SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is playing in what amounts to a single-elimination tournament through the end of November, one in which a spate of mistakes could very well lead to this team’s demise. An error-filled loss at Clemson sealed that edge-of-the-cliff fate.
This time, it was Navy — annually one of the more disciplined teams in college football — making the mistakes, with Notre Dame capitalizing on them.
Notre Dame converted two Navy fumbles into touchdowns and cruised to a 41-24 win over the previously-undefeated Mids Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium. Running back C.J. Prosise’s seven- and 22-yard rushing scores off those turnovers, plus placekicker Justin Yoon’s 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half, were the difference in Notre Dame’s biggest margin of victory over Navy since 2012.
Welcome to the one-and-done life. Notre Dame passed its first test on Saturday.
“Our guys understand that the margin of loss is very small right now,” quarterback DeShone Kizer, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception, said. “So as long as we continue to prepare the way we prepared this week and play as if it's one or done, and (act like) that we're in sort of like March Madness mode, I think we'll be okay going forward.”
Notre Dame jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, with that Navy fumble-turned-Irish score sandwiched between Kizer’s one-yard touchdown plunge and the return of Will Fuller’s big play ability, which produced a 30-yard touchdown reception. But Navy quickly battled back, with fullback Quentin Ezell rumbling 45 and 22 yards for scores with under five minutes left in the second quarter.
The game didn’t turn on Yoon’s field goal, but Notre Dame was able to take some momentum into halftime after rapidly moving 40 yards in two plays and going up three on that last-second kick.
“It wasn't like giddy, yeah, yeah, we got this thing, you know,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think it was just we were excited that we were able to execute our offense with 23 seconds to go. … Any time you can add some points right before the half, it gives you some momentum. But we knew we were in for two more long quarters.”
Notre Dame made a few halftime adjustments against Navy’s antiquated-yet-effective triple option offense — which rushed for more first-half yards (239) than Georgia Tech did Sept. 19 against the Irish (216). But graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace subbed in for junior James Onwualu, who struggled to make plays when Navy optioned to its fullbacks, and stuck with captain Matthias Farley at safety over junior Max Redfield.
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The result was Navy only rushing for 79 yards and scoring three points in the final 30 minutes. It helped that quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who’s five touchdowns away from breaking Montee Ball’s Division I record for rushing touchdowns in a career, was banged up after being kicked in the shin in the first half.
But Navy kick returner Dishan Romine fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, turning the ball over to Notre Dame and setting up Prosise’s 22-yard score. Navy didn’t threaten Notre Dame the rest of the way.
“We knew we had to play perfect against these guys and it was probably our worst game this season,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Navy looked like a classic trap game nestled between a pivotal trip to Clemson and a primetime date with heated rival USC. But coming off last week’s two-point loss at Death Valley, Kelly saw his team have one of its better weeks of practice and neither look back or look forward.
And as a result, it was Navy making the mistakes, not Notre Dame with no margin for error.
“They weren't talking about last week, they weren't talking about USC, they were focused on playing this football team,” Kelly said. “And that's really all you can ask for as a coach. I thought their focus was outstanding. And it paid off.”