Even in victory, Notre Dame manages to rescramble its big picture

As No. 20 Notre Dame’s newfound equity from a 1-week-old upset for the ages frittered away Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, an equally disturbing afterthought punctuated an embarrassingly narrow Irish escape.

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

“We’ve got to go back and look and see what exactly happened,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said after a 35-13 halftime joy ride degenerated into a 35-32-white knuckler. “And we’ve got to make sure somehow, someway we’re better because of what happened in the second half.”

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

First, here’s what the second half looked like numerically:

Twelve total yards on offense. Minus-23 rushing yards. At 0.9-yard average per play. Five bags given up. An interception given up on a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage. One third-down conversion in six tries. Overall the Irish got outscored 19-0 and were flagged 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 the Notre Dame coaching staff to make obvious in-game adjustments a week after running a top five team in Clemson out of Notre Dame Stadium by three touchdowns was beyond perplexing.

That the Irish (7-3) extended the nation’s longest active November winning streak to 18 games and kept their bowl prospects from getting detoured into some less-attractive set of options, for now, didn’t offset the big-picture concerns that were unearthed Saturday a week after being buried.

Consistency needs to be the next step in the program’s post-Brian Kelly evolution. irish quarterback Drew Pyne on Saturday was a picture of how far the Irish are away from that.

In the first half, Pyne was the best he’s ever been at ND, having a hand in all five touchdowns—four by pass and one on a nifty 11-yard scramble. He was 14-of-16 for 234 yards against the nation’s No. 122 pass-efficiency defense and surpassing his passing yardage total of his past two games, Clemson and Syracuse, combined.

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

That the Irish helped create the storm for that strategy to thrive was a combination of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ overly conservative play-calling, Pyne’s lack of awareness to get the ball out quickly when he needed to, and Freeman’s inability to apply a head-coaching tourniquet.

“They were zero-pressuring on almost every play,” Freeman said. “What does that mean? It means they’re bringing everybody and playing zero coverage with no middle-of-the-field help. And we have to be able to find ways to attack that.

“We did in the first half. We hit some balls. We were able to check into some things when we saw it coming, but the second half we were just not able to beat zero pressure. And that’s something we’ve got to improve at because other teams are going to do that.

“People are going to see they had some success in bringing all-out pressure. And what you have to do is make defenses pay in the pass game.”

Oddly, Navy, 129th out of 131 nationally in passing offense and 108th in pass efficiency, made the Irish pay with its own passing game. And late in the fourth quarter the Mids were able to do so with a QB in Massai Maynor who was Navy’s third-stringer as recently as late October.

Maynor was 4-of-7 for 51 yards and a 20-yard TD pass to maquel haywood with 1:21 left after relieving an injured Xavier Arlin. QB1 Tai Lavatai was lost for the season two weeks prior to a knee injury.

navy coach Ken Niumatalolomeanwhile, won his X’s and O’s chess game with Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden late in the game. The Mids found big chunks of running room when the Irish went to their pass “prevent defense.” And when the Irish put in its personnel to stop the triple option, Navy went to the air.

“Again, you don’t want to be able to just let teams run down the field,” Freeman said. “But at that moment, you’re up 10 or 11 points and you say, ‘OK, we know it’s a two-score game. And so let’s be smart and not give up an easy, big play — pass — and make them earn every inch and keep the clock (moving), because they were out of timeouts.’ That’s kind of what happened.”

Notre Dame played without two of its brightest defensive stars — linebacker JD Bertrand (snout) and safety brandon joseph (ankle) — and safety Xavier Watts took advantage in his first college start to record a career-high eight tackles.

He and grad senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy were two of several bright spots obscured by what happened after halftime.

Special teams, too, continued to shine. Jack Kiser’s blocked punt, ND’s nation’s leading seventh, set up a 37-yard TD strike from Pyne to wide receiver Jayden Thomas on the very next play. With 1:10 left in the first half, it was the last time the Irish would score.

Pyne was a blend of philosophical and defiant in the game’s aftermath, perhaps a fitting reaction given the extreme highs and lows of the season.

“I’m the same every single week,” Pyne insisted. “I’m programmed the same every single week. I learn from it, I get better. I mean, that’s just how I operate. That’s how I live.

“I’m gonna take this game — and I’m sure that I made mistakes in the first half as well. I’m not perfect. I’m just gonna learn from it and keep getting better. That’s all I do. And that’s all I will ever do.”

As for Freeman, his biggest decisions and learning moments regarding the long-term trajectory of the program will unfold in the offseason. Not the least of which is what the quarterback position looks like in 2023.

But Boston College and USC this season still very much matter. How the Irish are perceived, especially by recruits, going into December very much matters.

Notre Dame is actually a markedly 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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