Analysis: Did we just see the blueprint for freezing out Drew Pyne and Notre Dame?

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

BALTIMORE — By definition, playing Navy in football tends to be a confounding experience, a temporarily maddening one-off that is to be survived more than savored.  

What happened here Saturday afternoon, however, could have lasting implications for No. 20 Notre Dame, even after it staggered away with a 35-32 win at M&T Bank Stadium.  

“We have to learn how to finish games,” sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie said. “We have to learn how to put opponents away and close games — shut the door completely and not give them any hope. We’re still working on that.”

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

Letting Navy score all 19 second-half points wasn’t just about aesthetics and style points. You might be tempted to say that on the defensive side, where linebacker JD Bertrand (groin) and safety Brandon Joseph sat out with injuries and left the Irish rudderless and flailing at times as the triple option tested both patience and attention spans.

More concerning, even after a fourth straight win pushed Notre Dame to 7-3, was the complete meltdown in the face of Navy’s all-out blitz. After a mostly unbothered Drew Pyne shredded one of the country’s worst secondaries with four first-half touchdown passes, the Middies (3-7) dialed up the heat and brought the house.

Pyne froze.

So-called “hot reads” were available, Marcus Freeman suggested, but for some reason Pyne no longer seemed able to download them.

Nov 12, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  Navy Midshipmen safety Rayuan Lane III (18) sacks Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Drew Pyne (10) during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s how his first seven drop-backs went after the break:

∎ Sack.

∎ Interception (on batted pass No. 9 of the season).

∎ Hurried overthrow of an open Michael Mayer down the sideline.

∎ Sack.

∎ Downfield completion to Deion Colzie for 21 yards on third and 15 as Navy sat back.

∎ Sack.

∎ Sack.

Fuzzy math

The fifth and final sack of Pyne’s second half would come a bit later, all of it suggesting Boston College defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu would soon be taking copious notes and laughing maniacally. The lowly Eagles are up next with a chance to wreck Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

“It was tough,” Pyne said. “If we have nine in protection, they’re bringing 10, so you know you just have to find a way to get the ball out — and just got sacked a little bit.”

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Pyne batted away the notion of a new “blueprint” for opposing defenses.

“I think a lot of people have played us different,” Pyne said. “That’s kind of how people play Notre Dame. At the same time, (the Midshipmen) play their defense because of the way they run the triple option. That’s why they run that defense.”

Pyne, now 7-1 as the Irish starter, shrugged after the offense was held to 12 total yards on 20 second-half plays.

“I don’t expect everyone to change what they’ve been doing all season,” he said.

Freeman saw it differently.

“They were zero-pressuring almost every play,” Freeman said of Navy. “They were bringing everybody and (had) no middle-of the-field help. We have to find ways to attack that.”

What the numbers tell us:What the numbers tell us: Team and individual stats from Notre Dame vs. Navy

There were moments in the first half when Pyne stood in against the blitz and looked like vintage Joe Flacco. A quick flip to Audric Estime for a 30-yard catch-and-run on Notre Dame’s first touchdown was the best example of that version of Pyne.  

The second half he morphed into a shellshocked, Texans-era David Carr.

“The first half, we hit some balls and we were able to check to some things when we saw it coming,” Freeman said. “The second half, we were just not able to beat zero pressure. That’s something we have to improve at because other teams are going to do that.”

You could see the mental wheels spinning for the former defensive coordinator.

“People are going to see (Navy) had success in bringing all-out pressure,” Freeman said. “What you have to do is make defenses pay in the pass game. It’s hard to run against all-out pressure, but in the pass game, you have to make them pay.

“It wasn’t that Drew wasn’t hitting the targets as much as we didn’t have time. We have to make sure we try to protect, and if they’re bringing one more than we have to protect with, we have to get the ball out of our hands and hit some hot routes.”

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman looks on from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game Navy, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

There’s no better security blanket in the country than tight end Michael Mayer, the frontrunner for the John Mackey Award. Mayer was limited to three catches (on four targets) for 23 receiving yards, just one of those catches (for 6 yards) coming after halftime.

Somehow Notre Dame went from freshman Steve Angeli throwing warmup passes on the sideline during Navy’s 10-minute march to a seemingly inconsequential field goal to needing Matt Salerno’s game-sealing recovery of an onside kick with 1:21 left.

“We have to look at the second half and say: How do we become a better football team because of what happened?” Freeman said. “How do we make sure if a team wants to bring all-out pressure vs. our offense, we have our exact answers and execute? I think we had answers, but we didn’t execute.”

They didn’t finish. They didn’t execute. They lost their sense of urgency.

Just when you thought those nagging doubts had been buried beneath the dancing feet of a field-storming crowd after the thrashing of Clemson, Notre Dame spent the final 30 minutes Saturday dredging up its greatest hits.

With No. 8 USC and a Thanksgiving Saturday showdown at the Coliseum coming up fast, this is no time for slippage. The good news is everyone in the winning locker room Saturday understood that, from Freeman on down.

“As much as I’m sitting in there saying, ‘Hey, man, it’s hard to get these wins and we’ve got to celebrate and we’ve got to feel good about it,’ they don’t feel great,” Freeman said. “You could tell.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.