Noie: Once again, one big play helps No. 8 Notre Dame muster needed momentum

Tom Noie
ND Insider

A big play at a big moment was begging to be made just before the break in Saturday’s game between Navy and No. 8 Notre Dame. 

It was right there. All the Irish had to do was run it the way they did earlier in the week in practice during their two-minute drill. 

Well … 

We’ll get to that. 

The talented wide receiver with the ridiculous upside could see it was open, so much so that he barked about it to the sideline. The head coach also saw it, sensed it, realized it, and made his feelings known out on the field to his graduate student quarterback. 

Going back to the huddle on the fifth play of the final drive of the first half, Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin knew he was open. Standing on the sideline, Brian Kelly knew Austin was open. In the huddle, quarterback Jack Coan knew where the next ball would have to go. 

Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin Jr. (4) runs along the sideline during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame spread the field with four receivers, who each ran vertical routes. Coan glanced right to fool the safety, then turned his attention to Austin, flying down the left sideline. Notre Dame couldn’t possibly run the same play again and get the same look again, could it? 

It could. 

It did. 

“Coach Kelly was screaming at me because it was open the play before,” said Coan, who had instead found Kyren Williams for three yards. “I followed his plan and you get the ball to Kevin Austin, you know he can take it the distance every time. 

“I trust him on the matchups all day.” 

For the second straight week, one big play at a big moment by the Irish offense helped swing momentum. The previous week, it was a 91-yard tackle-breaking/stiff-arm throwing scamper from Williams against North Carolina. On a sun-splashed Saturday, it was Coan to Austin for 70 yards and a score that gave Notre Dame (8-1) enough relaxed room to romp to a 34-6 victory. 

Notre Dame’s Jack Coan (17) throws a pass during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

► Scoring summary: No. 8 Notre Dame 34, Navy 6

►Statistics:What the numbers say: Team and individual statistics from Notre Dame-Navy 

It was a drive that wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. Not after a 75-yard cannon punt from Navy’s Riley Riethman pinned the Irish at their own 5 with 1:50 remaining. Not after the offense tallied a combined 49 yards and no scores on 13 rather dull plays in its first three drives against a Navy defense that offered myriad looks and coverages and issues. 

Here’s some Tampa Two on this down. How about dropping eight on this next one, and then maybe mixing pressures for good measure. On the Austin touchdown, Navy was in Cover Two. 

It took time to figure it all out, but the Irish figured it out. 

There was more still to figure out in those final first-half moments. 

Why? 

Well … 

The first time the Irish ran their two-minute offense Saturday was the first time they had run it all week. Two-minute drills aren’t usually needed against the Navy option offense, so the Irish spent zero practice periods on it. 

When they needed it, when they had to have it, they had it. Even backed up five yards from their own end zone. The goal there, Kelly said, was not to get too greedy. That’s why they opened with a pair of Williams runs that gained 10 and 12 yards.

“If you try to get too much too soon, you end up punting the football back to them,” Kelly said. “I was happy to run the football there and then get a little bit of breathing room and then take some shots.” 

Offense just kept at it to find a way

Five plays, 95 yards and 60 seconds after going to work, the Irish were in the end zone. Two-minute drill or no two-minute drill, the Austin route and play was there. 

“It’s something we had game planned all week,” Kelly said. 

That’s why everyone saw it, why everyone knew it would work, why everyone wanted to come back to it a second time. 

For Austin, it was an overdue excellent effort, the kind we thought we’d see every week following his dynamite debut on Labor Day Sunday night in Tallahassee when he had four catches for 91 yards and a score in basically his first college game against Florida State. Since that night, it’s been good weeks and OK games followed by not-so-good weeks and not-so-good games.

What version of Austin are we going to get week to week? Still don't know. On Saturday, he snared six passes for a career-high 139 yards and the score.

So we got the good one, the one this offense needs. And now, really needs. With another receiver having gone down with injury – Avery Davis suffered what NBC terms a “significant knee injury” – Austin’s going to have to be even a bigger part of the game plan (more consistent catcher) the season’s final three weeks. 

“I just have the mentality to just keep going,” he said. “Just push forward and improve every single week, just keep going.” 

This game was a weird one, in a lot of ways. Yes, it ended like so many Notre Dame games against unranked opponents have ended of late – with a win. But it was just odd how the Irish got there. 

Like when the game kind of flatlined late in the second half, and fans in the stadium did the Wave to create some energy. After two straight night home games, where the stadium took on an electricity all its own, that same juice just lacked for this one. 

After that sluggish start, the offense and coordinator Tommy Rees recalibrated. After doing next to nothing on its first three drives, Notre Dame hit for 235 yards on plays and three scores (two touchdowns, field goal) its last three of the half. 

“We stayed at it,” Kelly said. “It’s a defense that you just got to be patient, keep prodding. I thought we did a nice job there and broke the game open.” 

Three consecutive home games – three consecutive Saturdays of long tailgate days for those folks out in Joyce South and points elsewhere – will do that. Nod if you know. You know. 

Still, Saturday ended just the way the previous Saturday night ended, and the Saturday night before that and the Saturday night (albeit on the road) before that. With a win. 

“Gets us another step closer to where we want to be,” Kelly said. 

Also gets Notre Dame another win over another unranked opponent. That’s a college football-best 39 straight and counting if you’re counting. With three unranked opponents to close the season, the Irish get shots to make it 40, 41 and 42. 

“I guess that’s pretty consistent,” Kelly said. “Consistency in performance is important, right, in anything you do. What we’re doing, how we do it on a day to day basis is, for us, about our process every single day. It's proven to be effective. 

“We won’t be changing anything anytime soon.” 

No reason with seemingly smooth sailing the rest of the way – three games, two on the road, against three meh opponents. An 11-1 season is there for the taking. We’re often reminded from August to September and through October that the college football season is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s long. It’s hard. It’s trying. But the bulk of those marathon miles are behind the Irish. 

Time now to sprint. Time to finish it. Call the same play again if needed. Let’s go. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI