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Zuba: Notre Dame’s imperfect performance stills keeps them in national conversation

| Sunday, November 2, 2014

Irish senior tight end Ben Koyack celebrates his first-quarter touchdown reception in Notre Dame’s 49-39 win over Navy on Saturday night at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.JODI LO | The Observer
Irish senior tight end Ben Koyack celebrates his first-quarter touchdown reception in Notre Dame’s 49-39 win over Navy on Saturday night at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
Clean. Efficient. Precise.

That was Notre Dame in the first half of its 49-39 win Saturday over Navy.

A 78-yard pass to Irish junior receiver CJ Prosise on Notre Dame’s second play of the game set the tone, and the Irish were clicking as they strode to a 28-17 halftime lead.

But that lead was once 28-7. By the end of the third quarter, Navy had turned it around, taking a 31-28 advantage on the strength of 24 unanswered points.

Not so clean, efficient or precise.

The Irish offense kept up its brisk scoring clip, but the defense faltered as Navy’s triple-option scheme gained traction and the Midshipmen eluded Notre Dame defenders for breakaway plays.

A 54-yard run by Midshipmen senior fullback Noah Copeland late in third quarter set up the go-ahead score from Notre Dame’s four-yard line.

The Irish didn’t look brilliant.

But the big lesson is simple. The Irish learned (again) that talented teams featuring a mobile quarterback challenge them (see also: North Carolina).

That’s fine because Notre Dame won’t play another such offense this season.

From here on out, the Irish defense can play more to its strengths. Notre Dame has more challenges ahead, but none resembles the North Carolina offense or the triple option.

The Irish will want to have more consistent and dominant performances moving forward if they hope to catch the eye of the playoff selection committee. The task is becoming more urgent as the schedule winds down, but at least now the Irish have a chance to do so in what look like more favorable matchups scheme-wise.

And perhaps they won’t have junior defensive lineman Jarron Jones nursing a sore ankle that clearly bothered him. Or junior defensive lineman Sheldon Day and sophomore linebacker James Onwualu crashing in a brutal collision with one another.

The injuries forced several young players into the game and new positions against Navy’s unusual offense, so much of the second half wasn’t put together by Irish regulars.

The prognosis for Day and Onwualu looks good, Kelly said at his press conference. But the Irish will be without Schmidt for the remainder of the season with a fractured and dislocated left ankle, Kelly said Sunday.

Although Saturday’s game ended with some defensive uncertainty, it did include positive developments.

Even if the defense wasn’t at the sharpest level this talented group is capable of, the offense marched reliably up and down the field.

Notre Dame didn’t punt until more than halfway through the third quarter. Golson threw for three touchdowns and ran for three, the first time an Irish player had ever done so. Sophomore running back Tarean Folston cruised to one touchdown and 149 rushing yards.

With the exception of one blemish, a second-quarter interception snagged by Navy senior safety George Jamison, Irish senior quarterback Everett Golson led Notre Dame smoothly.

He completed 18 of 25 passes and threw for 315 yards, a convincing sequel to his remarkable performance against Florida State. Although none of the Irish receivers had a banner day statistically, everyone was involved, providing evidence of the reliability and depth of the receiving corps.

This offense has a lot of options, and Notre Dame is increasingly finding ways to use them effectively.

This had to have been what the Irish coaches wanted to see out of their offense after the psychological blow that was the game against Florida State. The Irish responded with poised efficiency, showing that they are ready to keep charging along and not lose their edge because they lost one unfortunate game.

If the whole game wasn’t clean, efficient and precise, at least 7-1 hits pretty near the mark. It keeps them in the conversation.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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