Nothing ever simple for Notre Dame
November, 2, 2013
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Can't anything be easy around here?
Perhaps Ken Niumatalolo encapsulated why not after Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame game.
"For everybody that plays Notre Dame," the Navy coach said, "this is the Super Bowl for that team."
It was a different kind of championship, to be sure. And it was a different kind of rivalry, one whose mutual respect seeped through a silence that could best be described as deafening when both the Midshipmen and the Fighting Irish gathered near the visiting pocket of Notre Dame Stadium to sing the Navy Hymn afterward.
The ensuing "U-S-A" chants from the crowd as both teams gathered for Notre Dame's alma mater was a nice touch, too, as was the scary-low pregame flyover from the Blue Angels.
As for everything that happened in between on Saturday? Let's just say No. 25 Notre Dame will take the 38-34 win, thank you, and will wave a glorious goodbye to triple-option football for another year.
"Yes, I'm very glad," precocious freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith said of being done with a two-week stretch of Air Force and Navy, before adding that it would be "good to get back to regular football."
Lately at this place, regular football has been tight, even when it should not be. Regular football usually has featured the slightest of game-changing mistakes -- in this case, a missed extra point on Navy's third touchdown, which had the Midshipmen chasing a touchdown on their failed final drive when they should have been a field goal away from tying it.
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsTarean Folston, who gained 140 yards rushing, dives for the game-winning score in the fourth period.
It all resulted in Notre Dame's 10th straight win under Brian Kelly in games decided by seven points or fewer, with eight of those 10 wins coming at home in the past two seasons.
Kelly said he was "ecstatic" to escape this contest with a win, that there would be no asterisk next to it, that his guys would enjoy all 24 hours of their allotted celebration time.
But after so much talk this week about the confidence built up from three straight wins over Arizona State, USC and Air Force, he recognized the outlier that Navy was, how liberating the sigh of relief that washed over the building was once Smith stopped Shawn Lynch on Navy's final play, a fourth-and-4 end-around from the Irish 31.
"This is one, just throw it away," Kelly said. "It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play, and it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it, and then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.
"Nobody runs this option as effectively, and when they are on and they're not turning the football over -- and that's what they did today -- it's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on."
To be fair, his defensive line is pushing all sorts of limits on depth. From the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA to season-ending surgeries this summer for Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, from losing Louis Nix for these past two games and then seeing Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke go down with undisclosed injuries against Navy, Notre Dame is barely getting by up front, and it is no surprise that the Midshipmen were able to run for 331 yards.
"I'm just glad I'll never do the triple option ever again," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said.
So it was a touching renewal with a rival who actually will stay on the schedule, and then another mark in the W column -- not much else to see here. It is on to a Pitt team that has fallen to the Irish by three points in each of the past two seasons, before a bye week gives way to tougher tests against BYU and Stanford.
Those BCS-bowl hopes that a seemingly refreshed outfit chatted about this week? Still alive, and that's all Notre Dame cares to know, however ridiculous the notion of an Orange Bowl matchup against someone like Florida State sounds after all that transpired in the last 60 minutes.
"It's Notre Dame; we don't expect anything to be easy," Irish senior captain TJ Jones said. "That's why we came here. It's one of the greatest challenges off the field and on the field that you can get from an institution, and we expect that week in and week out."