NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Just…one…stop.
That’s all the Irish needed and that’s about all they got in the second half as Notre Dame (7-2) gained 506 yards total offense, scored touchdowns on three straight second-half possessions, never punted, and finally came up with the all-important stop on Navy’s final possession to preserve a 38-34 victory over the Midshipmen (4-4).
“There are no asterisks next to this one,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who won his 13th game out of the last 14 decided by one score.
“This is a W and we’re excited about it. We’re going to have our 24-hour rule, and we’re going to take all 24 hours on this one.”
The two teams alternated 11 scores. The lead changed hands eight times. Neither team had a lead of more than four points over the final 52:32. The two teams combined for 935 yards total offense.
The last man standing was Notre Dame, but it did so on wobbly legs.
“Notre Dame goes through this every week,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who became the first Navy coach in 2009-10 to defeat the Irish in back-to-back seasons since 1960-61.
“For everybody that plays Notre Dame, it’s the Super Bowl for their team. For us to come to the Mecca of college football, our kids were excited and we played really hard and executed well. What we can’t do is let Notre Dame beat us twice. Hopefully, we’ll bounce back next week.”
Freshman running back Tarean Folston carried 18 times for 140 yards, the most by an Irish freshman since Julius Jones had 146 against Navy in 1999. Folston’s one-yard touchdown run - the first of his career - gave the Irish a 38-34 lead with 3:47 remaining.
After Marcus Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to midfield, Navy seemed poised to steal the victory from the Irish after scoring on each of its two previous drives and on five out of eight possessions.
But on 4th-and-4 from the Irish 31, junior safety Eilar Hardy forced Shawn Lynch - who had taken a reverse pitch - to give ground toward the Notre Dame sideline, and freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith made the tackle for no gain. The Irish ran the clock out from there.
“I was lined up on that side,” Smith explained. “My job is actually to stay back and fold. Seeing the ball initially going away from me, I continued to fold. After I saw reverse, Eilar did a great job of slowing the guy down, and I was able to make the tackle.”
“It did not look like the true triple-option coming,” said Kelly of his pre-snap recollections. “It looked like single option. It looked different right away. I thought it was going to be an option pass, and then obviously, a reverse.
“I was happy it was a reverse because I felt like there was enough speed on the field that we were going to be able to track it down.”
A missed extra point by Navy kicker Nick Sloan, following Keenan Reynolds’ three-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left in the first half, played a significant role since each time the Irish scored a touchdown to re-take the lead, the advantage was four points instead of three.
Navy might have been in a position to set itself up for a field-goal attempt instead of an all-or-nothing touchdown scenario late, although Sloan had struggled coming into the game with just 8-of-15 conversions from beyond 30 yards.
Tommy Rees completed 12-of-20 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The momentum of the game shifted with the Irish holding a 10-7 lead and marching to what looked like a 10-point lead. Rees’ pass was intended for TJ Jones, but Jones slipped and fell, and safety Parrish Gaines made the interception.
It was Rees’ first interception since the first play of the fourth quarter against Arizona State - a span of 56 passes. Navy promptly converted the turnover into a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive, capped by 11-yard Chris Swain touchdown run.
Notre Dame regained the lead midway through the second quarter on a 36-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones. But the Midshipmen marched right back down the field for an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by Reynolds’ second touchdown run. Sloan pushed the extra-point attempt wide right, and Navy’s halftime lead was 20-17.
The Irish marched 84 yards on 11 plays in their first possession of the third quarter with Rees finding Ben Koyack for a 17-yard touchdown pass - his third in four games.
Navy answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive for a 27-24 lead, but the Irish came right back as Folston had two runs of 15 yards and another of 14. Cam McDaniel capped the drive to give the Irish a 31-27 lead.
Reynolds hit Matt Aiken for a 34-yard touchdown pass, but Folston carried seven times for 45 yards on the ensuing drive, and Rees hit Troy Niklas for 28 yards on 3rd-and-9 to keep the drive alive. Notre Dame needed just four rushing plays to cover the final 20 yards.
After holding Navy to 149 yards rushing on 40 carries a year earlier, Notre Dame allowed 331 yards on 70 carries. The Irish held on for dear life until they finally were able to run out the clock.
“We haven’t made any excuses about guys being out of the lineup,” said Kelly, who called Notre Dame’s post-game locker room a triage. “We didn’t complain about it. It’s part of the game. You’ve just got to find a way to get it done, and we did. We just went out and battled the best we could.”