Navy ran Notre Dame to the wire before dropping the game 24-17 in South Bend. Here is the Mids’ report card:
Rushing Offense: B
This was always going to be an interesting week for Navy. It is pretty obvious that coach Ken Niumatalolo would have given anything to have Malcolm Perry available to play in this game after his monstrous performance at quarterback against SMU. With Perry sidelined with an ankle problem, however, Niumatalolo had to choose between Garret Lewis and former start Zach Abey to take on probably the best defense that Navy has faced all season in terms of pure talent.
Niumatalolo started with Lewis, but quickly pulled the junior after he missed a couple of reads on Navy’s first drive that could have sprung open for a score. Abey came in in relief after the ball was turned over on downs at the end of the drive, but Niumatalolo doesn’t like Abey’s inability to attack the edge with his style of option play.
Despite all this going on, the Mids were able to rush for 277 yards and a touchdown against a good Notre Dame defense. It took 72 rushing plays to get to this mark and with all the upheaval it was surprise starter at fullback Anthony Gargiulo who was the star, but the rushing attack was effective.
Passing Offense: D
Only the Abey touchdown pass prevents this grade from being an F. Abey completed 50-percent of his passes (3-of-6) for 41 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Notre Dame is not the school to be playing if the passing game is not working properly, as it hasn’t been for Navy all season.
Rushing Defense: B
Niumatalolo will have been pleased with the way his defense stood up against a physically superior Notre Dame offensive line and backfield. The Irish ran the ball 31 times for 163 yards and a touchdown, with starting running back (and one time Heisman contender) managing only 106 yards on his 18 carries.
It was actually kind of a weird day for the rushing defense. With Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush having struggled last week (and at times in this game) it would have seemed like a day to run the ball until Navy could prove that they could stop the Irish. This is especially true when you also consider the bad weather that was making passing difficult. Notre Dame though often turned to other avenues of attack, perhaps showing the respect they have for the Navy rush defense.
Passing Defense: C
The passing defense was good, but Niumatalolo would probably have wanted his defense to pick off Wimbush at some point given the regularity with which he missed or overshot his receivers. Wimbush finished 9-of-18 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, with Kevin Stephenson doing pretty much all of the meaningful receiving work. Stephenson had five catches for 103 yards and caught both of Wimbush’s touchdown throws as he put on a receiving clinic.
It will be especially frustrating for Niumatalolo that Navy didn’t take advantage of Wimbush making mistakes early in the game. While he grew into the contest as his confidence grew, Wimbush was clearly rattled early as he missed easy throws that would have continued drives or been nailed on touchdowns. Maybe Navy should have gone after the quarterback more and this will be a lesson of how to deal with quarterbacks coming off of bad games.
Special Teams: C-
There was a costly missed field goal in the middle of this one as Navy is still trying to figure out their special teams potential without the injured Bennett Moehring. Owen White was kicking field goals again in addition to punting and he hit a 39-yard field goal early in the second quarter that would have been good from close to 50 yards. With that in his mind, Niumatalolo had no qualms calling on White again in the third quarter, only to see the kick from 37 yards hit with plenty of power but not the right direction. It was a kick that would have put Navy up 20-17 and it was a miss that the Mids never really recovered from.
It is hard to argue with the choices Niumatalolo made in this game. The 37-yard field goal was one that everyone watching knew that White could make, he just didn’t strike the ball correctly. Likewise, if Niumatalolo thought that Lewis missed a touchdown on his series in the game at quarterback, then moving on to Abey was the right call.
Against a lower level AAC opponent, Niumatalolo could have stuck with Lewis and ridden out the early mistakes. Against Notre Dame, however, he knew that scoring opportunities don’t come around all that often and they have to be seized when they are there. That is why the benching was the right decision. Navy was close, very close, to winning this game and that is a good thing from the program with their new preferred option at quarterback missing through injury.