Notre Dame uses quick start to rout Army, 44-6
Alex Carson | Monday, November 14, 2016
SAN ANTONIO — Notre Dame has made a habit of quick starts this season; when sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders took the opening kickoff to the house Saturday, it marked the ninth time in 10 contests that Notre Dame had scored the game’s first points. But unlike the monotonous pattern that had developed this season, where the Irish would quickly give up an early advantage, Notre Dame pulled away at the Alamodome in Saturday’s Shamrock Series contest, running away with a dominant 44-6 win over Army.
“You know, starting off with the special teams touchdown obviously gave us a great deal of energy and momentum in this game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “And any time you can steal a possession like that against a team like Army that you know is going to be a battle, I think it gave us a great deal of confidence.
A week ago, the Irish (4-6) struggled to get off the field against Navy’s triple-option attack. But from its first opportunity Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense showed things would be different this week against Army (5-5), forcing the Black Knights off the field with an opening-drive three-and-out.
It took just five more plays for junior quarterback DeShone Kizer to start the rout in earnest, hitting freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson over the middle for a 37-yard score just five minutes into the game. Kizer said looking deep for big gains against an Army secondary hit by injuries was part of the Irish game plan from the very beginning.
“Yeah, we understood that we had to challenge their [defensive backs],” Kizer said. “Obviously, unfortunately they were down a couple guys, and they played some guys who were a little less experienced than most, and with that, we had to take our guys, and if they gave us a look, attack that. We were able to do that on the first drive.”
Sophomore running back Josh Adams got his name on the scoring summary on Notre Dame’s next drive — this one an eight-play, 44-yard one — scoring on a 2-yard touchdown to push the Irish advantage to 21-0 before the end of the first quarter.
The Black Knights did get on the board their next time out, with freshman running back Kell Walker scoring on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, but after a missed extra point, the lead was only cut to 21-6. Notre Dame had a response, though, going 71 yards on nine plays, restoring its three-score lead when Kizer hit a wide-open senior tight end Durham Smythe from 10 yards out for a 28-6 lead.
Army’s defense fared a little better the next time out, holding the Irish to a 27-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Justin Yoon to make it 31-6, but right before the half, the Irish aerial game struck again, with Kizer hitting Smythe again pushing the advantage to 38-6.
Smythe, whose only two receptions Saturday were his two touchdowns, does a lot more for the Irish than simply catch red-zone and end-zone passes, Kelly said.
“His biggest contribution is he’s a guy that has to do a lot for us, whether he’s blocking or running vertical routes or option routes,” Kelly said. “He’s asked to do a lot. You know, he’s a committed player. He’s high-character and well-respected by his teammates.”
The Black Knights got off to a bright second-half start, gaining 49 yards on their first two plays from scrimmage, but the Irish defense stepped up to keep the score where it was. With Army facing third-and-9 from the Irish 11, Notre Dame junior linebacker Greer Martini got through uninterrupted to sack Army sophomore quarterback Chris Carter. On the next play, junior Blake Wilson missed a 33-yard field goal try, leaving Army with no points on an otherwise-productive drive.
And for the first time all game, the Army defense followed with a stop, when on play 16 of a 76-yard drive, Black Knights senior defensive back Xavier Moss intercepted Kizer in the end zone, keeping Notre Dame off the board.
But next time out, Notre Dame got back to its scoring ways when senior running back Tarean Folston capped off a 37-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown rush. When Yoon missed the ensuing point-after attempt, it halted the game’s scoring at 44-6, the final margin. Freshman cornerback Julian Love preserved it with a goal-line interception near the midway point of the fourth quarter, keeping Army out of the end zone on its final drive.
A week ago, Notre Dame’s defense didn’t force a Navy punt in 60 minutes. This week, Notre Dame never needed to go to the punt game; the Irish were 10-for-13 on third down, and picked up a first down both times they set up to go for it on fourth down — once on a conversion, and once on a penalty. Kelly credited Kizer’s play for the resounding success on third and fourth downs Saturday.
“We got out of trouble a lot on third down, and a lot of it was DeShone keeping plays alive,” Kelly said. “When they dropped eight, he was able to scramble. When they brought pressure, he was able to get the ball out of his hands, so he did a really nice job.”
Kizer, who threw for 209 yards and three scores while adding 72 yards on the ground, earned the game ball, Kelly said.
“He got the game ball,” Kelly said. “I thought he matured — he made a mistake obviously in the red zone. You can’t make those, but I liked his leadership today. I liked his leadership all week. He was vocal. He was holding players to a higher standard. I liked his toughness, and he’s growing.”
And as always, when playing a service academy, Notre Dame and Army joined together for the playing of each school’s alma mater — it’s something special, Kelly said.
“You know, they’re tough to play these games, first of all. These teams are tough,” Kelly said. “Navy and Army are tough teams to play. But when you’re done playing the game, there’s just a natural respect that you have for them, and for how they do their business, in the classroom, out of the classroom, their preparation, their sacrifice, and then to go on the football field and compete against them and then share in singing the alma mater together, it just makes it a special event.”
The win means Notre Dame keeps it bowl game hopes alive for at least one more week. And when No. 14 Virginia Tech comes calling this weekend, it’ll take a little adjustment for Notre Dame — since it won’t be that triple-option look anymore.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to get to work on Tuesday, and it’s got to be a schedule that allows our guys to get a lot of work at Cover 4 and Cover 6 and Cover 2 and what we do normally.”
But as far as Saturday’s performance goes, there’s not much Kelly found wrong.
“You know, [it was] a complete performance by our guys,” he said. “There’s something to pick at always, but a pretty good performance all around by our football team.”