The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Naval Academy on Saturday 41-24 in a game that went mostly as expected for Irish fans. The ND offense put up points and carved up the Midshipmen defense, while Navy’s offense was mostly held in check by the Irish, although a few big plays allowed, along with another flat start, marred the ND defense’s overall performance.
Let’s take a look at how each unit of the Notre Dame defense performed, and how they grade out as a whole.
Defensive Line: B-
As has been the case all season, this unit lives and dies with the play of senior captain Sheldon Day. Day has been a disruptive force all season, and it was no different against Navy, as Day made 9 tackles, including 2 tackles-for-loss. Junior Isaac Rochell has reliably been the second best of the defensive linemen this season, and he played a solid game, collecting 6 tackles (1 for a loss).
Aside from those two, however, the defensive line wasn’t much of a factor. Yes, against a triple option offense it’s typical for the linebackers and safeties to get most of the tackles, while the line mainly serves to hold the point of attack and contain ball carriers. Nevertheless, aside from one sack from senior Romeo Okwara and one tackle each from sophomore Andrew Trumbetti, sophomore Daniel Cage, and freshman Jerry “Terry Jillery” Tillery, this unit as a whole didn’t make a large impact on the game. The big runs that Navy senior FB Quentin Ezell broke off were straight through the heart of the defense, via holes opened up by a much smaller Navy offensive line.
As a whole, they need to do a better job of fighting through blocks to take some of the heat off of the linebackers and secondary, especially when they play against teams that will actually be passing the ball.
Oct 10, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Navy Midshipmen fullback Quentin Ezell (32) scores a touchdown as Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Elijah Shumate (22) defends in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
The linebackers were as consistent as they always are, which, for the most part, is a good thing. Sophomore Greer Martini was all over the field and finished with 9 tackles, while senior captain Joe Schmidt added 8. Schmidt, although playing a much better game than he did against Clemson, still had quite a few plays where he looked just too slow or unathletic, and that led to some sizable gains for the Navy offense, including the 51-yard run that Navy QB Keenan Reynolds had on their first offensive snap. Luckily, Navy did very little passing on the day (4 attempts), as that is often where Schmidt has looked most over-matched, trying to cover backs and receivers with more speed than him.
Junior captain Jaylon Smith continued his impressive season with 4 tackles and a fumble recovery, while junior James Onwualu also added 4 tackles. Senior Jarrett Grace saw action on Saturday as well, tallying 5 tackles, which was nice to see after the immense amount of time he’s missed coming back from a broken leg suffered in 2013. Sophomore Nyles Morgan and freshman Te’von Coney saw some action as well, and each of them looked fast and athletic, giving fans a brief glimpse of the bright future Notre Dame has at the linebacker position.
Oct 10, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Navy Midshipmen fullback Chris Swain (37) is tackled by Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Matthias Farley (41) in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
The Fighting Irish secondary played fairly well, as senior KeiVarae Russell made 7 tackles, all solo, and senior captain Matthias Farley tallied 7 of his own. Senior Elijah Shumate turned in a strong performance as well, making two tackles, one of them for a loss, and making a diving, game-clinching interception as Navy was driving into the red zone in the 4th quarter.
The defensive backs had a few missed tackles during the game, leading to big runs by Ezell and Reynolds, but overall they played well, wrapped up, and did their jobs in run support. Their biggest test to-date will come next weekend, against QB Cody Kessler and WRs Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson of USC.
Overall, the Notre Dame defense did its job and stopped Navy’s triple option attack enough times to secure a 17-point win. However, they did allow 318 yards rushing by the Midshipmen, and failed to stop Navy on any of the 4 fourth down conversion attempts they had on the day. Surrendering a couple big runs (45-yard TD by Ezell, 51-yard run by Reynolds), the Irish defense again killed themselves by giving up big plays. Furthermore, they started slow and flat again, giving up a touchdown on Navy’s first drive, which consisted of 3 plays, 70 yards, and 1:14 coming off the game clock.
If this defense hopes to contend with future opponents, they absolutely need to start clamping down from the beginning of games, and cut out their propensity to give up big plays. If they can clean up those two areas, they will perform much better and give the potent Irish offense a chance to run away from a few teams and start piling up style points. We will learn a lot about the defense’s ability to improve in these areas very soon, as a dangerous and due-for-a-big-game USC offense will be coming to South Bend looking to turn things around.