It wasn’t pretty. Heck, it was actually downright ugly, but Notre Dame improved to 9-2 on the season on Saturday with a 24-17 win over Navy. The Irish struggled in all three phases of the game at different times and to varying degrees, but in the end they managed to send the seniors off with a win and unlike last year, didn’t lose to Navy so there’s that. Now let’s crack open this post game 6-pack and dive into what went right and wrong.
1. Brandon Wimbush rebounded nicely in the second half, but still started slow
Coming off the worst game of his career, we talked all week about how this game would give us insight into the mental makeup of Brandon Wimbush. Early on the results did not look good at all. Wimbush missed several early throws that either killed drives or took points off the board by missing touchdowns. The worst example was when Wimbush sailed the shortest pass he may ever throw to Alize Mack in the 1st quarter near the endzone.
On the last drive of the 1st half and in the 2nd half, however, Wimbush started to settle in a little bit once Notre Dame went with a little tempo. He ended the game 9 of 18 for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Kevin Stepherson. Notre Dame has to do something to get Wimbush settled in earlier in games though as this has happened a few times now (more on that in a bit).
For anyone expecting a big bounce back game – myself included – that didn’t come this weekend. Wimbush is still missing a lot of throws that he has the ability to make but he just isn’t making them. Eleven games into the season it’s safe to ask if he’ll
2. Play calling did not help Wimbush or the offense
While Wimbush is missing throws he should be making, the Notre Dame offensive staff isn’t doing him any favors with their game planning or play calling. In poor weather conditions against a team that they should have been able to physically impose their will on, Chip Long started the game with three straight pass plays. Really? You’re playing Navy. Run the ball like you had all season long until last week and make them stop you. If the Navy coaches could have requested a way for Notre Dame to start the game offensively, it would have been exactly the way they did.
Now, let’s fast forward to the 4th quarter. Notre Dame is facing a third and two with the lead and a chance to ice the game. Chip Long called a pass play. Against Navy. Wimbush got pressured, rushed the throw a bit, and was just a bit off target to Alize Mack who dropped the football. Now you can argue that if Mack just makes the catch this isn’t an issue. But why in the heck are you throwing on 3rd and 2 against Navy when you’re strength is your offensive line and running back?
The problem I have with Long’s play calling the last couple weeks is he is calling plays for the kind of quarterback that he doesn’t have. He isn’t calling the game to Wimbush’s strengths. For instance, Wimbush seems to always settle in better after busting a long run, but Wimbush’s running abilities have not been utilized the last couple weeks.
3. Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t bad, but it was far from good
For the most part, Notre Dame’s defense kept Navy from completely gashing them with long runs and they held them well under their yearly averages but should that surprise us? Navy doesn’t exactly play tough competition most weeks so I would expect a Notre Dame defense to play them tougher than the normal opponents.
The problem today with the defense was that while they didn’t let Navy run wild, it was almost death by a thousand cuts. Navy converted 4 of 6 fourth down conversions and they held the ball for nearly 43 minutes. While the offense had a few short drives Navy’s time of possession total was mainly a result of the defense not being able to get off the field.
Case in point was the first drive of the second half. It looked like Notre Dame had Navy right where it wanted in 3rd and 16 with thirteen and a half minutes to go. A couple missed tackles later and Navy converted with a simple fullback run. They went on to march down the field, convert two fourth downs, and score a touchdown while ripping over nearly 8 minutes off the clock.
The other area Notre Dame struggled was with tackling fundamentals. The defense was so strong all year in this department, but against Navy there was way too much shoulder tackling and not enough wrapping up. Navy ball carriers were routinely bouncing off of Notre Dame defenders as a result and falling forward for an extra yard or two instead of getting stopped in their tracks. That has to be cleaned up to beat Stanford next weekend.
3. Where in the world is Dexter Williams?
Dexter Williams was supposedly healthy again this week but mysteriously not involved in the game plan. He was on the field for Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown after Josh Adams got banged up a bit momentarily, but he didn’t register a single carry or get the ball thrown his way once. Williams started off the season so well for the second year in a row and for the second year in a row, he’s been hardly heard from in the second half of the season.
Josh Adams topped 100 yards with 106 on 18 carries but he didn’t look like quite his full self again this week so the lack of carries for Williams was even more curious. Even a bit banged up, Adams topped 3,000 career yards and now has the 4th highest single season rushing total in Notre Dame history at 1,337. He needs 101 yards next weekend in Palo Alto to break the record. As a freshman in 2015, he ran for 168 yards against the Cardinal.
4. Kevin Stepherson gave a glimpse of his potential
Speaking of Kevin Stepherson, he showed us a glimpse of what he can do for this offense on Saturday. After losing both Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool, Kevin Stepherson was suddenly Brandon Wimbush’s got to target. He responded with five catches for a career high 105 yards and two touchdowns. He’s got the speed to get behind a lot of defenses and if he and Wimbush can start developing more chemistry, he could put up some ridiculous numbers in this offense in the future.
It’s been quite the interesting season for Stepherson, but he picked a good time for the best game of his young career today. Notre Dame needed someone to step up and make a play and Stepherson answered the call. Notre Dame is going to need him to get behind the Stanford defense next weekend as well if they want to get that 10th win of the year.
5. Notre Dame will miss these seniors
The seniors on this year’s team deserve a lot of credit for the turnaround that took place at Notre Dame this year following last year’s 4-8 disaster. Notre Dame will miss these seniors – especially the ones on the left side of the offensive line. Quenton Nelson in particular will be near impossible to replace. He is such a monster at left guard and while Notre Dame has recruited well along the OL, he is simply one of those players that comes around every 10 or so years. Notre Dame has just been lucky to have Nelson follow so closely to Zack Martin who was also one of those players not too long ago.
Some of these seniors will be back for 5th years, but there might be some recruiting needed from Kelly and staff. There were rumblings on Twitter that Drue Traquill might not return for a 5th year. That would be a huge blow for the 2018 Fighting Irish.
6. Brian Kelly continues to struggle against Navy
After posting back to back blowouts of Navy in 2011 and 2012, Brian Kelly has struggled against the Midshipmen. Including today, he has only lost once to them in that time (last year’s 27-28 defeat), but since 2012 the largest margin of victory for Kelly over Navy was 17 points in 2015. In 2013 the Irish won by just 4, in 2014 the final margin was 10 after Navy came storming back in FedEx Field, and now today the Irish won by just seven points after being favored by 19.5.
Kelly has done a lot well since last year, but beings as he likely won’t be completely overhauling the program again this offseason, he would be wise to spend a lot of time figuring out a way to make these games with Navy more like those 2011 and 2012 outcomes instead of the ones we’ve had the last five years now.