As No. 20 Notre Dame’s new fairness of a week-long upset for the ages dissipated at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Saturday, an equally troubling afterthought punctuated an embarrassing Irish escape.
Navy’s second-half defense left a blueprint for future ND opponents Boston College and USC to ponder, if not outright plagiarize.
“We have to go back and look and see what exactly happened,” said the Irish coach Marcus Freeman said after a 35-13 halftime jaunt escalated into a 35-32-knuckler white. “And we have to make sure somehow that we are better because of what happened in the second half.”
The first-year Irish head coach deserves credit for his post-match balance and rotation cycle following one of the worst halves in Irish football in recent memory. But it should never have come to this.
First, here’s what the second half looked like numerically:
Twelve yards total on offense. Under-23 rushing yards. An average of 0.9 meters per game. Five sacks dropped. An interception dropped on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. One-third conversion in six tries. Overall, the Irish were outscored 19-0 and had six penalties for 49 yards after halftime.
It’s only Matt Salerno jumped on a Marine onside kick with 81 seconds left as the Mids (3-7) lacked nerve.
The failure of Notre Dame’s coaching staff to make obvious in-game adjustments a week after leading a top-five team at Clemson out of Notre Dame Stadium by three touchdowns was beyond baffling.
The fact that the Irish (7-3) extended the country’s longest active winning streak in November to 18 games and prevented their bowl prospects from shifting to a less attractive set of options, for now, did not compensate for the general concerns that were dug up on Saturday a week after being buried.
Consistency must be the next step in the program’s post-Brian Kelly evolution. Irish quarterback Drew Pyne Saturday was a picture of the distance traveled by the Irish.
In the first half, Pyne was the best he’s ever been in ND, having a hand in all five touchdowns – four on a pass and one on a crafty 11-yard run. He went 14 of 16 for 234 yards against the nation’s No. 122 passing-efficiency defense and surpassed his total passing yards in his last two games, Clemson and Syracuse, combined.
In the second half, Navy increased the passing pressure and sold out on the runs.
That the Irish helped create the storm for this successful strategy was a combination of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ overly conservative play calls, Pyne’s lack of awareness to get the ball out quickly when he needed it, and Freeman’s inability to apply a head coaching tourniquet.
“They weren’t pressing almost every game,” Freeman said. “What does that mean? It means they bring everyone in and play zero coverage with no help in midfield. And we have to be able to find ways to attack that.
“We did it in the first half. We hit a few balls. We were able to check some things when we saw it coming, but in the second half we just couldn’t beat the zero pressure. And it’s something that we have to improve because other teams will do it.
“People are going to see that they’ve managed to put all the pressure on. And what you have to do is make the defenses pay in the passing game.
Curiously, Navy, 129th of 131 nationally in passing attack and 108th in passing efficiency, made the Irish pay with their own passing game. And at the end of the fourth quarter, the Mids were able to do it with a QB in Maasai Maynor who was the Navy’s third stringer as recently as late October.
Maynor was 4 of 7 for 51 yards and a 20-yard TD pass to maquel haywood with 1:21 to go after relieving an injured Xavier Arlin. QB1 Tai Lavatai was lost for the season two weeks before with a knee injury.
Navy trainer Ken Niumatalolomeanwhile, won his X and O chess game with the Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden late in the game. The Mids found big chunks of playing field when the Irish went to their ‘prevent defence’ pass. And when the Irish sent their personnel to stop the triple option, the Navy went up in the air.
“Again, you don’t want to be able to just let teams run around the field,” Freeman said. “But then you’re up 10 or 11 points and you say, ‘OK, we know this is a two-point game. And so let’s be smart and don’t give up on a big easy play – pass – and let them win every inch and keep the clock (running) because they had no more down time. That’s kind of what happened.
Notre Dame played without two of its brightest defensive stars – linebacker JD Bertrand (groin) and security Brandon Joseph (ankle) — and safety Xavier Watts used his first start to college to record a career-high eight tackles.
Him and the graduating senior receiver Braden Lenzy were two of many bright spots clouded by what happened after half-time.
The special teams also continued to shine. at Jack Kiser blocked punt, the ND nation’s seventh leading, set up a 37-yard TD strike from Pyne to wide receiver Jayden Thomas to the very next piece. With 1:10 to go in the first half, it was the last time the Irish scored.
Pyne was a mixture of philosophy and defiance following the game, perhaps an appropriate reaction given the season’s extreme ups and downs.
“I’m the same every week,” Pyne insisted. “I am scheduled the same every week. I learn, I improve. I mean, that’s how I operate. That’s how I live.
“I’m going to take this game – and I’m sure I made some mistakes in the first half too. I’m not perfect. I’m just going to learn from it and keep improving. That’s all I do. And that’s all I’ll ever do.”
As for Freeman, his biggest decisions and learning moments about the long-term trajectory of the program will come in the offseason. And not least, what the quarterback job looks like in 2023.
But Boston College and USC this season still matter a lot. How the Irish are perceived, especially by rookies, as December approaches is very important.
Notre Dame is actually a significantly better team than it was in September. Now is the time to prove it.
NOTRE DAME 35, NAVY 32: Full Box sheet music
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