Irish overcome time of possession disparity, grit out win over Navy
Joe Everett | Saturday, November 18, 2017
42:42 versus 17:18.
The time of possession disparity between Navy and Notre Dame on Saturday would usually be indicative of one result. If one team’s offense controls the ball for more than double the amount of time their opponent does, that team is almost guaranteed to win.
However, No. 8 Notre Dame (9-2) defied the odds Saturday afternoon and, in the shortest game Notre Dame has played in since its 2010 loss to Navy, ground out a 24-17 victory over the Midshipmen. In fact, it was the largest time-of-possession difference by a victorious team in all of college football since 2015, when Texas defeated Rice.
So how did the Irish win? By putting together enough quality offensive drives, and a lot of defensive grit and fortitude.
When playing Navy (6-4, 4-3 AAC), a whole lot of conventional wisdom and strategy gets thrown out the window. The Midshipmen triple-option attack shortens the game and makes every possession, on both sides, extremely valuable. Irish head coach Brian Kelly particularly highlighted Notre Dame’s one-minute touchdown drive at the end of the first half as a microcosm of the game itself when it came to strategy and execution.
“It was critical,” Kelly said. “We even thought about surrender defense … it was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back … because we felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. So there was a lot of things going through my head at that time. I’m considering surrender, do I use another timeout here. But the fact of the matter is, the way it ended up playing out is we had enough time and it was crucial that we do something right before the half.”
The engineer of that drive, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, discussed the unique challenge that the Navy game plan presents when trying to establish a rhythm offensively, as the Irish were limited to just seven offensive possessions on Saturday.
“Yeah, it’s definitely difficult,” Wimbush said. “Coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year and I think it was only seven earlier this evening, but I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”
What makes the Navy gameplan so difficult to combat is that it caters to its personality: a team that executes well and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Navy, as it does with nearly all its opponents, forced Notre Dame to play an efficient, pressure-packed type of game. On its touchdown drive just before half, Navy ate up five minutes while only gaining 39 yards, leaving the Irish almost no time to work with, but junior running back Josh Adams said the Irish knew they needed to capitalize and look to score whenever they could.
“It was important for us to be efficient with the ball all game. We knew that our possessions would be limited, so we had to do the best we could to take care of the ball and put points on the board,” Adams said. “Brandon did a great job with the two-minute drill and pushing the ball down the field. We just needed to capitalize, and we did. I believe that helped give us a little energy going into the second half, so it was important for us as an offense to take advantage of the possessions we had.”
Not only did the time of possession imbalance cause issues for the offense, but also took a serious toll on the defense, which easily spent its largest amount of time of the field this season. Kelly commented on the fact that this particular rivalry game commanded that the defense execute at every level, on every play.
“Well, our attention to detail in terms of what we need to do, we really needed to show some great traits today about who we were in this game,” Kelly said. “Talent does not win out in a game like this. Your assignments, the way you tackle the ball carrier, bending him back, was so important today, because you’re fighting for every yard.”
Not only was that technique and execution needed every play, but the defense faced a team that was essentially in four-down mode the entire game. Navy converted four of its six fourth down tries — backbreaking plays that extended drives. In fact, Notre Dame’s defense was on the field for all but 1:48 of the third quarter, and by the end of the game, senior captain and linebacker Greer Martini, who registered a career-high 15 tackles, said that the unit was exhausted.
“Obviously a team like [Navy], they’re going to be on the field a ton, and so it was just about getting critical stops at critical points,” Martini said. “Like that fourth down on the last play of the game … that’s a big deal for us.”
“ … I mean, personally, I was pretty tired. It felt longer than [42 minutes].”
Exhausted, but not broken. The defense stopped the Midshipmen when it mattered most, and although the Midshipmen forced the Irish to win ugly, Notre Dame captain and graduate student offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey commented on how proud he was defense for battling against a tough, time-consuming opponent and never breaking down, especially on that late fourth-down play.
“It was just one of those things — you’ve got to be so proud of [the defense],” McGlinchey said. “Navy provides a really tough challenge for them, it’s something they don’t see ever, until it’s time to play Navy. [Defensive coordinator Mike] Elko and his staff did a great job game planning and had a terrific plan in place, and our players made plays. They had the ball for a long time, but the ball was always in front of our defense — that’s why we had the success we had today and we were able to come out with a win.”