Notes: Notre Dame blocks 7th punt of 2022, Lenzy enters 'catch of the year' conversation
BALTIMORE — Notre Dame linebacker Prince Kollie was unsurprised by Navy’s onside kick midway through Saturday’s second quarter.
That’s because Brian Mason, special teams coordinator for the Irish, put his kickoff return unit on high alert moments after Navy scored to pull within eight points.
“Right before it happened, coach Mase was like, ‘It’s going to come,’ and it came on that play,” Kollie said after the Irish held on for a 35-32 win. “I was kind of in a bad position but luckily I was able to get the ball.”
Incredibly, Mason’s record-setting punt-block unit made it five straight games with a blocked punt when senior linebacker Jack Kiser broke through against Navy punter Riley Riethman with a little over a minute left in the first half. That set up a 37-yard scoring strike to Jayden Thomas on the next play.
Renowned for its discipline, Navy hadn’t allowed a blocked punt since its 2021 season opener against Marshall.
Kiser became the sixth different player with a blocked punt this year for Notre Dame, joining Bo Bauer (Marshall), Kollie (Stanford), Isaiah Foskey (two against UNLV), Clarence Lewis (Syracuse) and Jordan Botelho (Clemson).
Notre Dame’s seven blocked punts are tied for the school record with coach Heartley “Hunk” Anderson’s 1932-33 teams. Arkansas State, while going 11-0 and playing in the Southland Conference, set the FBS record with 11 blocked punts (in 95 tries) in 1975.
Eight of those belonged to defensive end Jimmy Lisko, a national record matched by Baylor’s James Francis in 1989. Lisko, a second-team AP All-America selection, was listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds and was a ninth-round pick of the Denver Broncos.
Kollie, who reached the end zone against Clemson with his return of Botelho’s block, sounded ready to add to the total, which Notre Dame has achieved in 55 punts.
“As far as punt block, coach Mase does a really good job of scheming up what the opponent does,” Kollie said. “We’ve had seven, I believe. I’m, like, stoked to be on that unit. It’s awesome. I enjoy it.”
Braden Lenzy's 'unbelievable catch'
Braden Lenzy’s quiet senior season took a major step up in volume with a five-catch against Navy.
Highlighting his 67-yard day was a 38-yard magic act for Notre Dame’s second touchdown. Face-guarded by Navy cornerback Mbiti Williams Jr., Lenzy reached around and caught the ball with one hand while balancing it against Williams’ back.
“That was an unbelievable catch,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life. I’m so happy for him.”
The catch was reminiscent of Jayden Thomas’ one-hand TD grab against BYU on Oct. 8 in Las Vegas, but no assistance from an unwitting defender was needed that time. Williams was a year ahead of Thomas at Pace Academy in Atlanta.
While Thomas added a leaping catch for a 37-yard touchdown (his third) that capped a dream first half for Pyne, Lenzy entered Saturday with just 14 catches for 128 yards all season. He barely played against Syracuse and was shut out in the upset of Clemson.
“All season, he’s been open a ton of times,” Pyne said. “Runs as hard as he can. In practice he’s always got a smile on his face. I felt like, ‘I’ve got to give him a shot.’ I scrambled out there. He beat his man by 5 – a couple – yards, and I saw that and I said, ‘I’m going to give him a chance.’ ”
Three injury absences
In addition to safety Brandon Joseph, who sprained his ankle in the first half against Clemson, Notre Dame was without linebacker JD Bertrand (groin) and freshman wideout Tobias Merriweather (concussion) against Navy.
Bertrand, a team captain who is leading the Irish in tackles for a second straight season, was scratched after testing his injury during warmups. Bertrand also missed the first half against both North Carolina and BYU due to second-half targeting ejections in the prior game, but his absence was felt even more against Navy’s triple-option offense.
“They had a couple long runs up the middle with some (gap) misfits,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “Not having JD in there, I think, affects us in terms of production but also leadership — you’re missing a captain.”
Merriweather, who had averaged 20 offensive snaps over the previous three games, wore sunglasses throughout Saturday’s game as he watched from the sideline.
“Hopefully he’s back next week,” Freeman said.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.