Another special teams miscue turns game sour for Irish
Marek Mazurek | Saturday, November 5, 2016
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For the sixth time this year, Notre Dame lost a game by one possession. This time, it was just one point that separated the Irish and the Midshipmen in Jacksonville, Florida. But this one point stemmed from one play, and it was likely enough to deter Notre Dame from its quest for bowl eligibility.
That one play: a 12 men on the field penalty called against the Irish (3-6) near the end of the third quarter.
At the time, Notre Dame, who must now win out to become bowl-eligible, led 24-21. Navy started its second possession of the half at the 25-yard line and marched it down to the 40 before stalling on a fumbled pitch.
Facing fourth-and-long, Navy punted the ball and sophomore Chris Finke caught it at the Notre Dame 28 yard-line.
Had that been the end of it, the Irish, up by four following touchdowns on their previous two drives, would have had a chance to cement a two-score lead and take Navy out of its comfort zone of grind-it-out football. Even a field goal would have made it 27-21 and given the defense a chance to rest.
What actually happened, though, was an illegal participation penalty on the Irish punt unit.
“I was standing there. They had two officials who agreed with me that he got off the field,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.
“We all saw the same thing, that he took a step and stepped onto the sideline. As long as you’re within a step of the sideline, which he was, felt that he was clearly getting off the field. But it was seen otherwise. Obviously a very key play in the game.”
The call gave Navy a fourth-and-1, and senior Midshipmen quarterback Will Worth plowed his way up the gut for the first down and kept what would become a nine-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive alive.
Senior linebacker James Onwualu said not getting off the field on that fourth down was tough to swallow, especially considering how hard Navy was to stop all game.
“Just getting those stops is tough, when you get a fourth down and they’re going for it, you got a third down stop and now you have to get another stop,” Onwualu said.
“Big plays matter. We made a couple big plays, and that substitution call hurt us. … You think you got a stop, you’re back on the field, all of a sudden they’re driving again.”
The Irish only saw the ball once more after that. On fourth-and-4 from the 14-yard line, Kelly elected to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown with 7:28 left to play. Sophomore Justin Yoon’s 31-yard field goal brought the Irish within a point, but it wasn’t enough, as Navy’s offense ran out the rest of the clock.
It was the the fourth special teams miscue in two weeks for the Irish. Finke caught the would-be punt today because sophomore C.J. Sanders fumbled a punt that allowed Miami to score a touchdown last week. Also against the Hurricanes, a Miami punt hit freshman Troy Pride Jr. in the leg and freshman Jalen Elliott didn’t even try to recover an onside kick, both plays that gave the Hurricanes the ball.
With Navy’s drives being extended by penalties and fourth-down conversions – Navy was 4-of-5 on fourth down on the day — Notre Dame’s potent offense stayed on the sideline.
“It puts a lot of pressure on you,” junior quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “We scored the majority of possessions that we had and the ones where we didn’t, we definitely had opportunities to score. And with that, you kind of have to score every time you touch the ball against Navy.”
“Listen, Navy won the game. I’m not here to cry over that call,” Kelly said. “We had chances to get off the field and we couldn’t get off the field.”
That one penalty didn’t lose the game for the Irish, but it did significantly alter Notre Dame’s chances. Senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell called it “a little defeating and frustrating.” Instead of taking control of the game, the Irish ultimately had to claw back — and they just couldn’t claw enough.