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Navy Midshipmen

Driven: Navy plays keep-away from Notre Dame in landmark win

Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire

The Navy Midshipmen had a hard time stopping the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday in Jacksonville… when the Fighting Irish offense took the field.

The time-honored key to stopping a formidable offense: Don’t allow it to have the ball.

Navy, in the Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo years, has rewritten the course of football history on many levels. The Midshipmen won 11 games for the first time ever last year. Bowl appearances, bowl wins, consecutive wins over Army (the longest in the history of the series by either side) — you name it, Navy has done it under Johnson and now Niumatalolo.

In 2007 — Johnson’s final season in Annapolis — Navy defeated Notre Dame for the first time since 1963. On that day in South Bend, Navy won because it simply outscored the Irish, 46-44. Games with 90 total points are hardly endangered species in college football these days, but just the same, one can’t expect to win by that score all the time.

Naturally, Texas Tech or Western Kentucky can’t win by pounding the ball between the tackles, but Navy is precisely the kind of team which can win by playing efficient keep-away offense. On December 30, 2004, Niumatalolo was Johnson’s assistant. He watched with pride as his offensive linemen paved the way for a 26-play, 94-yard drive which lasted 14:26 (yes, almost a full quarter) and sealed an Emerald Bowl win over New Mexico in San Francisco.

Nearly 12 years later in an opposite corner of the country, Navy’s ball-control magic forged a memorable moment and multiple feats of considerable significance.

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Midway through the fourth quarter, with Navy clinging to a 28-24 lead, Notre Dame faced a fourth down and four at the Navy 14. Earlier in the game, the Irish had gone for it on fourth and four and converted with relative ease. The Irish might have underachieved this season, but part of underachievement is that considerable skills exist. (Without skill, one couldn’t really underachieve in the first place.)

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had to have known at the time that his offense hadn’t gained many possessions. He also had to have known that Navy fashioned a nine-minute touchdown drive on its previous possession. The idea that Notre Dame could kick a field goal (for a 28-27 deficit) and reliably get the ball back was no sure thing.

Niumatalolo, coordinator Ivin Jasper, quarterback Will Worth, and the rest of the Navy offense made Kelly pay for that field goal decision.

With their Chinese water torture triple option, the Midshipmen drained most of the clock, inside the final 90 seconds. Needing one more play on fourth and six, Worth threw his most important pass of the day, a 15-yard strike to Jamir Tillman.

Navy didn’t score in the final seven and a half minutes with a 28-27 lead. It simply didn’t let the Irish get the ball back.

As a result, the Midshipmen knocked Notre Dame to the periphery of postseason elimination. The Irish must win out to become bowl eligible, barring a 5-7 bowl team situation witnessed multiple times last year.

Enough about Notre Dame, though, after another horrible fourth-quarter chess move by Kelly. This day was about Navy football continuing to register profound achievements under Niumatalolo:

The totals from those final two drives — 30 plays, 132 yards, 16:28 — are just a little larger than the 26-play, 94-yard, 14:26 drive from the 2004 Emerald Bowl. It’s as though Navy made the football field in Jacksonville 140 yards long.

The day felt especially long for a Notre Dame offense which did a lot of standing on the sideline.

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Beyond the milestones Navy and Niumatalolo achieved with this victory, they also kept themselves in the hunt for the Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl berth.

Yes, Navy needs a lot of help, but if the Midshipmen had lost to Notre Dame, they would have been done, saddled with three losses. If Navy can win out to go 11-2, and both Troy and Western Michigan lose, it is hardly out of the realm of possibility that the men from Annapolis could sneak in the NY6 tent.

That Navy is even in this conversation in early November with a backup quarterback — having just defeated a team picked by many to make the College Football Playoff when the 2016 season began — is a testament to what Niumatalolo and his program have accomplished this year.

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