Notre Dame 24, Navy 17: First Impressions
Trailing by a touchdown against Notre Dame, Navy called timeout with 1:28 to play in the game and facing fourth down and five. After talking things over on the sideline, the offense lined up with the game hanging in the balance. Zach Abey took the snap and tossed the ball to slotback Darryl Bonner, who, while being hit, tried to throw the ball to Tyler Carmona, who had sneaked behind the secondary. After the hit, though, the ball was underthrown, and Carmona slipped on the rain-soaked turf while trying to come back for the ball. The pass fell harmlessly to the Notre Dame Stadium turf, sealing Navy’s fate.
Navy (6-4) fell to the #9 Irish, 24-17, on a wet and windy afternoon in South Bend. Josh Adams, who got off to a somewhat slow start, found his stride in the second half and finished with 106 rushing yards. Both Anthony Gargiulo and Zach Abey had 87 yards on the ground for Navy. Wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, who only had 144 receiving yards all season for Notre Dame (9-2), had five catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns in a breakout performance.
The Midshipmen had their chances. Navy controlled the tempo of the game and controlled the ball for nearly 43 minutes, limiting the Irish to only seven offensive possessions. After being held to a field goal after their first three drives, Notre Dame scored touchdowns on each of their next three. The first of those scores was the most frustrating. After being forced to punt from deep in their own territory, Navy caught a break when Micah Farrar forced a fumble on the return that was recovered by Taylor Heflin. The Mids took advantage by driving 39 yards over the next 5:02 for a touchdown that gave them a 10-3 lead with 1:08 remaining in the half. Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who struggled with his accuracy for most of the half, completed two 23-yard passes on the ensuing drive before running the ball into the end zone from two yards out to cap a seven play, 62-yard drive that took only a minute and tied the game at 10 at halftime.
Notre Dame had won the opening coin toss and elected to receive. By giving up a quick touchdown at the end of the first half, Navy lost the opportunity to take control of the game by going up by two scores.
The Mids did regain the lead on the opening possession of the third quarter. Zach Abey found Craig Scott wide open in the back of the end zone from 12 yards out to cap a 15-play, 72-yard drive that lasted for nearly eight minutes. Navy converted a third and 15 and two fourth downs to keep the chains moving on that drive. The Irish responded by going no-huddle and running the ball. Adams gained 48 yards on four carries before Wimbush connected with Stepherson for a 30-yard touchdown pass to tie the game after only 1:28 of game time.
Navy took possession after the kickoff and drove 53 yards to the Notre Dame 20-yard line before losing steam. Owen White’s 37-yard field goal attempt was wide left, which gave the Irish the opening they needed to regain control of the game. Wimbush completed four passes for 62 yards on the ensuing drive, including a 9-yard touchdown pass to Stepherson on a crossing pattern from nine yards out for what would be the winning touchdown.
Defensively, Navy did enough to win the game. Notre Dame entered Saturday’s matchup averaging over 300 rushing yards per game but only had 163 against the Mids. The limited possessions certainly were a big part of that, but not entirely so. Navy’s defense held Notre Dame to a field goal and two punts on their first three drives and forced another punt in the fourth quarter to give the Navy offense the opportunity to tie the game.
The Mids returned to zone coverage for most of the afternoon, which made sense; Wimbush is most dangerous on the run, so keeping him in the pocket was a sensible strategy. The frustrating thing for Navy, though, is how many Notre Dame receivers found themselves open despite the Mids dropping 7-8 into coverage.
Offensively, Navy managed to run for 277 yards, which is below average but a decent showing in a limited possession game. Anthony Gargiulo’s performance stood out. While Gargiulo had more yards against SMU, this might have been a more impressive game for the junior fullback. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry on a day when the team as a whole only managed 3.8 yards against a large and athletic Notre Dame defense. He had a 19-yard run up the middle on third down and 15, and he had a spectacular 21-yard catch on 4th and 6 to keep the chains moving on Navy’s last touchdown drive.
Navy’s biggest problem on offense was finishing drives. Seven of Navy’s eight real possessions lasted nine or more plays, but only three of those drives ended in points. All seven of them ended in Notre Dame territory. The Irish defense was as disciplined as they were athletic, which limited Navy’s ability to make big plays. Notre Dame made Navy earn every yard, and often the Mids couldn’t, whether it was because of a missed read, a missed block, or some other miscue that put Navy off schedule.
One compelling footnote for the Mids is that Garret Lewis, not Zach Abey, started the game at quarterback. Ken Niumatalolo mentioned after the game that the plan was for both to play. Lewis got the start based on what the Navy staff expected to see from the Irish defense, but he was replaced by Abey after the coaches decided that he was a better fit for what they wanted to do. That makes for an interesting week of practice coming up, with Lewis, Abey, and possibly Malcolm Perry being healthy for the Houston game. Perry dressed for Notre Dame, but only ran in a straight line during warmups and did not appear in the contest.