Oct. 11, 2015
Navy’s football team had snapped the ball 262 times on offense, and only lost the handle one time in racking up an impressive 4-0 record. In fact, the Midshipmen, Florida State and LSU were ranked No. 1 in the nation for fewest turnovers among NCAA Division I college football teams.
Then, the Midshipmen ran into the University of Notre Dame’s defense, a squad stoked by the anger of a low turnover number (four in five games, ranked No. 110 in the nation).
By the time the Irish were finished stinging Navy with a swarming defensive effort, the Midshipmen suffered three turnovers and a 41-24 loss on Saturday afternoon.
In a game with a 17-point margin of victory, the three turnovers forced by the Irish were game-changers. Notre Dame hitman Jaylon Smith recovered a fumble that put the ball in Irish hands at the Navy 7 with 10:42 left in the second quarter. C.J. Prosise needed one play for the Irish to cash in, and the Irish were able to gain a 14-7 lead.
After Dishan Romine returned the second half opening kickoff 26 yards, he was blasted by Notre Dame’s Morgan Nyles. Devin Butler pounced on the resulting fumble for the Irish, giving Notre Dame the ball at the Navy 26. It took two plays for the Irish to cash in, Prosise sprinting into the end zone from the 22 to give the Irish a little breathing room at 31-21.
On the final possession of the game. Elijah Shumate played grand-theft football to make it game over for the Midshipmen. Shumate picked off a pass at the Irish 6 with 6:14 left, and the Irish ran out the clock to preserve the 41-24 victory.
On Saturday, the Irish defense nearly matched its season turnover total coming into the game against a team that is notoriously stingy in giving away the ball. Notre Dame’s plus-2 turnover margain against Navy is only the second time since 1999 that the Irish have reached a plus-2 advantage in turnovers against the Midshipmen. The other plus-2 turnover advantage against the Midshipmen in the past 17 seasons was in 2012, when the Irish clobbered Navy, 50-10.
“We were pretty upset that we didn’t have that many turnovers,” said Shumate, a 6-foot-0, 224-pound senior safety. “We feel like we’re so talented. It just wasn’t displayed the first few games. We definitely wanted to make more plays.
“Coaches were telling us, if we want to be a great defense, we have to get the ball. We have to create turnovers for the offense. We took that to heart.”
Smith, a 6-2, 240 linebacker who brings a jolt of lightning to his hits, set the tone for the Irish defense.
“It’s just taking advantage of opportunities,” Smith said of his fumble recovery deep in Navy territory. “We had a chance to prepare very well, and tonight it was on display. I think turnovers are crucial. Whenever you can get them, you gain so much momentum. It was key for tonight’s victory. It’s something we have to carry on moving forward.”
According to Smith, the Irish were well prepared by their coaches to be opportunistic.
“It’s about the preparation,” Smith said. “You practice turnovers. You have takeaway circuits to rep and put it in your mind. Then, it becomes muscle memory. It’s really key to a successful defense.
“It’s very satisfying when you play like that against a team like Navy. They are very fundamentally sound. You just don’t see turnovers out of a team like that.”
Morgan, who unleashed a bone-jarring hit to open the second half breakaway by the Irish, said that creating turnovers was a point of emphasis for a hungry defense.
“It starts with our attitude up front, and then the linebackers and the safeties,” Morgan said. “Our attitude this week was get to the ball, and destroy everything. When that happens, fumbles happen. When you’re flying to the ball at one hundred miles an hour, the ball is going to pop out. We did some amazing things out there. Guys were committed throughout the week. Prep was excellent. Guys were flying to the ball, and then we did the same thing on Game Day.
“Coach Kelly said this week was all ‘thud.’ We had a great scout team prep us, and it was ‘thud.’ Thud means you hit the guy as hard as you can, but you try not to bring him to the ground. Sometimes, the guy goes to the ground, because you’re running with your hair on fire. That sets up the turnover.”
Morgan said that the Irish can use the three-turnover gain by the defense as a springboard.
“I feel that as each game goes on, we’re getting better and better, especially with getting turnovers and stopping offenses,” Morgan said. “Without a doubt, we can go to the top the way we’re playing. I feel like we can be unstoppable.”
By Curt Rallo/special correspondent