Early Notre Dame barrage sinks Navy despite sluggish Irish second half
A punt block, an interception leading to a touchdown, a dominant offensive performance. No, Notre Dame was not beating up on Clemson again. That was just the Irish second quarter in a 35-32 defeat of Navy on Saturday, the Midshipmen winning the second half after No. 20 Notre Dame eased off the gas pedal thanks to a 35-13 halftime lead.
For a moment late in the second quarter, Navy (3-7) looked like it might make the Irish (7-3) sweat all afternoon. Pulling within one possession and then regaining possession — the only time the Midshipmen would have the ball within one possession after falling behind 14-0 in the first 11 minutes — Navy could conceivably tie the game before halftime and then receive the kickoff to start the second half. Instead, a reverse pass ended up in the hands of Notre Dame junior cornerback Clarence Lewis, Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo getting a bit too tricky for his team’s own good.
Three plays later, Irish junior quarterback Drew Pyne scampered 11 yards into the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the day, the previous three all being through the air. The 28-13 lead would likely have been enough for the day, with just a touch of second-half urgency, but one part of Notre Dame’s weekly game plan had not yet reared its head.
Enter the Irish punt block unit, again. For the fifth week in a row. And the seventh time this season.
“[Special teams coordinator Brian Mason] does a really good job of scheming up what the opponent does,” sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie said, one week removed form touting a blocked punt into the end zone. “I’m stoked to be on that unit.”
If ever there was an argument to never kick, it is Notre Dame’s punt block unit. Senior linebacker Jack Kiser, the sixth different Irish rusher to get to an opposing punt this season, gifted Pyne & Co. a short field, and a play later Pyne notched his fifth touchdown of the day with a 37-yard pass to sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas, a throw that traveled 44 yards through the air and hit Thomas perfectly as he dove into the end zone.
“Our offense was clicking in the first half,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “To go up [35-13], versus that defense, you felt good at halftime.”
Most weeks, that would have been far and away the most impressive catch for a Notre Dame offense that so depends on the run. In Baltimore, it was not even the most impressive catch for an Irish receiver in the first half. What fifth-year Braden Lenzy did to Midshipmen cornerback Khaylan Williams defies appropriate description, catching a touchdown around and behind Williams’ back with the same casual nature most use to reach around a stranger to grab a drink at a crowded bar.
“I scrambled out there, he beat his man by a couple yards,” Pyne said. “I saw that, I said, I’m going to give him a chance. I threw it up, and that was an unbelievable catch.”
Those fireworks — along with an impressive 30-yard catch-and-run score from sophomore running back Audric Estimé on the first Notre Dame possession — were enough for the Irish to cruise into safe harbor in the second half. Navy made the second half competitive, but the reality was the Midshipmen offense is borderline incapable of scoring three touchdowns in a half. The quick sequence of Lewis picking off the trick play, Pyne dancing to the front corner of the end zone, Kiser adding to the dominance of Notre Dame’s special teams and Thomas diving across the goal line gave the Irish too large a lead for Navy to overcome.
Those two minutes and 27 seconds rendered the second half a training exercise.
“What any coach is going to say (at halftime), don’t look at the score,” Freeman said of his halftime message. “Have hte urgency that you had the first half. And we didn’t, we didn’t.”
Navy’s 19-0 edge in the second half could be dismissed as an exhibition only when Notre Dame former walk-on Matt Salerno covered up an onside kick in the final minute. The Irish offense was dead in the water after halftime, somewhat illogical after scoring touchdowns on five of its six first-half possessions, the sixth a missed field-goal attempt. It had five possessions in the second half, as well, managing just one first down. The Midshipmen triple-option may be a plodding approach, but when the opposing offense refuses to eat any clock itself, that plodding approach can move just fast enough to keep things interesting.
