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Coolican: Notre Dame’s performance vs. Navy exemplifies uneven year

For those wondering how Notre Dame can dominate top-15 opponents Clemson and North Carolina, yet lose against Marshall and Stanford at home in the same season, look no further than Saturday afternoon’s game against Navy. 

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne looked like a Heisman contender in the first half on Saturday. He methodically picked apart the Midshipmen defense, completing 14 of 16 passes for 234 yards and five total touchdowns.

It was a performance that took everyone, the Navy defense included, by complete surprise. A week earlier in Notre Dame’s upset win over Clemson, Pyne completed just nine passes for 85 yards.

But as quickly as his brilliance arrived, it disappeared even faster. If someone had listened to Pyne and head coach Marcus Freeman’s post-game press conference without knowing the result, they’d be forgiven for thinking the Irish had lost.

“We’re going to be better because of it, somehow, someway,” Freeman said after the 35-32 win. “We have to be better because of what happened in the second half.”

“I’m just going to learn from it and keep getting better,” Pyne said. “That’s all I do and that’s all I’ll ever do.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like the coach of a top-20 team that just won their fourth straight contest. Nor like a quarterback who accounted for five touchdowns and nearly 300 yards. 

Credit Navy for an impressive series of halftime adjustments that managed to hold the Irish scoreless in the second half. But something has to go seriously wrong for an offense to go from accumulating 333 yards in one half to just two in the next.

Fans will point fingers at the coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, as they have all season. Pyne deserves some criticism after completing just three passes for 35 yards and being sacked five times in the second half. The run game and the offensive line did next to nothing in the final two quarters. They all deserve some of the blame for a half that saw Notre Dame nearly surrender a seemingly insurmountable 35-13 halftime lead. But the real problem, as Freeman noted post-game, was a complete lack of urgency.

“We had to match their urgency throughout the entirety of the game,” Freeman said. “We did the first half, we did not have the urgency, the execution, that we needed to finish the game the way we wanted to.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon for Notre Dame. After spending most of fall camp preparing for the highly-anticipated season-opening matchup in Columbus, they fell flat the next week against Marshall. Following back-to-back impressive wins North Carolina and BYU, they turned in an abysmal performance against Stanford.

The Irish have consistently followed up outstanding performances by looking completely hapless against inferior opposition. It clearly isn’t a talent problem. Notre Dame’s drubbing against Clemson and the first half against Navy, among other performances, have shown the Irish are undoubtedly among the most complete teams in the country.

Until now, I’ve resisted the urge to suggest that Notre Dame has been overlooking certain opponents. It is hard to imagine that some of the best athletes and coaches in the country would ever come into a game with anything less than everything they have.

But it’s difficult to find another explanation for what happened Saturday — and throughout this season. In the first half, 333 yards. Two in the second. I repeat this stat because it is almost unbelievable. The Irish thought they had the game in hand. And Navy almost made them pay for their complacency.

For example, Navy quarterback Xavier Arline went down with an injury, and backup Maasai Maynor entered the game, the Irish were completely unprepared for his throwing ability. Yes, it is true that Navy hardly ever throws the football. But when a team is down by three scores in the fourth quarter, it is safe to assume that they’ll be passing. Maynor, who until two weeks ago was Navy’s third-string signal caller, gashed the Irish defense for multiple big plays in just a quarter of action.

I’m not sure whether to blame the coaching staff or the players for this lack of urgency and preparedness. On one hand, it is the coach’s job to inspire his players and prepare them each week. Yet it is the players who are the ones who take the field each day.

It is a bizarre phenomenon. There’s no other way to describe what has happened with Notre Dame football this year. Under Brian Kelly, the criticism was always that his teams couldn’t compete on the biggest stage. While it is still early, the so-called Freeman Era seems to be trending in exactly the opposite direction. The Irish play their best football in the biggest games, yet struggle to put away twenty-point underdogs. 

It is at times frustrating to watch Notre Dame turn in these types of performances against teams like Navy. However, given where Notre Dame was a month ago after they fell to Stanford, most Irish fans would be thrilled to be in the position they are in now. 

I’m sure Freeman, his staff and the players are working tirelessly to correct this problem. I don’t have a solution to offer. But the team had better find one sooner rather than later. If this trend continues into next year, when the Irish should be CFP contenders once again, they’ll be in trouble. A half like the second one against Navy can cost a team big time. It didn’t Saturday. But it has in the past. And it will again in the future.

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.

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

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