The Fighting Irish squeaked past Navy 49-39 in a weird affair that more closely resembled a Halloween House of Horrors than a first rate triumph by an outstanding team. The Irish led 7-0 after 52 seconds. The Irish led 28-7 after 23 minutes. At that point the total yardage was Notre Dame 304-Navy 89. Then, either hobgoblins descended from the Landover mist, or, more precisely, the Irish demonstrated, as they had against Purdue, Syracuse and North Carolina, that they lack the killer instinct and fail to kick the opponents when they are down. That must be fixed.
VAN GORDER’S SPECIAL DEFENSE, NAVY’S COUNTERMOVE AND GOLSON’S GIFT TO THE MIDDIES
Brian Van Gorder, in addition to pressure, brings another tactic imported from the NFL. He does not run the same defense in every game. For Navy, he dusted off the 3-4 and dialed up key roles for Justin Utopu and Greer Martini (the kid can play, he was the leading tackler for the Irish.) After allowing 75 yards on Navy’s first drive, the Irish scheme and its players settled in and held Navy to 14 yards in the next two series. With an Irish offense that could not be stopped by Navy, but only by its own misdeeds, it appeared as if the rout was on. But Navy adjusted and responded with a touchdown drive to close the gap to 28-14. It appeared that the Irish were righting that wrong when the offense drove to the Navy 33, enroute to a putative 35-14 lead at intermission. But Golson, instead, threw an inexplicable and inexcusable interception on first down. It would be 28-24 before the Irish touched the ball again, and Joe Schmidt would be out of the game. Navy was now emboldened and kept in the game, quite gamely before succumbing by the final 49-39, a margin compressed by the two missed field goals.
Playing against the most athletically challenged defense the Irish will see until UMASS arrives on September 26, 2015, the Irish offense moved virtually at will. The increasingly explosive Notre Dame offense gashed Navy early and often as if they were Viet Cong guerrillas ambushing a Navy patrol boat on the Mekong River. The Notre Dame ground game set up the Notre Dame passing game. The Notre Dame passing game set up the Notre Dame rushing game. The offense had 11 drives, 7 touchdowns, 2 missed field goals, the macabre Golson interception and just one punt. In Kelly’s five years, Notre Dame has punted just 5 times against Navy in five games. The line, as expected, moved Navy defenders at will, creating gaping holes for Golson and Folston.
But the defense, despite the tweaks, had the mid game siesta, and life got complicated when Joe Schmidt was injured and left the field.
SCHMIDT, VAN GORDER, ELLIOTT, MORGAN, SMITH
Well, players get injured in college football. This is the world we live in, these are the hands we are given. The Irish had a “communicator” injury early in the year, 48 hours before the Rice game, when Captain Austin Collinsworth went down. And those crafty Owls took advantage of the bumfuzzled Shumate and Redfield. BUT THAT’S WHY WE HIRE GOOD COACHES AND PAY THEM! Kelly and Van Gorder said they’d fix it and they did. Shumate and Redfield stepped up and have become quite the pair of safeties. Nyles Morgan, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way.
Remember, Kelly noted several times that Morgan is a student of the game, albeit with three years of “study” fewer than Joe Schmidt. Too bad! Eager young Nyles, who moves and tackles with no shame in his game, will have plenty of tutoring from Messrs. Van Gorder and Elliott. First, we don’t play an explosive offense until we see Southern Cal. Arizona State averages 29 ppg in conference, Northwestern a paltry 16 ppg in conference, and Louisville, even with Petrino, 22 ppg in conference. Then there is Jaylon Smith. He has deferred to Schmidt’s skill in recognition, calling defenses and communication. Not any more. He will have to, regardless of his position, offload some or much of the responsibility from Morgan. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth after Collinsworth went down, and there will be now about the estimable Joe Schmidt. But Nyles Morgan is no gimmee, and the guy next to him will have Nyles’ back. And there’s another guy next to Morgan:
JAMES ONWUALU-DID HE ARRIVE ON SATURDAY?
Less than a year ago, Onwualu was learning the craft of being a wide receiver as a true freshman. He progressed in leaps and bound after being moved to linebacker in the Spring and pre-Fall, but started slowly in September. He hesitates less, plants his foot and attacks swiftly and decisively. He is starting to figure it out, and he is quick, strong and an outstanding tackler. He now adjusts from being carried by Schmidt to helping carry Nyles Morgan. It’s a battlefield promotion, but sometimes those work.
THE DEFENSE MUST STOP THE BLEEDING
First 5 games: 12 points per game
Last 3 games: 37.6 points per game
Excuses are for losers. And trends are trends. At a minimum, overconfidence should not be a problem for the defensive players, and sometimes the Irish close ranks better in a crisis than in good times. Here there is a double dose: the increase in points per game allowed and the loss of Schmidt. “Count on me” had better be a code, not a platitude. Kelly is 14-3 in November at Notre Dame. For him to reach 18-3 the defense will have to improve. Kelly knows that. Van Gorder knows that. This year the Irish have handled challenges better than the good times. Against Michigan, Stanford and FSU they met the challenges and played with guts and vigor. The must rise to the occasion yet again..
WHAT WILL WE SEE AGAINST ARIZONA STATE:
(1) A repeat opponent. Last year, the Irish defense had stopped Taylor Kelly in his tracks and were physically dominating the Sun Devils so completely that they had a comfy 24-13 lead and the ball as the fourth quarter began. Then, the game turned weird. An inexplicable and gratuitous pick-6 interception thrown by the then incumbent Notre Dame quarterback tightened the score to 24-20 and it reinvigorated the Sun Devils. Notre Dame still controlled and won 37-34 after a late, and insignificant touchdown by ASU made the game seem closer than the final score. ASU did not almost win the game, but Notre Dame nearly deigned to lose it.
(2) A one loss team, with wins over Stanford when the Cardinal took a mulligan and USC when the Sun Devils scored on two bombs in the last three minutes, including a “walk-off” TD when Hayes Pullard made a Three Stooges play on the game ending and non-perfunctory Hail Mary.
(3) ‘Splain to me, Todd Graham how you managed to lose to UCLA by 62-21? Let me help, Todd. You gave up five plays of 80 yards or more. Yep, Five. Two 80 yard TD passes, one to Eldridge Massington, one to Jordan Payton, an 81 yard run by Paul Perkins, a 100 yard kickoff return by Ishmael Adams and a 95 yard interception return by the very same Ishmael Adams, of a pass by Mike Bercovici Kelly’s backup while he was out. Outside of those five plays, however….
(4) Jaelen Strong-the eponymous wide receiver may be the best in the Pac XII, and with apologies to Amari Cooper, may be the best in the country.
(5) Offensive lines and defensive lines at ASU that may have some difficultly with their Irish counterparts. Last year the Irish out rushed the Sun Devils, even with Marion Grice, 145-65. The Irish generated 6 sacks to none by the Sun Devils. Last year, ASU had the more mobile quarterback. That script has been flipped.
(6) The last one loss team the Irish will play in the regular season. All other opponents have at least three losses.
(7) A Taylor Kelly who has some mobility, which did not hurt the Irish last year. Kelly, against a much less nimble 2013 defense, which lost its ‘starting middle linebacker in mid-game, had 51 yards rushing, but lost 45 in 6 sacks for a net of 6 yards. He is not Marquise Williams, he is not Jameis Winston and he is not Keenan Reynolds. Playing straight up against the base Irish defense has not worked very well.
There is much at stake in Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday afternoon. This Irish team has risen to challenges this year. Can they do it again? Go Irish!