SAN DIEGO – ESPN College GameDay analyst Lee Corso didn’t pull any punches when asked to forecast the Navy-Notre Dame matchup.
Corso opined that Navy had two chances – “none and none.”
That might seem like a harsh assessment by Corso, a former Navy assistant who has always been very supportive of the program. However, it proved spot-on as the Midshipmen mustered almost no resistance to the powerful Fighting Irish.
Quarterback Ian Book directed an offense that marched up-and-down the field at will while safety Alohi Gilman spearheaded a defense that pitched a first-half shutout as No. 3 Notre Dame routed Navy, 44-22, before an announced crowd of 63,626 at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium.
Navy football head coach Ken Niumatalolo and players meet with the media after the loss to Notre Dame.
“Hat’s off to Notre Dame. That is a really good football team. You can see why they’re ranked where they’re at,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Book completed 27 of 33 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns while tailback Dexter Williams rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns as Notre Dame shredded Navy by air and land. Gilman made several vicious hits early to set the defensive tone for the Fighting Irish, who completely shut down the Mids during the opening 30 minutes of play.
For a while, this looked like a scrimmage between the varsity and the scout team as Notre Dame (8-0) totally dominated every facet of the contest to remain undefeated and very much in contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
This marked the 17th straight season Niumatalolo has gone against Notre Dame and he was asked if he thought this particular outfit was unique or special.
“Yes. I’ve played them many times and there is a great sense of focus with this team. They’re really good in a lot of different places,” the 11th-year head coach said. “They’re ranked No. 3 for a reason; just a really solid, focused group. We’ve played Notre Dame under Coach (Brian) Kelly before and this is one of his better teams.”
The Fighting Irish did pretty much whatever they wanted offensively and had little trouble stopping the triple-option when it mattered in posting the most lopsided result in the series since 2102. Notre Dame drubbed Navy, 50-10, in Dublin, Ireland that year.
Notre Dame’s offense line completely controlled the line of scrimmage as Book had all day to throw and Williams found wide-open running lanes. Williams had scoring scampers of 12, 9 and 2 yards as the Irish took a commanding 27-0 halftime lead and never looked back.
“What we did very well is we got off to a great start, which is important against any team you play. We got off to a great start today. That was huge,” Kelly said.
Starting quarterback Garret Lewis and the offense could get nothing going during the first half, managing only 72 total yards and two first downs in being shut out. Gilman, who transferred to Notre Dame following his freshman season at Navy, was aggressive in pursuit during the opening period and drilled both Lewis and Malcolm Perry on short runs.
Inside linebacker Te’von Cooney led Notre Dame with 14 tackles while Gilman and fellow safety Jalen Elliott had seven apiece. Lewis, who gained only 13 yards on 11 carries, was asked what went wrong with the offense in the first half.
“We made some mistakes ourselves, but at the end of the day that’s a really good football team,” said Lewis, who completed 4 of 11 passes for 52 yards. “We knew we had to play very well in order to be able to move the ball and score touchdowns on them and we just didn’t do that in the first half.”
Gilman was proud of how well Notre Dame defended the triple-option during the first half and credited the defensive line for winning the battle in the trenches.
“I think we executed on all levels of the defense – first, second and third. Our guys really focused on their keys and executing what they had to do today,” he said. “We knew we had to be physical up front and set a new line of scrimmage. Obviously, our defensive line did that real well during the first half.”
Navy has four proven players and lots of unknowns as it prepares for the start of the 2018-2019 season. Eighth-year head coach Ed DeChellis is evaluating several sophomores and freshmen to determine which players can be part of the regular rotation.
It was the fifth straight loss for the Midshipmen (2-6), who must win five of their last six games to avoid the program’s second losing season since 2003. Navy returns to American Athletic Conference play with consecutive road contests at Cincinnati (7-1) and 10th-ranked Central Florida (7-0).
A bad omen came in the early moments after Navy made a huge play on the very first play from scrimmage. Safety Sean Williams stood up standout wide receiver Miles Boykin following a 10-yard catch and run, forcing a fumble that was recovered by freshman corner Michael McMorris at the Notre Dame 36-yard line.
The Midshipmen could not have asked for a better start, but they promptly squandered the short field. Short-yardage quarterback Zach Abey was stopped inches short on fourth-and-two and Navy turned the ball over on downs.
“We needed to do something there and we couldn’t,” Niumatalolo admitted. “A lot of it had to do with that defense, which is really good.”
Williams broke loose for a 33-yard run three players later and that set up a 1-yard touchdown trot by backup tailback Jafar Armstrong, who returned to action after missing three games with a knee infection.
Navy picked up one first down before having to punt on its second possession and Notre Dame only needed four plays and 1:31 to tack on another touchdown. Book found wide-out Kevin Austin wide-open on a crossing route for a 38-yard gain and Williams waltzed in untouched from 12 yards out on the next play to make it 13-0 with 4:51 to go in the first period.
Notre Dame then mounted two of the type of touchdown drives Navy needed in order to shorten the game. Williams scored on short runs to cap marches of 13 and 10 plays that combined to take almost 10 minutes off the clock.
Navy went three-and-out for the third time to finish the miserable first half, which could not have gone any worse for the “home” team. The Irish out-gained the Mids 315-72 in basically putting the game away by intermission.
The Midshipmen showed some signs of life in the third quarter, using a couple big plays to score touchdowns on their first couple possessions.
Slotback Malcolm Perry took a pitch and found a seam on the left side, racing 58 yards on the first play of the second half. That long run set up a 1-yard plunge by Abey, the goal-line quarterback, as the Mids finally got on the scoreboard.
Notre Dame answered with a field goal by Jonathan Doerer to move ahead 30-7, but Navy was not done yet. Lewis threw a deep ball up that freshman wide receiver Mychal Cooper jumped high to grab for a 34-yard gain. Fullback Anthony Gargiulo broke off-tackle for a 22-yard run and Abey dove over from the one once again to make it 30-14.
Sophomore safety Jake Springer made an interception in Notre Dame territory and that led to a 33-yard touchdown run by third string fullback Mike Martin, who saw his most extensive playing time of the season.
Unfortunately for Navy, the defense could not muster enough stops to provide any reasonable hope of a miraculous comeback. Book and the Notre Dame offense never let up, tacking on two more touchdowns while finishing with 584 total yards for the night.
“We played tough defense in the first half and if we could have gotten something going offensively it would have really helped out,” Niumatalolo said. “Then we got something going offensively in the second half and we had a hard time slowing them down. That’s kind of been us all season. We have to do a better job of playing complementary football.”
Perry rushed for 133 yards on 12 carries to lead a solid second half performance by the Navy offense, which might have scored four touchdowns had Martin not fumbled at the Notre Dame 30-yard line and Lewis not thrown an interception in the end zone. The Midshipmen amassed 274 yards after intermission and wound up with 345 for the game.
“I'm glad this game's over. Any time we play Navy, it is a chore for preparation,’’ Kelly said. “They're very difficult to prepare for because you're dealing with the most efficient and effective operation relative to the triple option in all of football.
“They play hard. They never give in. You saw that. We were up big on them. That doesn’t faze the Midshipmen. They come right back at you in the second half as if nothing happened in the first half,” Kelly added. “Glad to get out of here with a victory, with a lot of good things to build off of going into the last month.”