Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s second-half struggles vs Navy a triple-option symptom more than a continuing concern
Two things can be taken away from Notre Dame’s abysmal second half against Navy in the 35-32 Irish victory on Saturday. First of all, Notre Dame (7-3) played poorly, outscored 19-0 and outgained 166 yards to 16. That cannot be argued. But secondly, that atrocious showing offers little-to-no indications of further Irish struggles moving forward.
That was not the Fiesta Bowl faceplant against Oklahoma State or the turtling at Ohio State to open this season. In those moments, Notre Dame’s inability was going to cost it all along. The game could be seen slipping away in real time.
Against the Midshipmen, the ticking clock made it clear, Navy (3-7) could not complete the comeback. Some of the Irish decisions were made with that reality in mind.
“It’s a little bit of a chess match,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday afternoon. “We’re looking at the clock saying, okay, let’s keep the ball in front of us. They’re saying, we’ll run it if you’re in prevent. … You don’t want to be able to just let teams run down the field, but at that moment, you’re up 10 or 11 points, and you say okay, we know it’s a two-score game, let’s be smart and not give up any easy big-play pass. Make them earn every inch and keep the clock (running) — because they were out of timeouts.”
If Notre Dame had dialed in its defense a bit more aggressively, that final score would likely have been 35-24, but it could have been 38-35 in Navy’s favor. Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden consciously opted for the near-certainty of 35-32 rather than risk that 38-35 loss. And rightfully so.
“When [Midshipmen starting quarterback Xavier Arline] went down, we knew the backup quarterback was more of a thrower, so we went into our prevent defense,” Freeman said. “They just said okay, we’re going to run the ball.”
Hence, Navy took 26 rushes for 92 yards in the second half. That fit the Irish design thanks to that 35-13 halftime lead.
Notre Dame’s offense still should have gained more than 16 yards on 18 plays. The 2022 Irish would be expected to do better than that if facing Georgia’s 2021 defense. Perhaps not much better, but better. That putrid performance — actually, hold on, let’s check the definition of putrid: very unpleasant, repulsive. Okay, it fits. — was a result of the same dynamics as the other side of the ball, except in this instance, the Midshipmen took every risk they could.
If Navy refused to throw the ball offensively, thus costing itself the chance at the big play it would need to beat the combination of the clock and the deficit, it also insisted Notre Dame throw the ball. The Midshipmen knew that was the weak part of the Irish game — even when it was successful, quarterback Drew Pyne thoroughly underthrew fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy on his highlight-reel catch — and thus their best chance at forcing Notre Dame to punt.
Navy blitzed on 17 of the 18 genuine Irish snaps in the second half. When it didn’t, Pyne feasted, going 15-of-16 for 201 yards on 18 clean dropbacks. On 19 total Midshipmen blitzes, six of them kept Pyne from throwing at all. That was Navy’s best defensive approach.
“It was tough, cover-zero,” Pyne said. “If we have nine in protection, they’re bringing 10. You just have to find a way to get the ball out.”
Even from an undersized defense, an unblocked pass rusher will get to a quarterback more often than not. Add in the season-long struggle of Notre Dame’s receivers creating quick separation, and Pyne’s plight became more troubled.
“It wasn’t as much run a different play as much as really executing,” Freeman said Monday. “We missed a block and protection, which ended up being a sack. We set the protection maybe the wrong way one time where there’s nobody to protect for you. We miss [junior tight end Michael] Mayer on an open throw.
“Those things all accumulate to not having success versus those pressures. Drew’s got to get the ball out of his hands, but then we got to help him get the ball out of his hands.”
Those same troubles stopped the Irish rushing game in its tracks.
In that case, if this Leftovers & Links entry is doubling as this week’s Things We Learned, then why will Boston College and USC not take that same approach defensively?
Because it was a high-risk, middling reward for Navy. The Midshipmen were able to sell out in the second half because what was the worst that would happen, Notre Dame’s lead would grow to 29 points? And the Irish did not lean into exploiting the Navy defense because what was the worst that would happen, Notre Dame would win by only three?
If Boston College defends with all-out blitzes for an entire half, the Irish will have more of an incentive to hit a quick-strike score to grow a lead. Notre Dame already had that lead against Navy.
This was not a collapse a la the Fiesta Bowl or at Ohio State. This was a measured strategy, akin to trading pawns when ahead pieces in chess. Shrinking the game will only grow that earned advantage.
And yes, this doubles as both a Leftovers & Links entry and a Things We Learned column. The annual week-after-the-season collapse (first?) came two weeks early this year, costing any productivity for 36 hours to start this week. Such are the perils of a one-man shop. This scribe appreciates your understanding.
Safety Brandon Joseph remains questionable this week, per Freeman on Monday, clarifying his ankle sprain is a high-ankle sprain. Senior linebacker Jack Kiser joined Joseph in tending to a tender ankle, but Kiser was able to practice Sunday, suggesting he should be good to play this weekend.
Senior linebacker JD Bertrand also practiced Sunday despite a groin injury that sidelined him against Navy, and freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather returned to the depth chart after missing the game in Baltimore with a concussion. Do not take that to make him a certainty to play on Senior Day, but it is a step in the right direction.
If there is any specific criticism of Notre Dame’s offensive play calling in Saturday’s second half that would be merited, it is that the Irish did not turn to their most successful play on 3rd-and-2 or 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Two yards may be a bit of a reach for lining up sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans behind center, but that package has now gone 5-for-5 in conversions, its most recent display gaining two yards on a 4th-and-1 on Notre Dame’s first possession against Navy.
If the Irish had used Evans on back-to-back plays to get only their second first down of the second half, the subsequent set of downs may have drained enough clock to keep the Midshipmen from ever getting within one possession on the scoreboard.
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