Even in victory, Notre Dame manages to rearrange its overall picture

Even in victory, Notre Dame manages to rearrange its overall picture

When No. 20 Notre Dame’s newfound equity from a 1-week-old surprise was squandered for the ages at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, an equally disturbing afterthought underscored an embarrassingly close Irish escape.

The Navy’s second-half defense left a blueprint for future ND adversaries, Boston College and USC, to ponder if not plagiarize.

“We have to go back and see exactly what happened,” said the Ireland manager Markus Freiman said after a 35-13 halftime joy drive that degenerated into a 35-32 white knuckler. “And we kind of have to make sure that we’re kind of better because of what happened in the second half.”

The first-year Ireland head coach deserves credit for his attitude and post-game spin cycle after one of the worst halves in Irish football in recent memory. But it should never have come to that.

First off, numerically the second half looked like this:

Total 12 yards on offense. Minus-23 rushing yards. A 0.9-yard average per game. Five sacks given up. An interception given on a pass overturned at the line of scrimmage. A third-octave downconversion in six attempts. Overall, the Irish were outscored 19-0 and tagged for six penalties for 49 yards after halftime.

It wasn’t until Matt Salerno pounced on a Navy onside kick with 81 seconds left that the Mids (3-7) ran out of chutzpah.

The inability of Notre Dame’s coaching staff to make apparent in-game adjustments a week after leading a top-five team in Clemson with three touchdowns from Notre Dame Stadium was beyond bewildering.

That the Irish (7-3) extended the nation’s longest active November winning streak to 18 games and prevented their bowl prospects from being diverted to less attractive options for the time being didn’t allay major concerns unearthed Saturday a week after the funeral.

Consistency must be the next step in the evolution of the program after Brian Kelly. Irish quarterback Drew Pyne Saturday showed how far away the Irish are.

In the first half, Pyne was the best he’s ever played at ND, being involved in all five touchdowns — four in a bypass and one in a nifty 11-yard scramble. He was 14 of 16 for 234 yards against the nation’s No. 122 passing efficiency defense and surpassed his passing yardage totals of his last two games, Clemson and Syracuse combined.

In the second half, Navy increased the pressure on passing downs and sold out runs.

That the Irish helped create the storm for that strategy was a combination of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ overly conservative game calls, Pyne’s lack of awareness of getting the ball out quickly when he needed it, and Freeman’s inability to put on a head-coaching tourniquet.

“They haven’t put any pressure on almost every game,” Freeman said. “What does that mean? It means they bring everyone and play without cover without any help from midfield. And we have to be able to find ways to attack that.

“We did that in the first half. We hit a few balls. We checked a lot when we saw it coming, but we just couldn’t beat zero pressure in the second half. We need to improve on that because other teams will do that.

“People will see that they managed to apply pressure. And what you need to do is, in the passing game, defending pays off.

Curiously, the Navy, 129th out of 131 in passing offense and 108th in passing efficiency nationally, made the Irish pay with their own passing game. And late in the fourth quarter, the Mids were able to do that with a QB in Maasai Maynor who was the Navy’s third stringer at the end of October.

Maynor was 4-of-7 for 51 yards and a 20-yard TD pass to Maquel Haywood with 1:21 left after an injured man was relieved Xavier Arline. QB1 Tai Lavatai was lost for the season two weeks before a knee injury.

Navy trainer Ken Niumatalolomeanwhile, won his X and O chess game with the Irish defensive coordinator AlGolden late in the game. The Mids found large chunks of running space as the Irish went to their prevent defense pass. And when the Irish deployed their personnel to stop the triple option, the Navy blew up.

“Again, you don’t want to be able to just let teams run down the field,” Freeman said. “But at that moment you’re 10 or 11 points ahead and you’re like, ‘Okay, we know it’s a two-point game. And so let’s be smart and don’t give up a simple, big game – pass – and make them earn every inch and keep the clock (moving) because they have no more timeouts. Something like that happened.”

Notre Dame played without two of its brightest defensive stars — the linebacker JD Bertrand (bar) and security Brandon Joseph (ankle) – and safety Xavier Watts used his first college start to post a career-high eight tackles.

He and graduate senior wide receiver Braden Lenzi were two of several bright spots that were obscured by what happened after half-time.

Special teams also continued to shine. Jack Kiers Blocked punt, ND’s nation-leading seventh, set up a 37-yard TD shot from Pyne at the wide receiver Jayden Thomas at the next game. 10-1 in the first half was the last time the Irish scored.

Pyne was a mixture of philosophical and defiant after the game, perhaps an appropriate reaction given the extreme ups and downs of the season.

“I’m the same every week,” Pyne pointed out. “I’m programmed the same every week. I’m learning from it, I’m getting better. I mean, that’s just how I work. this is how i live

“I’ll take this game – and I’m sure I made mistakes in the first half too. I am not perfect. I just learn from it and keep getting better. That’s all I do And that’s all I’ll ever do.”

As for Freeman, his biggest decisions and learning moments regarding the long-term development of the program will unfold in the offseason. Last but not least, the quarterback position looks set for 2023.

But Boston College and USC are still very important this season. How the Irish are perceived, particularly by recruits going into December, is very important.

Notre Dame is actually a much better team than it was in September. Now it’s time to prove it.

NOTRE DAME 35, NAVY 32: Full Box Score

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