Nov. 6, 2016
By John Heisler
One point on the scoreboard.
Two net yards on the stat sheet.
That was the difference.
The exact same number of first downs by the two teams.
An amazing combined conversion rate on third and fourth downs of 22 for 32 (including five of six on fourth downs).
One combined punt by the teams.
Both squads had their longest drives of 2016 in terms of clock time.
Maybe none of those numbers shocked or surprised anyone Saturday in either the Notre Dame or Navy football locker rooms at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
Yet one number proved hard to fathom.
When both coaches figured on a low-possession contest that would put execution at a premium, Irish head man Brian Kelly still thought his club would have four second-half possessions. Amazingly his Notre Dame team ended up with only two, scoring on both.
The drive chart data in the final statistical book barely filled half a page. That never happens.
The Irish had the ball only six times all day, scored points on five of those drives (three touchdowns and two Justin Yoon field goals) and ended up on the short end of a 28-27 verdict.
“Everybody do their job,” said Irish defensive lineman and captain Isaac Rochell. “Let’s go.”
“Time to get paid,” said linebacker Nyles Morgan. “It’s pay day.”
“This is the ultimate adjustment game,” added linebacker coach Mike Elston. “It’s gonna take adjustment to the speed of the game and to their cut blocks. It’s fast. Let’s go, baby. It’s about physicality and let’s make great adjustments.”
Added associate head coach and receiver coach Mike Denbrock, “Let’s show them what execution Notre Dame-style looks like.”
“Run, hit, tackle–all day,” said defensive assistant coach Greg Hudson.
“This is a team game, and that is an outstanding team we are playing today,” Kelly told his squad just before kickoff.
“We need to trust either other and be disciplined today. If we want to be the better team we have to go prove that. That’s the great thing about this game. You go out and prove it. Go prove it to them. You go do that. You get an opportunity to prove who you are today.
“And play with great confidence that we’ve struggled at times to earn. There may be some ups and downs along the way, but we’ll figure it out. Stay confident no matter what the circumstances. Let’s go prove who the best football team is today.”
Both teams executed impressively on their initial drives, leaving the game at 7-7 midway through the first period. The Irish traveled 83 yards, with quarterback DeShone Kizer twice throwing to Torii Hunter Jr. for conversions, once on third down and once on fourth (Hunter had four grabs for 69 yards and a 28-yard touchdown catch after the first possession of the game).
Notre Dame’s second drive covered 48 yards, featured two more third-down conversions and ended in a Yoon field goal from 39 yards.
Navy’s first 13 plays were rushes, and the Mids did not attempt a pass until the second play of the second period. Navy quarterback Will Worth completed his first throw two plays later on a third down, and the Irish defense stopped the Mids a yard short on a fourth-and-four run. From there Notre Dame went three and out-its only drive of the 71-degree afternoon that didn’t produce points.
Navy moved 80 yards-all on the ground to take the lead-with Worth running for 60 of those on the first play of the possession. The Irish answered right back, with Kizer twice making impressive key third-down rushes for first downs-in advance of a TD throw to tight end Durham Smythe. That left the Irish on top 17-14 at intermission.
“DeShone ran over two linebackers out there,” said Denbrock to the offense. “That’s the kind of determination we need to play with in the second half.”
At halftime, Kelly offered, “Do your job. Trust your talents. Be confident. Go be decisive in the second half-you’ve got to believe it. I believe in you. You can’t just talk about it. Let’s go do that in the second half.
“We just need one or two stops. Stay locked in. It’s gonna be a battle-we know that, we’re playing Navy. That’s how we play, too. Let’s go do that for the next two quarters. There are no rah-rah speeches-you know what you’ve gotta do. Go do your job. All 11 guys working together. I want to come back here and sing the fight song. Let’s go play.”
In the same fashion the game started, both teams traded TDs to open the third period, with Kizer finding Equanimeous St. Brown on a crossing route–and St. Brown summersaulting into the end zone. That marked Kizer’s 40th career TD pass and the fourth career game in which he has accounted for at least three.
Navy’s next possession absolutely skewed the possession time equation, as the Mids held the ball for exactly nine minutes and ran 16 plays, leading to a Worth score and a 28-24 Navy advantage.
The Irish added another field goal to come within 28-27 at the 7:28 mark after reaching the Navy 14. But Notre Dame never got the football back.
Navy held the ball for the final nearly seven-and-a-half minutes, with Worth once running for a fourth-down conversion and later connecting on a fourth-down pass (his fifth completion of the game) to move the chains and cinch the win.
“Nobody battled today to come up with anything but a win. They are a tough team to play,” said Kelly to his players. “They made some plays and we missed a few here or there. I hate losing just like you do, and we’re here to be successful. Navy made a play at the end.”
Kizer hit 19 of his 27 throws for 223 yards and three scores, Hunter caught eight for 104 yards and Josh Adams contributed 73 rushing yards (Kizer added 52). Worth carried on exactly half of Navy’s 56 rushing plays for 175 yards. Second-half possession time read a 20:20-9:40 advantage for the winners.
The Irish walked into their locker room frustrated that their second half involved running only 20 plays.
Added Kelly to the media, “Navy executed flawlessly (no Mid turnovers, one penalty). It’s what you expect. You’ve got to make a play late and they did that.
“There’s not much to pick at, as a head coach. We just did not have enough possessions. If we get the ball back with 1:14, I’m feeling confident we’re gonna score.”
“We knew we didn’t want to give ’em the ball back (on the last drive),” added Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
He admitted he never saw Worth’s late fourth-down pass completion:
“I had my eyes closed.
“I was praying.”
It was barely enough.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling the fortunes of Notre Dame football since 1978.