Instant observations: No. 20 Notre Dame nearly squanders big lead vs. Navy football

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Three quick thoughts and other news and notes and anecdotes following Saturday’s game between No. 20 Notre Dame and Navy, won by Notre Dame, 35-32, in front of 62,124 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. 

∎ That one got way too close for comfort, and almost got away from Notre Dame, which led 35-13 at halftime after scoring five of the six times it had the ball.

Then the second half happened, and it was all Navy. Like, ALL Navy. A long drive. A couple of scores. A couple more stops. Navy turned up the defensive pressure and the Irish almost were burned. From a 35-13 lead to up 35-32 with just over a minute left.

Notre Dame seemingly eased into the second half. It never returned to the rhythm it had early. It couldn't move the ball. It couldn't protect quarterback Drew Pyne. It looked like they were already making plans for the night after the charter flight returned to South Bend.

How the points were scored:Notre Dame holds off Navy, 35-32

Thanks to Matt Salerno for ending any possible drama.

Burn that second half film if you're Notre Dame. It was that ugly.

"We didn't finish the way we wanted to," Marcus Freeman told ABC afterward.

Not even close.

Notre Dame wide receiver Jayden Thomas, right, celebrates his first half touchdown with quarterback Drew Pyne (10) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

∎ Now that’s the way to work the final two minutes of the first half. 

Notre Dame (7-3) excelled at every phase and it really helped put this one away while dropping a serious sledgehammer on Navy (3-7). 

Trailing 28-13 following a Pyne touchdown, Navy got the ball back with 2:17 remaining before intermission. The Midshipmen had no timeouts left, and needed a first down to keep the clock moving. Three plays and seven yards and an Irish timeout later, it was time to punt. 

That meant it was time for special teams to shine. 

Jack Kiser blocked the Navy punt, the seventh time this season the Irish punt coverage team has blocked a punt. Notre Dame took over on the Navy 37 and was back in the end zone one play later when Pyne found Jayden Thomas on a diving catch in the end zone to make it 35-13. The Irish saw a chance to seize control of this one, and did so by acing all three phases of the game in a matter of five plays. Unbelievably impressive. 

Notre Dame wide receiver Jayden Thomas (83) makes a diving catch for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Navy , Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

∎ Play Navy and talk almost always turns to the discipline of the Midshipmen. The way they play. The way they handle their business in every-day life. Everything. But the discipline of Notre Dame was pretty solid as well. 

The only way the Midshipmen had a chance to win Saturday was to catch the Irish asleep on a play here or there. Get them thinking too much about stopping the fullback dive (ugh!) and suddenly, hit a big one and stay in the game. 

Navy tried to do it twice late in the first half, and Notre Dame had answers both times. 

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) runs the ball for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Navy , Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

Trailing 21-13, Navy attempted an onside kick. Nope. Prince Kollie jumped on the squib kick. Next Navy possession, Navy tried a little trickeration with a flea flicker pass back to quarterback Xavier Arline. Clarence Lewis closed quickly and made the interception. Pyne then capped the ensuing drive with a touchdown scramble. 

Early in the fourth quarter, Navy tried to catch Notre Dame napping with a short kickoff. Audric Estime, one of the up men, was ready for it and returned it 29 yards.

Navy threw a little of everything at Notre Dame on Saturday, and the Irish were ready. And responded. 

Worth noting

The official unavailable list for Notre Dame, released by the program’s public relations department 90 minutes before kickoff, listed two players — safety Brandon Joseph and wide receiver Tobias Merriweather. 

Linebacker J.D. Bertrand then walked out of the team’s tunnel is a game jersey and gold shorts for warmups. Forty minutes before kickoff, Notre Dame announced that the team’s leading tackler (60) also would not play. Bertrand had played in every game each of the last two years after appearing in only three as a freshman in 2019. 

Freshman Junior Tuihalamaka made his first career start in place of Bertrand. 

Why did Notre Dame have such little success stopping the fullback dive? Uh, not having Bertrand and Joseph in the middle changed had something to do with it. Both of them being out was a big deal. 

Joseph was considered questionable/doubtful much of the week after suffering a sprained ankle early in the win over Clemson. Merriweather, a freshman wide receiver, was a bit of a surprise. He was not mentioned during the week by coach Marcus Freeman as having any issue that might affect his playing status. Merriweather did travel with the team and was on the sideline during the game. 

Worth quoting

“Just find a way to beat Navy.”  Bob Davie during his time as Notre Dame coach. (Sorry, but that one never gets old. On Saturday, it almost came true).

By the numbers

0: Points scored by Notre Dame in the second half.

4: Total yards for Notre Dame in the third quarter. 

4: Different Irish to catch a touchdown pass in the first half. 

5: Sacks allowed by Notre Dame, all in the second half.

7: Notre Dame blocked its seventh punt this season late in the first half thanks to Jack Kiser. Make that five blocked punts in the last four games. 

9: Consecutive completions by Drew Pyne in the first quarter, which included two touchdowns. Pyne’s first incompletion arrived on the first play of the second quarter. Next play, he found Jayden Thomas for 38 yards down the middle on third down. 

10:01: Time elapsed on Navy’s opening drive of the second half, which lasted 16 plays over 72 yards and ended in a field goal. 

19: Saturday was Notre Dame’s 19th victory over Navy when the game is played in Baltimore, where the Irish haven’t lost to the Midshipmen since 1956. 

34: Consecutive games played (each one in his collegiate career) with at least one catch for Irish tight end Michael Mayer, who kept the streak going Saturday with a three-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage. 

70: Degrees at kickoff in Baltimore. Wasn’t even half that warm (33 degrees) back in South Bend, where a winter weather advisory awaited the return of the Irish traveling party later Saturday evening. 

124.8: Average rushing yards per game allowed this season by Notre Dame. Not even halfway through the second quarter, Navy already had 144, 101 of those courtesy of fullback Daba Fofana. 

323: Total yards for Notre Dame in a first half that saw the Irish score 35 points. 

Next up

Hard to believe but Notre Dame has reached the end of the line with its home schedule (sorry, loyal tailgaters) when Boston College (2-7) heading into Saturday’s game at North Carolina State) comes to town Saturday for Senior Day. Notre Dame has won the last eight in the series after losing six straight. 

The Irish are 3-2 at home and have won three straight. Notre Dame hasn’t lost a Senior Day game since 2016 (Virginia Tech). 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.