What is Cover Zero? Go ahead google it. If you didn’t already know, you will learn that it is a high risk, high reward defense that employs bare minimum man to man coverage against each receiver while everyone else blitzes. When it works it results in quarterback pressures and sacks, and it is difficult to run against.
Navy ran Cover zero over and over in the second half and managed to reap near all of the strategy’s possible rewards and suffered near none of the risks. Because of it, the differences between Notre Dame’s first half and second half offensive performances against Navy was stark. It was the tale of two cities, prosperity and poverty, deluge and drought, feast and famine.
First half total yardage: 326 yards, second half 9. First half first downs: 14, second half 1. First half yards rushing: 89 yards, second half, -23. Drew Pyne first half 14-16, 234 yds., 4 TDs., second half 3-5 35 yds., Pyne was sacked 5 times.
Excuse me while I collect up my eyeballs and reinsert them.
Lots of things worked well offensively for the Irish in the first half. Drew Pyne had time to pass. He found and hit receivers at a rate last seen five weeks ago. His heretofore dormant wide receivers came alive and made plays. Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Stlyes and Braden Lenzy combined for 10 catches for 182 yards and 2 TDs. Lenzy pulled off one of the great catches of the college football season when he pinned an out of sight football on the back of his defender, pulled it out with one hand and secured it for a 38 yard touchdown. The Irish ground game with 89 yards did enough to compliment the sizzling passing attack.
Special teams also got into the act, again. At the 1:27 mark of the 2nd, Jack Kiser got his hand on ND’s school record extending 7th punt on the year and ND took over at the Navy 37. Pyne found Jayden Thomas up field on the first play of the ND drive, and the Irish went up 35-13.
The ND offense had spoken for its final time on the day.
Defensively, throughout the game the Irish missed the two players they could least afford to have out in safety Brandon Joseph and Mike linebacker, JD Bertrand. Joseph was known to be doubtful during the week with an ankle injury, while Bertrand was a bit of a surprise missing the game, apparently with a groin injury. Those two would have been counted on to be the tip of the spear in slowing the Navy option attack. Instead, the Irish inserted and relied on less experienced players including freshman NIuafe Tuihalamaka at Mike. Navy fullback Daba Fofana feasted on the first option and the Irish middle with an 8.9 yard per carry average and 133 yards.
The defense however did just enough to get the job done, and in fact did some things well in the second half of the game when the Irish offense was awol.
Navy took the opening kickoff of the second half and starting on their own 19, did what Navy does, but the Irish defense stemmed the tide. The Midshipmen went on a 72 yard, 16 play drive that burned 10:01 off the clock. Along the way Navy was assisted by two major penalties on ND, one on a third down incompletion that but for, would have resulted in a Navy punt. This long drive however resulted in only a field goal and at the 4:59 mark of the 3rd when the Irish finally got their first second half snaps, you still felt pretty good with a 35-16 lead.
That is when the the Navy defense and “Cover 0” staked their first claim on what had been a potent offensive attack in the first half. ND’s first snap of the second half resulted in a sack, two runs then netted 3 yards and the Irish were forced to punt.
Notre Dame’s defense returned the favor by forcing a three and out on the ensuing Navy possession and the good vibes were still flowing as the Irish took a 19-point lead into the 4th quarter.
On the first play of the last quarter Pyne dropped back on third and 4 and under big pressure delivered another in a season litany of tipped passes. This one turned the momentum and made the game into one of the breath holding variety. Linebacker John Marshall, Navy’s top defender all season long, picked Pyne’s tipped pass off and Navy was in business at the Notre Dame 23. Navy quarterback Xavier Arline quickly built on the momentum with a touchdown pass on the next play. Airline scrambled to pay dirt on the two-point conversion attempt and Navy was in business, trailing by two scores at 35-24 with 14:39 remaining.
At this point the second half Irish offensive famine was fully under way. On just seven snaps in more than 15 minutes of clock time, ND had no first downs, punted once, and gave up a sack and an interception.
Things wouldn’t get any better.
