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Week 9: Navy

Conor Kelly | Saturday, November 2, 2013

On a day when neither defense seemed to be able to get off the field, No. 25 Notre Dame got a stop when it counted. The Irish stuffed a Navy reverse on 4th-and-4 at the Notre Dame 31 yard-line to cement a 38-34 victory on a cold, wet Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

It was far from a rousing victory as the Irish (7-2) traded leads with and often struggled to find ways to stymie the Midshipmen (4-4), but Irish coach Brian Kelly was happy to escape with a win against a disciplined Navy squad.

“I mean, if you look out at option teams, especially Navy, I’m ecstatic about getting out of here with a win in terms of the way they played today,” Kelly said. “I mean, they were flawless in terms of their execution. When they’re on and they’re playing well, you’re just really excited [to get a win].”

From the opening drive, defensive stops were in short supply for both teams.

The Navy defense brought the Irish to a fourth down on Notre Dame’s first possession of the game, but junior running back Cam McDaniel converted on 4th-and-1, and junior running back George Atkinson took a handoff 41 yards to the end zone on the following play. 

The Midshipmen followed with a touchdown of their own as sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds plunged in from two yards out, the third consecutive game in which the Irish have surrendered a touchdown on their opponent’s opening drive.

Notre Dame struggled to contain Navy’s triple-option attack, surrendering 331 yards on the ground to the Midshipmen.  Navy was able to control the clock and keep an Irish offense, one that averaged nine yards per play, mostly off the field. The Midshipmen ran 79 plays to Notre Dame’s 56 and controlled the ball for 15:12 longer than the Irish. Four different Midshipmen – sophomore fullback Chris Swain, junior fullback Quinton Singleton, sophomore slot back Demond Brown and Reynolds  – rushed for at least 50 yards.

“]Navy] executed flawlessly today. Hats off to them,” Kelly said. “They controlled the clock, made possessions difficult relative to time of possession. So just, again, shortened the game, no penalties, no turnovers and really played a great game and really took us in a position – put us in a position – that we had to play great in the second half.”

Despite Navy’s discipline and execution, it was a pair of uncharacteristic errors that helped the Irish win. After Reynolds’ second-quarter touchdown run put the Midshipmen up 20-17, sophomore kicker Nick Sloan missed the extra-point attempt that would have put Navy up by four.

Two quarters later, on Navy’s final possession of the game, when the Midshipmen trailed 38-34 and needed a touchdown instead of a field goal, the team faced a 2nd-and-5 at the Irish 32 yard-line. Reynolds pitched left to sophomore slot back DeBrandon Sanders. But the toss was slightly behind Sanders, who dropped the ball and was forced to fall on it for a nine-yard loss. Two plays later on 4th-and-4, Irish junior safety Eilar Hardy blew by a block to blow up the Navy reverse and force senior receiver Shawn Lynch into the arms of freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith to ice the game.

“We might have taken a tad too long on the reverse there. We felt like it was open,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I’ve got to go back and look at tape, but I think we’re one block from breaking it.”

The victory was a coming-out party for Irish freshman running back Tarean Folston and the rest of the ground game, as Notre Dame churned out 264 yards on 36 attempts, the most prolific and efficient output of the season. Receiving the bulk of the carries for the first time this year, Folston rushed for 140 yards on 18 attempts and carried eight times on Notre Dame’s final drive, which ended with Folston’s one-yard leap into the end zone with 3:47 remaining to take the lead. Part of a deep stable of running backs that has shared carries for the Irish, Folston said he relished the opportunity to get the ball when it counted.

“It was really just put me in and let me make this play,” Folston said. “Five yards here, five yards there, 10 yards. It’s just the flow of the game. They kept me in and I made some plays.”

Before Folston’s touchdown, the crucial play for the Irish on the game-winning drive was a 28-yard pass from senior quarterback Tommy Rees up the seam to junior tight end Troy Niklas. The completion came on 3rd-and-8 after the Irish were pushed back by an illegal-substitution penalty. Niklas caught the pass between a quartet of Midshipmen defenders and dragged them an extra five yards to extend the drive.

“For me, you’ve just got to put it up there and let the big guy get it,” Rees said. “He’s pretty tough to take down after he gets the ball in his hands. So it was awesome.”

In addition to Folston and Atkinson, junior running back Cam McDaniel ran seven times for 52 yards and a score as the Irish backs averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Rees threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns, finding senior receiver TJ Jones on a 36-yard pass down the middle for a score and hitting junior tight end Ben Koyack for a 17-yard touchdown off play-action. Rees also threw two interceptions.

Defensively, senior defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, filling in for injured senior nose tackle Louis Nix, led the Irish with 11 tackles, all of which came before he left in the second half with an ankle injury. Graduate student linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox contributed 10 and nine stops, respectively.

The injury to Schwenke was one of a slew of injuries on the defensive side of the ball that could test Notre Dame’s depth going forward. Schwenke (ankle), junior linebacker Ben Councell (knee) and sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day (ankle) all went down on Saturday.

“We reached it and surpassed it,” Kelly said of the limits of his team’s depth in the defensive front seven, which was already without Nix and junior linebackers Jarrett Grace and junior linebacker Ishaq Williams. “We didn’t complain about it. It’s part of the game. Injuries happen. You’ve just got to find a way to get it done, and they did.  We’ll find a way to get it done.”

The Irish will travel to Pittsburgh next Saturday.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]