November 19, 2017
By John Heisler
By all rights a college football team that runs 31 more more plays than its opponent should emerge victorious.
So should any team that holds an amazing possession time advantage of 42:42 to 17:18.
The same would be said for any team that rolls up 277 net rushing yards.
All those numbers fell on Navy’s side of the ledger Saturday.
But, as Notre Dame has come to learn well, playing Navy is not the average Saturday afternoon.
And, so, all those statistical advantages weren’t enough on a wet, 41-degree day at Notre Dame Stadium as the Irish closed out their home season with a 24-17 victory over the Midshipmen.
Notre Dame did it by coming from behind twice from seven-point deficits, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions and making great use of a career day from receiver Kevin Stepherson.
“Each week we’ve been intentional in the way we’ve talked about our preparation in terms of physical, technical, tactical, mental,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly before the game.
“Today I want to talk about playing with your heart, playing for your brothers next to you. What would you give up today for your brother next to you? That’s really what this is about. This is the last game you’ll play here with the guy next to you. What would you give up for the guy that has done everything for you?
“You came here together and all of you as freshmen decided to come to Notre Dame. You came together on a leap of faith to be together as one on this journey for the last four years. Let’s finish this journey the right way, with a victory in the game of football. That’s what this is-a game of football. It requires all the things you’ve developed since you’ve been at Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame in a lot of ways is a tough place, but it’s a beautiful place because it gives us so many things. We’ve different, not better, but different. Today we need to show our distinctions out there. Play with your heart, not emotionally but with great enthusiasm. Fly around, celebrate together. This is about a team playing together as one. Let’s go have some fun today.”
After 26 seniors were introduced to music from the movie “Rudy,” the Irish got off to a good start defensively by stopping Navy at the Notre Dame 34 on the last of three fourth-down attempts by the Midshipmen.
The Irish used 11 plays to traverse 58 yards for an early lead on a 29-yard Justin Yoon field goal-but from there Notre Dame seldom saw the football. Navy tied the game on the first career field-goal attempt by Owen White. But a fumble on a punt return by Chris Finke allowed the visitors to use up another 5:02 on the clock after 11 rushing plays equated to 39 yards and a 10-3 Navy lead.
A hurry-up approach benefitted the Irish offense. Taking over at his own 38 with 1:08 until halftime, Brandon Wimbush connected with Stepherson for 23 yards, then with Chase Claypool for another 23, before taking it in himself from the two at the eight-second mark. Unlike the Navy excursions, that drive took 60 seconds to account for 62 yards. The game was tied at the halfway mark without the Mids completing a pass.
“One play at a time, one play at a time,” Kelly said at intermission. “Do not get ahead of yourself. It’s going to take us every single play to win the game, you know that.
“Be gritty, be tough, stay together, be positive. It’s a battle out there, we know that, we know what we’re in. Battle for every inch on this field, every inch. Go out and earn it. It’ll be a sweet victory, but it’s gonna have to be earned.
“Everybody’s got to play a role in this, every single player. On the bench, in the game. Every unit has to help find a way to win. Let’s go win for our brothers and send out our seniors this last time at home. Let’s go win a football game.”
Added offensive coordinator Chip Long, “Who’s gonna take care of the football? Who’s gonna take over the ballgame?”
Navy and Notre Dame traded scores on their opening third-period possessions–and the drives could not have looked more different. The Mids used 7:59 on the clock (longest scoring drive of the season against Notre Dame from a time standpoint), and the Irish used 1:28. Navy ran 15 plays (the biggest a fourth-and-six conversion that became its first pass completion of the day, a 21-yarder to Anthony Gargiulo), the Irish ran five.
Josh Adams ran for 30 yards (he finished with a game-high 106) and Stepherson scored on a 30-yard reception on the very next play.
A missed Navy field goal from 37 yards (wide left) allowed the Irish to take over on the final play of the third period and create what became the winning points. After three quarters Navy held a 33:39-11:21 time of possession advantage-but the Irish went about proving that didn’t matter.
Wimbush found Stepherson for 23 yards on the first play of the final period, again connected with him for 18 yards on a critical third-and-10 swing pass left-and then hit him on a crossing pattern left for nine yards and the TD and a 24-17 lead.
Notre Dame’s defense did it from there. Troy Pride’s first career interception came on a play in which the Irish had double-teamed receiver Jahmaal Daniel-and the pass was overthrown.
Then, after Navy took over with 5:53 on the clock, the Mids drove to the Irish 25 before a fourth-and-five opportunity (after four straight Navy conversions on fourth down) became a halfback pass that fell incomplete when receiver Tyler Carmona fell.
Navy’s three scoring drives averaged 13 plays; Notre Dame’s three TD marches averaged 7.6. Those three Mid possessions averaged 6:44 in clock time; Notre Dame’s averaged just under two minutes.
It didn’t matter.
“The big difference? Last year we lost to this team by one point,” Kelly said to his team after it ended. “It was visible. You guys have those traits necessary to win a close game. You have grit and determination and you have each other’s back to go out there and keep playing, keep fighting. That’s why you won the football game.
“When you get into these kinds of games against quality teams that have all of these traits, you have to find a way to win a football game. This is the first time you’ve won a game by seven points or less since Miami of last year. It’s been a long time. You had sustained effort over a long period of time and you found a way to win a football game. That’s really the most important thing to come out of this, other than to send our seniors out as winners. So congratulations.
“Six wins at home this year, a one-point loss to Georgia. Great way to open up year one in this new stadium. A great way for our seniors to say, ‘That’s the bar and even better.’ A great standard set, and we will move on and do even greater things.
“Defensively, no explosive plays and they’ve been doing that all year against everybody. We fought and found a way to come up with a victory. I’m proud of everybody today who gave up their individual selves for the team today. That’s a great attitude.”
Kelly referenced what Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told him after the game:
“Is Greer Martini a senior? Tell number 48 I hope he graduates because we have not been able to block him the last two years.”
Martini finished with a career-high 15 tackles (and one pass break-up) in his final appearance at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish allowed Navy 17 points, about half its season average of 33.7. The Mids managed those 277 running yards, but they marked almost a hundred fewer than their nation-leading average of 369.8.
With five more victories this season compared to a year ago, Notre Dame (9-2) with two games remaining already has created a one-season turnaround in wins that betters anything accomplished in school history by the Irish other than in 1964 (2-7 to 9-1) and 1919 (3-1-2 to 9-0).
“You seniors have a chance to win 10 (regular-season) games two of the last three years,” said Kelly to his players in closing. “That’s a major statement. You have that opportunity against Stanford.”
Now there are some numbers that matter.