Notre Dame has had more tumultuous weeks under coach Brian Kelly’s tenure, but the past seven days rank high on the roller-coaster meter. A bitter home loss to USC in the first home night game in years. Reports of player-coach rifts, Twitter venting, an air-it-out meeting, and enough related chatter to drown out much of anything else in the Irish-verse.
Thankfully, Notre Dame’s players were required to suit up and take the field for an actual football game, putting the week that was behind them for a few hours. With evident enthusiasm from the start, the Irish responded by dominating Navy, a team that beat them soundly last year. Notre Dame surged ahead 49-7 before the backups came in.
With the victory, Notre Dame improves to 5-3, and faces an Atlantic Coast Conference mini-schedule – at Wake Forest, vs. Maryland in D.C., vs. Boston College – before a big-game showdown at national title contender Stanford.
As for all of the week’s happenings, Kelly said that the performance on the field spoke for itself, and didn’t want to get into detail what happened behind closed doors.
“As a family, you all have good days and bad days. You work through it as a family,” he said.
And as for the bigger picture, interested observers know that 8-3 is within Notre Dame’s grasp, if the right team shows up every week – which is far from a guarantee.
But Notre Dame took care of business when it needed to, navigating the tricky circumstance where a win on game day is no big deal, but a loss is a disaster.
Manti Te’o set the tone against the option offense that baffled Notre Dame a season ago. The linebacker drilled quarterback Trey Miller for no gain on a keeper on the second play from scrimmage for Navy (2-6). Twice more, he delivered big hits on quarterback keepers, with Navy missing a long field goal at the end of the drive.
Te’o finished with 13 total tackles, half a sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss. “We could not block the guy,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “They whipped our butts today. I’m not going to make any excuses. Coach Kelly did a great job of getting his team ready.”
Notre Dame’s injury-wracked defensive line held nicely. Navy finished with 196 rushing yards, but had under 130 through three quarters. The Irish played four down linemen in a tight look, with Te’o roaming behind, and Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton making a number of plays deep. Freshman Stephon Tuitt stood out on the defensive line, finishing with seven tackles and two quarterback hurries.
And it’s always a good thing when Michael Floyd sets the tone on offense. The wide receiver took a screen for 25 yards on Notre Dame’s first offensive play, and finished with 121 yards on six receptions, including a 56-yard touchdown that was Tommy Rees’ career-long pass completion. Floyd also scored on a 10-yard run that was essentially a lateral screen.
“Michael Floyd played great football,” Kelly said. “Our big players played big.”
Unlike last week, Notre Dame stayed committed to the run. Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood ran for 69 and 66 yards respectively, and combined for five touchdowns on the ground.
“From an offensive standpoint, against USC we did not run the ball effectively,” Kelly said. “I think we ran the ball hard. We were going to run the football regardless,” he added, whether the numbers were in favor up front or not.
But Kelly seemed most proud of the defense, which solved the Navy option that was executed without starting quarterback Kriss Proctor, who was injured.
“Navy has been very difficult for us to defend, obviously,” Kelly said. As for all of the talk about Notre Dame’s defensive failures against Navy in the past, he added, “We can put that to rest.”