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Thursday, April 18, 2024
The Observer

Greason: Irish win leaves room for improvement

There were a lot of questions surrounding how No. 8 Notre Dame would bounce back from last week’s crushing defeat at the hands of now-No. 3 Miami (FL).

Some believed the Irish (9-2) wouldn’t be able to rebound at all against Navy, who has managed to be a thorn in Notre Dame’s side over the last 10 years, now that the College Football Playoff is out of the picture. Others thought this was Notre Dame’s chance to prove the naysayers wrong with a resounding win over the Midshipmen (6-4, 4-3 AAC), to show that last week was a fluke, a mishap caused by a big-game under the bright lights.

Notre Dame did neither.

The squad’s 24-17 victory on Senior Day was a good one and should not be discounted by any means. Defensively, the Irish handled the Navy triple-option attack impressively — as a team that has faced the Navy triple-option for each of the last 91 years should be able to. But offensively, it wasn’t the bounce back many Irish fans were looking for.

Senior linebacker Greer Martini, who fellow senior linebacker Nyles Morgan referred to as “the option guru” after the game, had himself a career night with 15 tackles. Sophomore cornerback Julian Love started the game at safety — a new role for him — and recorded 14 tackles.

Sophomore cornerback Troy Pride Jr. took advantage of a suddenly pass-happy Navy offense midway through the fourth quarter and came away with an interception, the first of his career.

Coming into this matchup, the Midshipmen had the country’s No. 1 rushing offense, averaging 5.86 yards per rush. The Irish defense was able to hold them to average of 3.8 yards per carry Saturday.

But offensively, Notre Dame’s showing was once again subpar. Nowhere near as subpar as last week, but subpar nonetheless. And against a Navy team whose main strength is its triple-option offense, the Notre Dame offense should have been able to come up with more than its 327 final yards against the No. 78 defense in the nation.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, right, fires a pass during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Navy on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

I know it’s hard to get any offensive rhythm going when you only hold the ball for 17 minutes. But junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was jumpy on the game’s first possession, going just 1-of-5 through the air.

And while the offense looked totally different between the first and second halves, as its efficiency increased significantly after halftime, this was not the offensive rebound from last week’s disaster Notre Dame hoped for.

Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson was the difference-maker, as he accumulated a career-high 103 yards and two touchdowns. He was able to come up with big plays when it counted, at least in the second half. And in this matchup, every snap counted for the Irish offensively, as there was a very limited number of them.

But junior running back and, dare I say, former Heisman candidate Josh Adams was unable to get any momentum going in the first half, tallying just 37 yards. And while his second half was much more productive, pushing him over 100 yards for the game, he was not the Josh Adams that provoked a marketing campaign a few weeks back.

Sure, Wimbush’s stat line improved to 9-of-18 for 164 yards with three total touchdowns, and he didn’t follow up last week’s three-turnover performance with any this week, but that isn’t necessarily the mark of a successful offense. Scoring more points isn’t necessarily the mark of a successful offense, either.

Maybe Notre Dame needed a close win. It could be a good thing going into a sure-to-be-tough Stanford matchup. The Irish marching down the field with time ticking down, needing to score to win and then scoring a last-second touchdown might not have been the worst thing for Notre Dame’s confidence going into the last week of the season.

At the start of the season, a nine-win season with a win over Navy to send the seniors off in style would have been considered a success, given last year’s 4-8 atrocity. But once the Irish hit that No. 3 status, this season began to be judged against a much tougher standard. At this point, anything less than a New Year’s Six Bowl will make the season an unsuccessful one.

So, while Saturday’s game was good for Notre Dame, it certainly could have been better. As a whole, the players came out feeling good. With a 10-win season on the horizon, the seniors feel as if they’ve got something to play for again, even with the Playoff out of the picture. And a win is a win.

But Saturday was not the kind of game that gives a struggling offense a whole lot of confidence — something it will need as it heads back out on the road. And it certainly was not the kind of game that gave me a whole lot of confidence that this is a team that has completely left the mistakes of Miami (FL) behind it.