touchdowns. The senior has thrown at least four touchdown passes in five contests. Brady Quinn and Book are the only Notre Dame quarterbacks to throw at least four touchdown passes in more than three games. Quinn accomplished the feat seven times.

Book and Quinn are also the only Irish quarterbacks to throw at least five touchdown passes in two games. Book also accounted for five scores through the air against Bowling Green and New Mexico this season. He threw four touchdown passes against Stanford (2018) and Duke (2019).

“If it’s Major League Baseball, he had a little slump,” said Kelly on Book’s progress since the Virginia Tech game. “I knew that he was capable of (that). We maintained confidence in him. The only thing I ever said to him is, ‘Don’t lose confidence in yourself. Stay confident in yourself.’”

Recruiting news

Three recruits out of the 2022 class landed Notre Dame scholarship offers on Saturday.

Milwaukee Whitefish Bay High offensive lineman Joseph Brunner, Altoona (Iowa) Southeast Polk High cornerback Xavier Nwankpa and Hammond (Wisc.) Saint Croix Central offensive lineman Carson Hinzman reported the Irish offers during their visits for the Navy game.

Only three recruits out of the 2022 class had previously received Irish offers: cornerback Jaeden Gould and wide receivers Tyler Morris and Kaleb Brown.

Squibs

• Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool logged a career-high four touchdowns, along with seven catches for 117 yards. He tied the Irish record for the most receiving touchdowns in a game (Maurice Stovall vs. BYU on Oct. 22, 2005).

Three of Claypool’s scores came in the first half. No Irish player has tallied three first-half receiving touchdowns since at least 1950. The senior has 20 catches for 332 yards and five touchdowns this month.

• Notre Dame scored its first four touchdowns in an eight-play span during the first half.

• Freshman defensive tackle Howard Cross III tied for second on the team in tackles with five.

• Safety Alohi Gilman and wide receiver Chris Finke represented Notre Dame as team captains for the opening coin toss.

• The Irish extended their home winning streak to 17 games, which ranks No. 3 in school history. The top two spots belong to the 1942-50 (28) and 1987-90 (19) Irish teams. Notre Dame owns a 79-18-1 all-time record over Navy.

• Notre Dame’s 38-3 lead at halftime ties its biggest advantage heading into the break since a 35-0 score against Rutgers in 1996. Notre Dame led Bowling Green 35-0 at halftime this season.

• The Midshipmen yielded five touchdown receptions and lost four fumbles against the Irish. They averaged one passing touchdown allowed and one lost fumble in their previous eight contests.

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Notre Dame’s Paul Moala (13), a Penn grad, returns a fumble for a touchdown against Navy Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.