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Notre Dame’s playoff chances take another hit after Navy puts up a fight

For the Sun-Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A good win is the best antidote to a bad loss, though it’s a matter of interpretation where Notre Dame’s last two performances rate on the good/bad scale.

A 24–22 loss Oct. 3 at Clemson shouldn’t be that damaging. The Irish were playing a ranked team, in vociferously hostile territory, in rain as persistent as fantasy football radio ads. They overcame four turnovers, had the Tigers wobbling on their heels at the end and came within a failed two–point conversion of forcing overtime.

Might as well have been a blowout. Notre Dame fell nine spots in the rankings, to No. 15, and vanished as a potential participant in the four–team national championship playoff.

The precipitous drop in the polls is also attributable to Irish victims Texas (2-4), Virginia (1-4) and Georgia Tech (2-4) not being as good as advertised.

A bounce–back win over Navy might have restored some ND mojo had it come a little easier, but the Irish (5-1) had to work to beat the gritty Middies 41–24 on a postcard–perfect Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“They challenge you for four quarters,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We really respect what they represent, not only as the Academy but as a football team.”

The sea-faring Midshipmen were a strikingly effective ground operation with their mystifying triple option, amassing 239 of their 318 rushing yards in the first half. Quentin Ezell, a wide–load fullback at 253 pounds, powered his way to two long touchdowns, inheriting Keenan Reynolds’ workload after the eel–slippery quarterback left briefly with a leg injury in the second quarter.

The Mids augment their triple–option sleight–of–hand with big–play firepower. Reynolds had a 59–yard run, Ezell’s touchdowns covered 45 and 22 yards, and Dishan Romine brought a kickoff back 59 yards.

They were within 24–21 at halftime, but lost a fumble and missed a field goal on their first two second–half possessions. Notre Dame converted both opportunities into touchdowns, creating a 17–point deficit that forced Navy into tactics it doesn’t favor.

“The fumble on the kickoff took the wind out our sails,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Mids (4-1) had their eight–game winning streak stopped. “We had to play from behind, and we’re not built for that.”

The Irish utilized DeShon Kizer’s arm in the first half and C.J. Prosise’s legs in the second as they surpassed 450 total yards for the fifth time in six games. Kizer hit 15 of his 22 first–half throws for 204 yards and a touchdown, finishing 22–for–30 for 281 yards.

Prosise had 95 of his 129 yards in the second half, scoring three touchdowns on runs of seven, 22 and 11 yards in his fourth 100–yard performance of the season.

That the quarterback and the tailback each began the season as a backup— — Kizer to Malik Zaire, Prosise to Tarean Folston — —suggests the Irish have sufficient depth to avoid what happened last season.

They were cruising at 6-0 before hitting a Clemson–like bump at Florida State, where a phantom pass interference call factored into a 31–27 loss. Notre Dame bounced back to beat Navy despite an unsightly yield of 39 points and 336 rushing yards, the first indication that an injury–decimated defense was incapable of top–level play.

Sure enough, the Irish wouldn’t win again until the Music City Bowl, the giddy promise of a 6-0 start lost to the reality of an 8-5 finish. The injury plague continues unabated this season, but Notre Dame refuses to capitulate, and a win over USC next week might resurrect talk of a playoff berth, however faint.

“We prepared to play this week as if it’s one-or–done, sort of like March Madness,” Kizer said.

“If we keep that mindset, I think we’ll be OK.”