With only one quarter remaining in this 2021 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season, the squad now sits at 8-1 after a 34-6 defeat of the Navy Midshipmen. This game was looking another potentially agonizing Navy upset bid in the first quarter before the Irish took control and cruised to victory – let’s look at three areas that helped the game turn in that direction.
Freeman’s Option Experience Pays Dividends
The key to avoiding the Navy trap lies in stopping their triple-option offense, which poses a schematic challenge to Power 5 teams that do not have experience defending it and can starve its opponents’ offenses of opportunities to score. However, a defense that knows the right adjustments to make to force negative plays and keep Navy out of rhythm can effectively shut them down and give the offense the opportunity for a rout. Marcus Freeman, who had years of experience scheming to defeat Navy with the Cincinnati Bearcats, clearly knew what to do to create that outcome and was able to achieve it.
The Irish frequently shut down Navy drives before they could get started with strong tackling, assignment discipline and swarming to force short and/or negative gains – including multiple TFLs and busted pitches – and keep Navy out of the third-and-short situations in which they thrive. They also kept the Middies out out of the end zone on series where they did string together some plays, which is a big blow to an offense that needs to execute on nearly all of its scoring opportunities. Hats off to Freeman for passing his first Navy test as Notre Dame’s DC.
The D-Line Asserts Itself Again
One sequence in particular that stood out in Notre Dame’s impressive defensive effort came on a promising early drive for Navy. The Middies had strung together a classic Navy drive, converting on multiple third-and-fourth-and short running plays and getting themselves in the red zone. At that point most Irish fans, who have seen this movie before, were likely preparing themselves for a score and a torturous afternoon to follow. Instead, the Irish defensive line rose to the occasion, scoring consecutive sacks by Kurt Hinish and Jordan Botelho that forced Navy behind the chains and eventually into a field-goal attempt. This was a key turning point in preventing this game from turning into an upset bid, and from then on the big guys up front for the Irish led the way.
In a game where gap discipline and tackling were essential, the linemen executed time after time to clog up holes, bring down ball carriers and muck up the gears of the triple option, producing 12 run stuffs - a huge stat against a team that relies on decent running gains on early downs. The solid overall effort punctuated by a safety on a botched pitch in the end zone forced by Hinish, who was a deserving game-ball recipient after leading the team in tackles.
Kevin Austin Does Exist
After an uneven first two-thirds of the 2021 season marked by moments of both brilliance and disappointment as the senior wideout struggled to find a rhythm with the Irish quarterbacks, Kevin Austin had himself a hell of coming-out party on Saturday. Austin fully looked the part of a number-one receiver against the Midshipmen, frequently moving the chains as a possession target while also making a couple big plays down the field to eclipse 100 yards for the first time in his career.
OFD podcast listeners will recognize my statement above as a reference to Austin’s long struggle to emerge and fulfill his potential, which had been teased to Irish fans for the better part of four years. No doubt no one was more impatient to do that than the man himself, especially with Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie emerging and challenging his snaps. You have to love a guy who responds to that challenge by raising his own game, and Austin deserves a ton of respect for doing so after a tough journey so far at Notre Dame. If he can play with the consistency he showed on Saturday as both a chain-mover and a downfield threat, Austin will demand more attention and create opportunities for Michael Mayer, Braden Lenzy, and other Irish pass-catchers. That will make a big difference, especially with Avery Davis’ status in doubt for the season’s home stretch.