There was a lot to like in Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy this past weekend. The Irish scored 44 points and had no problem moving the ball on the Navy defense after struggling a bit the last two years. There were still, however, plenty of areas of opportunity that the Irish didn’t take advantage of and areas that Brian Kelly and his staff will need to clean up as we turn the page to November. Let’s take a look at some of those areas here.
1. Notre Dame’s second half defense
Notre Dame’s defense was lights out in the first half. Navy couldn’t do a damn thing offensively for the first 30 minutes. Then it all changed in the second half and Navy started marching up and down the field. They had back to back 75 yard drives on the Notre Dame defense at point in the third quarter. Part of Navy’s success were adjustments by the Navy offense but the other part was effort by the Notre Dame defense – more on that in a second.
Notre Dame had a chance to put a dominating effort on the Middies, but ended up letting them still run for almost 300 yards after holding them to under 70 in the first half. For Clark Lea’s first time out against the option as a defensive coordinator, it was a solid effort, but still left a lot of room for improvement next year. What was particularly worrisome is that Navy was scoring quickly – not with long, methodical drives.
2. Specifically the tackling in the secondary
While Lea could have adjusted to what Navy was doing in the second half better, the Irish defense would have fared far better if they had just tackled better and played with more effort. Instead, the Irish defense look disinterested at times. Troy Pride specifically ended up getting benched for two poor attempts at tackling that led to Navy’s first touchdown. Pride tried to push the Navy ball carrier instead of trying to tackle him. Perhaps his ankle is still bothering him a bit because he was great against Navy in 2017. Whatever the case he ended up being replaced by Donte Vaughn and then Nick Coleman.
Pride wasn’t the only Irish defender who looked disinterested in the second half though. The defense as a whole looked like they were just ready for the clock to read zero and the game to be over. Maybe the Drue Tranquill injury was in the back of their minds or maybe they just checked out. Either way, Notre Dame has to play a full 60 minutes every weekend from here out if they want to make the playoffs.
3. Lack of vertical passing game
Notre Dame did not need the vertical passing game against Navy, but they do need it against teams on the November schedule and potentially in the playoffs if the Irish make it. For that reason it would have been nice to see the Irish stretch the field vertically against Navy. Specifically, the seem route to the tight end was open all game long, but was not overly utilized.
The only time this year we’ve seen Notre Dame try to stretch the field with Book in command was against Virginia Tech and Book ended up misfiring on more of those than he connected. He did hit the game winner downfield against Pitt two weeks ago, but the Irish need to be doing that more. Doing so will also help open up the running game. At some point over the next month that downfield attack will be needed. Saturday was an opportunity lost to work on it.
The one way a team like Navy could hang with a team like Notre Dame is turnovers and Notre Dame provided them too them. On the first play of the game Miles Boykin fumbled away an easy completion from Ian Book and set up Navy in plus territory. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter because the Notre Dame defense held, but that kind of play is exactly how you do not want to start a game against a team like Navy.
Later in the game Ian Book almost let Navy back into the game with an ill advised interception. Book locked in on Chris Finke on 3rd and 2 and Navy stepped right in and picked it off. Against an elite defense it might have been a pick 6. Again, it didn’t end up mattering in the end, but that is the kind of play Book can’t make down the stretch against better defenses. It was reminiscent of the pick 6 Book threw at the end of the first half against Miami last year. At the time the score was 37-14 and Notre Dame had a chance to take a 30 point lead. Instead, Navy added a touchdown and two point conversion to make it a 15 point game.
The Irish almost had a 3rd turnover when Dexter Williams lost the handle on a ball as well. Williams managed to wrestle the ball back though to avoid it. Notre Dame has to do a better job protecting the football down the stretch.
5. More ankle tackles of the Notre Dame tight ends
Against a team like Navy, defensive backs should not be taking down Notre Dame tight ends on the first attempt. I wrote about this a couple weeks back that there just hasn’t been any YAC from the Irish tight ends, and it was really apparent again this weekend. I keep waiting for a Notre Dame tight end to hurdle over one of those ankle tackle attempts, but it hasn’t happened.
Notre Dame has some serious athletes at tight end but their athletic abilities are not leading to big plays in the passing game in part because they aren’t making plays after they get the ball. As noted above the Irish can do a better job of getting them involved in the vertical passing game, but they are leaving yards on the field the way they are currently being utilized.
I listed the increased involvement of Cole Kmet as a positive yesterday and it was. If Notre Dame can make the tight ends more of a weapons a whole though, it will open up the Irish offense even more.