JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This was always going to be one for second-guessing, but it fit in a season of coaching decisions that’ve set social media platforms and message boards ablaze.
With Notre Dame down by four and facing a fourth-and-four at the Navy 14-yard line with under eight minutes to go, coach Brian Kelly decided to put the game in the hands of his defense and kick a field goal instead of having DeShone Kizer & Co. try to convert a first down. Justin Yoon connected on his 31-yard try, bringing the Irish within a point with 7:28 remaining.
And Notre Dame didn’t get the ball back in its 28-27 loss Saturday afternoon at Everbank Field.
Navy’s triple option did what it’s designed to do late in games with a lead: Run out the clock. Navy used up all seven minutes and 28 seconds on a 14-play, 57-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and two fourth-down conversions, quarterback Will Worth’s 15-yard, game-sealing completion on fourth and six from the Irish 30-yard line.
“Certainly (I) thought about going for it,” Kelly said. ‘Now in hindsight, it's something that we didn't get the ball back. But 28‑27 made sense to me at the time. Even if they score a touchdown, we still have the opportunity to score and get the two‑point conversion. It made sense to me at 28‑27 was the right call at fourth and four. I think if it's fourth‑and‑one or two, maybe (we go for it).
“But those are the decisions you got to make. Again, I don't question the decision to go for the field goal other than the fact that we couldn't get the ball back.”
Notre Dame’s defense ground out two defensive stops on Navy’s six possessions (not counting its end-of-the-first-half one that came with 30 seconds left), though one of those stops was wiped out by a too many men on the field penalty on what would’ve been Navy’s only punt attempt of the game. Navy ran 64 plays and averaged 5.8 yards per play, but more importantly picked up first downs on eight of its 13 third down tries and four of its five fourth down tries. In short: Getting the Mids off the field was an awfully difficult task for the Irish defense.
“I think the toughest part is the idea of winning third down, you need to win fourth down too,” senior defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “So it kind of takes away your ideology of winning on third down. But it is taxing, you’re not done after three.”
Rochell, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. and quarterback DeShone Kizer after the game defended Kelly’s decision to bypass a fourth-and-four try and kick a field goal, figuring that the Irish defense would be able to generate a stop and get the ball back to the offense needing only a field goal to win.
“I don’t think that was a make-or-break moment, I don’t think it was a bad move on coach Kelly’s part at all,” Rochell said. “Had their been four minutes left or three minutes left, then it’s a different conversation. But with seven and a half minutes left, I don’t think it was a bad call.”
“We were all behind coach’s decision,” Hunter said. “We trusted our defense. (Navy) just ended up making more plays.”
Kizer added that he didn’t lobby Kelly to let the offense stay on the field in that situation, either.
“This is a game of trust — you trust in your coach, your coach trusts in you,” Kizer said. “And with seven minutes left in the game, he put it on the defense to go out and make a stop. Unfortunately Navy made a couple more plays than we made, but as far as offense, of course, anytime we’re out there we want the ball in our hands to do whatever we can. But once again we trust in coach Kelly and coach Kelly trusts in us to make a stop and go out there and have a game-winning drive like we know we can.”
But that’s now how things played out. The final seven and a half minutes were a masterclass in triple option offensive efficiency, complete with some difficult-to-defend wrinkles thrown in by coach Ken Niumatalolo — who's now beat the Irish three times in his tenure in Annapolis.
And without getting the ball back, Kelly opened himself up for a fresh round of second-guessing in a disastrous six-loss season full of it.