On their first full possession of the 4th quarter the Irish mounted their “best” effort of the second half. Their “best” effort was a six play drive that gained a net of -1 yard. It included Drew Pyne being sacked three times, Pyne badly overthrowing a wide open Michael Mayer and a 21 yard completion to Deion Colzie, ND’s best by far play, of the half. The Navy cover zero defense was in full bloom and reaping high reward for the risk. Pyne did not have time to look down field, and the offensive line couldn’t give him any and the ND running game was at a standstill. The drive ended with Jon Sot punting to the Navy 12 yard line at 10:56 of the 4th, ND hanging on to a 35-24 lead.
On the next two possessions by Navy, the ND defense was at its best forcing two three and outs, they included a combo sack by Justin Ademiola and Prince Kollie and a short run by Arline that ended in injury to him. Arline, who already was filling in for Tai Lavatai who had been lost two games ago, would miss the rest of the day and Navy was on their third string quarterback, Maasai Maynor. Maynor, with a reputation as a better passer than Arline, missed his first three passing attempts on the drives.
In answer to the two three and outs pitched by the ND defense, the ND offense’s futility continued. There was another sack of Pyne and no running game to speak of as the Irish failed to find any answer for the Navy cover zero attack. Fortunately, Jon Sot continued to pin Navy to make their task of scoring difficult, and time consuming.
After a 49-yard effort by Sot, Navy took over at their own 12 with 4:18 on the clock. Maynor found his rhythm. On the drive Navy gained 52 yards on 5 runs and Maynor hit on 3-4 through the air for another 41 yards. The last one a tight window bullet into the corner of the end zone good for a TD from 20 yards out. A two-point conversion later, Navy was within three points at 35-32 with 1:21 remaining. Fortunately for the Irish Navy had no time outs remaining, meaning that Navy hopes to complete a comeback would hinge on an onside kick attempt.
The Navy kicker dribbled the ball diagonally short to the near side of the field and former walk-on slot receiver and punt return specialist Matt Salerno attacked and fell on the football. By securing the ball, Salerno had, after two kneel downs, secured the narrow victory for the Irish.
Navy intensity, game script, cover zero and perhaps a post Clemson let down deferred until the second half for the Irish, resulted in two halves of football that could not have been much more different.
Fortunately, as Marcus Freeman has pointed out in the past, moving forward, it is easier to improve as a team in the face of adversity than after success, and the Irish have the taste of adversity in their mouths, despite a sparkling first half effort on offense.
Post-game Freeman confirmed as much, “We have to be better because of what happened (in the) second half and be able to go and evaluate it as coaches on both sides of the ball….and find a way to improve as we get ready for Boston College.”
In many ways facing a team like Navy and what it means in the evolution of a team should be looked at as an outlier. Facing the Navy option requires a 180 degree switch in mindset from defensive football convention. When a team goes on a 16 play 10-minute drive and can only manage a field goal, you know something out of the ordinary is happening, but that is Navy football.
The fact that the Irish had one of their best halves of offensive football should be viewed as a positive. After all, to this point of the season the one part of the Irish offense that had shown up the least was the play of their wide receivers. After 10 catches for 182 yards and 2 TDs Saturday, check that box. Particularly encouraging has to be the play of Braden Lenzy and the development of “tall” receivers, Colzie and Thomas.
Navy’s just short of the mark comeback effort in the second half deserves a grand tribute. They made the best plan available to them as the game progressed to give themselves a chance to win. They very nearly threaded the needle but just missed. But the Irish survived and advance to 7-3 and hopes of a strong finish with bowl game momentum going into 2023, are alive.
Pyne for his part seemed eager post game to focus on the future and not the last two quarters of the just concluded game, “We have got to learn to keep getting better and that is what we are going to do,” he said. “We are going to come in tomorrow, watch the film and we’re going to get better.”
3-7 Boston College and Senior Day is next on the horizon. Did I mention that Boston College managed a 21-20 upset of #16 North Carolina St. Saturday and that their injured quarterback Phil Jurkovec , who except for his transfer, would be one of those Seniors celebrating, might be back from injury by next week?
It is never easy my friends. That is why this is such a great game.