Navy putting together three strong drives, with the first stalling in the red zone and the third coming as time ran out on the Midshipmen, would not have been as notable if Notre Dame’s offense had managed any second-half productivity. Instead, the natural want to finish the week working against the triple-option and the subconscious relief to be near that conclusion stood out.
“The opportunity to get better after a win is something that any coach dreams of,” Freeman said. “The opportunity to challenge your team and show them the film — as much as I’m sitting in here saying, it’s hard to get these wins.
“We have to celebrate. We have to feel good about it.”
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s single second-half first down came on a 3rd-and-15 conversion, counter-intuitively, a 21-yard completion to sophomore receiver Deion Colzie. Remove that play and the Irish lost 15 yards on 17 plays in the second half.
Notre Dame’s first possession of the third quarter was a three-and-out. Following a 10-minute Navy drive, that quick failure put the Irish defense back on the field too quickly in multiple respects.
“We knew Navy, it’s a time of possession battle, that’s what they love to do, they love to steal possessions,” Freeman said. “We knew every possession would matter. That first possession mattered, and we went three-and-out on offense.
“That can’t happen. At least you have to get some first downs and try to regain some momentum and field position.”
Notre Dame’s dominance the last three weeks has come as a result of complementary football, the defense or special teams gifting the Irish leads at Syracuse and against Clemson and thus allowing Notre Dame’s offense to grind the game away. The offense has to sometimes hold up its end of that deal, too, and it failed in that respect in the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. If it had strung together a single drive, then Navy never would have had a third possession to creep within one score.
Know how we ask things like, "How many interceptions does a linebacker need to be a Heisman candidate?"— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 12, 2022
How many blocked punts does a special teams coordinator need to be guaranteed the Broyles Award? Just tell Brian Mason the number.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
“A win’s a win, and like coach Freeman said, there were games earlier in the season where if we were in the same position, we didn’t pull through it and win. We found a way to win today, that’s important.” — Pyne.
FIRST HALF/SECOND HALF SPLITS
Notre Dame’s offense in the first half: 333 yards and 35 points on 35 plays.Notre Dame’s offense in the second half: 6 yards on 18 plays.
Pyne passing in the first half: 14-of-16 for 234 yards and four touchdowns, not sacked.Pyne passing in the second half: 3-of-5 for 35 yards and one interception, sacked five times for a loss of 30 yards.
Estimé rushing in the first half: 6 carries for 44 yards.Estimé rushing in the second half: 2 carries for 5 yards.
Logan Diggs rushing in the first half: 8 carries for 27 yards.Diggs rushing in the second half: 5 carries for 4 yards.
The real effect of Notre Dame letting Navy back within 11 will be less Steve Angeli action today, if any.— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 12, 2022
First Quarter10:36 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 30-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Navy 0. (9 plays, 67 yards, 4:24)4:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 38-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Navy 0. (6 plays, 82 yards, 2:42)2:19 — Navy touchdown. Daba Fofana 36-yard rush. Bijan Nichols PAT no good. Notre Dame 14, Navy 6. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:09)
Second Quarter12:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 5-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Navy 6. (10 plays, 83 yards, 4:52)7:49 — Navy touchdown. Xavier Arline 2-yard rush. Nichols PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Navy 13. (7 plays, 80 yards, 4:38)2:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Pyne 11-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Navy 13. (3 plays, 41 yards, 1:18)1:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jayden Thomas 37-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Navy 13. (1 play, 37 yards, 0:07)
Third Quarter4:59 — Navy field goal. Nichols 26 yards. Notre Dame 36, Navy 16. (16 plays, 72 yards, 10:01)
Fourth Quarter14:47 — Navy touchdown. Mark Walker 23-yard pass from Arline. Two-point conversion good. Notre Dame 35, Navy 24. (1 play, 23 yards, 0:06)
1:21 — Navy touchdown. Maquel Haywood 20-yard pass from Maasai Maynor. Two-point conversion good. Notre Dame 35, Navy 32. (11 plays, 88 yards, 2:57)