JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — One moment stands out in Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Navy Saturday at EverBank Field: A too-many-men-on-the-field penalty on what would’ve been Navy’s only punt of the game late in the third quarter. It sapped any shot Notre Dame had of putting Navy away, and instead propelled the Midshipmen to methodically storm back to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
But here’s the dagger for Notre Dame: The ACC officiating crew never should’ve allowed a review to occur, according to the NCAA rulebook.
Coach Brian Kelly said after the game two officials confirmed to him Studstill had got off the field in time, and a flag was not thrown on the play. When the ball was snapped, Studstill was clearly going out of bounds — his next step landed on the sideline.
“We all saw the same thing, that he took a step and stepped onto the sideline,” Kelly said. “As long as you're within a step of the sideline, which he was, (I) felt that he was clearly getting off the field. But it was seen otherwise. Obviously a very key play in the game.”
Because a foul was not initially assessed and Studstill’s next step after the snap was to the sideline, the play was not reviewable. It appears like the officiating crew made a cut-and-dry mistake that played a significant part in Notre Dame losing its sixth game of the season.
Notre Dame was ahead of Navy at that point, 24-21, and looked like it finally had wrestled some momentum away from the Mids’ antiquated-yet-effective triple option offense. Defensive stops were hard to come by in this game, and forcing a punt was a significant achievement for a defense featuring plenty of players facing an option offense for the first time in their college careers.
“It’s tough,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “It’s a tough offense to get stops from, so when you kind of take one away from yourself, it hurts.”
“It wasn’t tough, I think it was moreso a little defeating and frustrating,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “But physically it wasn’t an issue.”
While Kelly’s decision to kick a field goal down four instead of go for it on fourth down inside Navy’s red zone looked risky, if not odd, in the moment — and misguided in hindsight — the game turned on Notre Dame’s penalty on that punt. Notre Dame only had six possessions in the game but scored on five of them, and getting an extra drive very well could’ve resulted in seven points that would’ve put Navy down 10 and in a difficult spot (this isn’t a team built for comebacks).
Why Studstill was on the field at that point is another question — there likely was some miscommunication from the sideline there. But that aside, the penalty still should not have been called.
“I saw him step off the sideline,” Kelly said. “They concurred that they felt they saw the same thing that I saw. They were clearly overruled.”
But that’s the narrow viewpoint of Saturday. The view from 30,000 feet is that Notre Dame, with all its talent and size and athleticism advantages, was in a position where a blown call could cost them a game against Navy. Quarterback Will Worth did well to play keep away against a young defense without much experience against the triple option, but Notre Dame’s offense stalled twice and settled for field goals when turning just one of those drives into a touchdown could’ve won them the game.
That’s a Notre Dame offense with, in all likelihood, future NFL players at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and offensive line. Ken Niumatalolo has done a spectacular job at getting Navy to punch above its weight class with disciplined, consistent teams, but also had lost five consecutive games to Notre Dame leading into Saturday.
So that’s the way this Notre Dame season has gone. It’s left to feel the sting of an egregiously blown call in a one-point loss to Navy. Nobody on the plane back to South Bend should feel wrong that they were impacted by that officiating decision, but everybody should wonder why the game got to that point in the first place.
“Listen, Navy won the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not here to cry over that call. We had chances to get off the field and we couldn't get off the field.”