The main goal for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in facing a tricky opponent like Navy, especially after a crushing defeat, was to simply come away with a victory. The end result could be considered mission accomplished in the 24-17 win, even though it took a pair of comebacks from one-touchdown deficits and a defensive stand to stop the final Midshipmen threat.
For most of the first half, both teams had problems getting any consistent offense going. That was evident from each school managing just a single field goal on the scoreboard. That pace picked up at the end of the first half and start of the second before then reverting back to a defensive battle that was ultimately won by the Irish.
The Essence of Balance
Most teams want a balanced offensive attack to avoid an over-reliance on one aspect on this side of the ball. Brian Kelly couldn’t have asked for a better representation of that philosophy by the time the game against Navy ended. His running game collected 163 yards and his passing game threw for 164 on the afternoon.
After two weeks in which the Heisman candidacy of Josh Adams appeared to possibly be in jeopardy, the game-breaking back managed to break the century mark with 106 yards. His halftime numbers were just 37 yards on 10 carries before he needed just eight totes of the ball to pick up 69 more on the ground, which included an Adams-like 30-yard run.
Brandon Wimbush zeroed in on just three receivers to complete nine of his 18 attempts, but he looked more confident after being swamped last week by Miami’s defenders. Perhaps more important, he managed to avoid throwing the ball into enemy hands.
The reason that avoiding turnovers was imperative for Notre Dame was that, predictably, the run-based attack of Navy dominated in the ares of time-of-possession. The Midshipmen ended the game by holding onto the ball for nearly 43 minutes, leaving the Irish with just a little over 17 minutes to run their offense.
Notre Dame didn’t waste much time on their scoring possessions, including their two touchdowns after falling behind. On those two, they needed less than 90 seconds to reach the end zone each time, while the remaining 10 points came on a pair of 11-paly drives that averaged slightly over three minutes.
In contrast, the three Navy scores averaged 13 plays and close to seven minutes on the field. The shortest of those drives lasted just 5:02, primarily because the Midshipmen took advantage of the only Irish turnover of the game, a fumbled punt, and turned into a touchdown.
Second Half Stepherson
The growing impact of wide receiver Kevin Stepherson has been evident in recent weeks and was especially notable during the second half against Navy. Stepherson grabbed four of his five passes during the third quarter, with each catch an important one in helping Notre Dame first knot the score, then take the lead for good.
Trailing 17-10, Wimbush found Stepherson for 30 yards on the first play of the ensuing drive, with Adams handling things the rest of that scoring drive. After Navy missed a field goal, Stepherson picked up first downs on two passes and then capped the drive by hauling in a nine-yard scoring toss.
Stepherson also played a key role in the furious drive in the final minute of the first half, getting the drive jump-started with a 23-yard catch. His defender was later flagged for pass interference at the Midshipmen two with 18 seconds, which set up a score two plays later that tied things at the half.
Stopping When It Counts
After scoring what turned out to be the final score of the game, the Notre Dame defense twice had to stop Navy from trying to tie the game. The Midshipmen had methodically moved down 39 yards and had a first down at the Irish 36 with just over seven minutes, However, a rare Navy pass was intercepted by Troy Pride, Jr.
Following a three-and-out by the Irish offense, the Midshipmen took over with just under six minutes left. Having 1st-and-15 at the Notre Dame 35 with 2:35 left, Mike Elko’s defense stiffened one final time by stopping Navy on downs.
Despite the huge disparity in time-of-possession, the Irish actually outgained the Midshipmen, 327-318, in total offense. Navy converted 8-of-18 attempts on third down, and was daring enough to go for it six times on fourth down. In the latter category, the Midshipmen actually managed to convert four of those opportunities.
Putting a close on the regular season, Notre Dame will take their 9-2 record to Palo Alto to face the Stanford Cardinal. Despite having seen their national title hopes disappear, Kelly and his team no doubt want to play in a meaningful bowl game. A victory in this game will help ensure that goal.
The challenge won’t be easy, considering that the Cardinal have won the last four meetings on their home field, the last of those the 38-36 heartbreaker two years ago. Stanford is 7-3 overall entering their Saturday night clash against Cal and still have designs on capturing the Pac-12 title.