Offensive MVP Running back Jonas Gray was an initial choice, the senior set the tone with four rushes for 30 yards and a score to culminate the opening drive. He added two more touchdowns and led the Irish with 69 yards on 12 carries.
But Gray’s classmate Michael Floyd was, once again, the best offensive football player on the field, securing six passes for 121 yards and a touchdown while adding one rush for 10 yards on a score (Floyd’s rushing score was a lateral pass he took 10 yards down the sideline for six).
“The guy is unbelievable,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo of Floyd. “I mean, the kid is a complete player…what he did wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him but we couldn’t get it done.”
Defensive MVP/Game MVP
This one wasn’t close: junior linebacker and Butkus/Lombardi Award semi-finalist Manti Te’o dominated the game’s first three quarters, finishing with 13 tackles (5 solo) including 2.5 for lost yardage. He sat out the fourth, the game long-since decided.
Te’o played poorly in last season’s loss at Navy (as did the bulk of his teammates on both sides of the ball) but would not be denied Saturday. In two games this season vs. option foes, the front seven’s leader has posted 23 tackles including five for lost yardage.
“The difference for us offensively against their defense was Manti,” Niumatalolo said. “We could not block Manti. We’ve been doing this for a long time; we tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him but the kid played phenomenal.”
Top Position Group
Te’o was the singular best defender but Mike Elston’s Defensive Line regained its lost mojo, dominating the contest despite the presence of three true freshmen among its seven-man rotation up front.
Notre Dame employed a 4-3 base, relying on outside linebackers Darius Fleming (who played to the wide/field side) and Prince Shembo (near/boundary) to secure the edge as defensive ends. Starters Sean Cwynar and Stephon Tuitt excelled inside and backup Louis Nix had his most productive outing (6 stops) since the season opener. Aaron Lynch and Chase Hounshell also saw time, though Hounshell appeared to seriously injure his shoulder in the final period.
The group was instrumental in holding Navy to 3.9 yards per carry and just 127 rushing yards on 38 attempts through the game’s competitive three quarters. – Held Navy to 127 rushing yards on 38 carries without a rushing score or run in excess of 15 yards. Tuitt and Nix combined for 13 stops over the first 45 game minutes.
The team’s back seven in the 4-3-4 alignment included Manti Te’o as a true middle linebacker; Dan Fox (starter) and Carlo Calabrese (reserve) as an outside boundary-side linebacker; and safety Jamoris Slaughter as the field-side ‘backer – a position in which he excelled two games prior vs. Air Force’s option attack. The secondary remained intact most of the game, with Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta splitting the field as safeties and Gary Gray (boundary) and Robert Blanton (field) manning the corners.
Navy cut Notre Dame’s two touchdown lead in half, 14-7 with 11:06 remaining in the second quarter. Less than two minutes later, the Irish lead 28-7 thanks to one throw down the post, a bumbled kick return by the visitors, and another bruising effort by Gray and the Irish running game.
After Gee Gee Greene scored on a 9-yard boot pass from Navy triple-option triggerman Trey Miller, Irish quarterback Tommy Rees hit Floyd for a 56-yard score down the post – the throw was the longest completion of Rees’ career and the longest catch by Floyd or any Irish player this season. Navy subsequently mishandled the kickoff, a fumble recovered by freshman linebacker Troy Niklas to give the Irish possession at the Navy 22-yard line.
Four snaps later, Gray too his third handoff of the series two yards for a score. After trailing by just seven with 11:06 remaining, the Midshipmen found themselves in a self-inflicted 28-7 deficit at the 9:07 mark.
Saturday’s blowout offered some first-time opportunities for the Irish rosters, though one of two season debuts was in a starting role.
After seven games on the bench, South Bend, Clay-product Daniel Smith joined the starting kick coverage unit; Smith did the same near this time last year, debuting in Week Seven in the same role vs. Western Michigan. Smith had battled a hamstring and undisclosed leg injury since last spring.
Also seeing the field for the first time this year was senior defensive tackle Brandon Newman. Newman played multiple series in the fourth quarter at defensive tackle, his first action of the Brian Kelly era.
Saturday also marked the first career reception for tight end Alex Welch, an 8-yard reception from Dayne Crist midway through the final period.
Finally, true freshman Ishaq Williams and redshirt-freshman Kendall Moore both recorded their first career tackles-for-loss, both taking down backup quarterback Jarvi Cummings on successive plays near the final gun. Moore was whistled for a personal foul on his hit.
Senior Jamoris Slaughter also recorded his first career TFL, stopping Miller on the game’s first drive on a 3rd and 6 keeper. Navy missed a field goal to conclude the 13-play drive and the Irish never looked back.
As noted above, Floyd scored the first rushing touchdown of his college career.
In addition to Floyd and Jonas Gray offensively, Cierre Wood shined, bouncing back from a terrible game last week to rush for 66 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Wood noted post-game that he “ran angry.”
Left tackle Zack Martin shined as usual, his kick-out block sprung Wood for the game’s second score, the second of seven rushing touchdowns for the Irish. Tight End Tyler Eifert had a quiet game on the stat sheet (1 catch for 17 yards) but excelled early as a downfield blocker, springing Theo Riddick for a 37-yard catch-and-run down the sidelines and Floyd for 25 yards on the game’s first (similar) pass play.
Defensively, Te’o was joined by the freshman Tuitt who tied his career-high (set last week) with seven tackles. Tuitt played exceptionally well vs. a veteran, polished Navy offensive front, rarely spending time on the ground as predicted by this website (or, uh, me). He added two quarterback hurries as well.
Robert Blanton played his usual well-rounded game, finishing second to Te’o with seven stops with (by my count) one for loss and another for no gain supporting the edge.
Safety Harrison Smith was all over the field, defending Green on short routes and cleaning up the perimeter on the rare times Midshipmen runners broke the edge of the Irish defense. Smith’s pass break-up was the 27th of his career, tying him for third all-time with program legend Luther Bradley (1973-77). Smith needs five passes defended in his final five games to tie Clarence Ellis (1969-71) for the school record.
Stats of Note
Gray and Wood both scored their eighth rushing touchdowns of the season, the most for any Irish runner since Darius Walker logged 12 in 2005. Gray’s three rushing TD was the most since Travis Thomas scored the same vs. Navy in a 46-44 3OT upset of the Irish in 2007, Navy’s first win over Notre Dame in 44 seasons.
Gray has scored a touchdown in five straight games, the first Irish running back to do so since Ryan Grant in 2002.
Rees completed the two longest passes of his career – a 37-yarder to Riddick (which tied Riddick’s career-best) and the 56-yarder two series later to Floyd.
Notre Dame faced its first 3rd Down with 6:52 remaining in the second quarter. The Irish converted with a 26-yard post to Floyd.
The Irish finished 7 for 7 in the red zone, scoring seven touchdowns.