Two consecutive weeks against option teams resulted in two opposite results in many ways for the Irish.
Freshman RB Tarean Folston rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown and both George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel added touchdown runs as Notre Dame escaped Navy 38-34 in a offense-heavy game in South Bend.
Despite the sloppy field conditions, the Irish running game exploded for 264 total yards on 36 carries. At 7.3 yards per rush, the Irish did very well on the ground. This contrasted with the pass-heavy attack the Irish employed against the Air Force Falcons last week in Colorado Springs.
In postgame remarks, Folston credited his offensive line, but the Freshman was able to make plays on his own as well, including an impressive leap on a long run in the second half.
The Irish offense started the game with an impressive scoring drive that closely resembled the Irish's first drive against Navy last year in Ireland. Tommy Rees effortlessly moved the offense down the field and George Atkinson III, in a close resemblance to his 56-yard scamper last season, rushed for a 41-yard score.
Then Navy, unlike last season, moved the ball at will against a depleted Irish defensive front. The game was back-and-forth scoring from there on. Tommy Rees threw two interceptions in the first half, which helped Navy stay in the game.
With the Irish down by three in the first half, the defense was able to stop Navy on their first drive, a rare occurrence. After an Irish score, the teams would again trade touchdowns until the Irish were able to pull ahead late in the 4th quarter on a 1-yard scoring run by Tarean Folston.
The Irish also added touchdowns by TJ Jones and Ben Koyack, who looks better and better every week.
The Irish lost a couple players to injury: LB Ben Councell and DT Kona Schwenke both went down with leg injuries.
Some thoughts below:
Offensively, the First Half Was a Microcosm of the 2013 Season - As great as the Irish looked on the first drive, they looked equally as bad at other parts. The Irish had three running backs averaging roughly 10 yards-per-carry, a wide receiver with over a hundred yards and a touchdown and a quarterback who threw for 150 yards on only 7 completions. The Irish offense as a whole gained almost 270 yards in the first half alone. Yet, the Irish offense was 0-2 on third down conversions in the first half and Rees' two interceptions (one partially on him, the other on the field), were momentum killers. It reminded me a lot of the Temple game to start the year. The Irish offense scored quickly, then went static. It was awesome and frustrating at the same time.
The Irish Defense Couldn't Defend The Option With Seven Men in the Box - The Irish defense in the first half was essentially a sieve. Navy moved the ball at will, and at 20:34 in possession in the first half, basically controlled the tempo of the game. The Irish played a hybrid Cover-Two, 4-3 defense and Navy took advantage in the first half. When ND's defensive line spread out, Navy gave it to the fullback. When they pinched, they ran a counter option attack. It was pretty clear that Diaco's original gameplan for the first half wasn't working. NBC's Hines Ward mentioned at the half that the Irish should've considered putting an extra man in the box. In the second half, it looked like the Irish focused more on shedding the cut blocks at the line, but Navy still was able to move the ball. The main reason why Navy didn't gain as many yards in the second half as the first was partially due to the fact that the offense slowed down tempo. To put it lightly, the Irish defense was able to escape because of two major miscues by Navy on their final drive (the fumbled pitch and the head-scratching reverse on 4th down).
The Second Half Offensive Gameplan (#runthedamnballkelly) was Perfect - The Irish offense slowed things down in the second half and went to a run-heavy attack. In the third quarter, the Irish ran 8 rushing plays and 3 passing plays on their lone drive that resulted in a touchdown. It goes without saying too that two of those three passes were right off the line too. The Irish's first drive of the 4th Quarter? Five runs and one pass. The Irish's go-ahead scoring drive late in the 4th Quarter? 9 rushes, 2 passes, one of which was incomplete. The run-heavy focus helped take the pressure off the defense in the second half, but the first half mistakes made it a close game as the defense was incapable of stopping the option. Also consider this gem: Tommy Rees attempted 6 passes in the second half. SIX. I'll also add he completed five of them, too.
Tarean Folston is Going to Be Great - This was a breakout game for the Freshman. Folston's final statline, 18 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown isn't remotely as impressive as how he looked on the field. Folston ran without fear and was great at the line and the second level. Even with the leap, he was able to identify holes and break off tackles. What impressed me the most though was how he was willing to engage contact with the Navy defenders. Again, he ran unafraid and it showed.
The Field is a Problem - I feel like we keep having this discussion every year, but the Notre Dame Stadium field looked horrible. The field was slippery, sloppy and in bad condition. I swear parts of the field were spray-pained green, too. In the North End Zone in particular, the kickers were tending to push their extra point kicks to the right. After Navy's kicker missed his extra point in the North End Zone, he stared at his spot on the field utterly confused. Brindza too I am not one to overtly advocate for field turf but its pretty clear the Athletic Department is going to have a long-term conversation about it because every year post-fall break, the Notre Dame Stadium field begins to suffer, and the team suffers as a result of it.