Notre Dame opened Saturday's game against Navy as 16.5-point favorites. The Irish left happy just to keep their winning streak intact.
Tarean Folston scored a one-yard touchdown with 3:47 remaining to give No. 25 Notre Dame a 38-34 victory over Navy, as the Irish defense held on late thanks to a critical mistake from Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
With Navy driving all the way down to the Notre Dame 32 following Folston's score, Reynolds' attempted pitch out to DeBrandon Sanders went wide and resulted in a nine-yard loss from which the Midshipmen could not recover. Reynolds completed a 10-yard pass to Casey Bolena to set up a 4th-and-4 situation, but Notre Dame stopped Shawn Lynch on a pitched reverse for no gain as a raucous Notre Dame Stadium exclaimed in relief.
The victory was Notre Dame's third straight in this classic rivalry, but by far the closest contest since Navy's 23-21 upset win in South Bend four years ago. The Irish had defeated Navy 106-24 over their past two contest and many expected a similar situation this week.
The Midshipmen made sure that wasn't the case.
Playing without Louis Nix for the second straight contest, the Irish struggled to contain Navy's vaunted option rushing attack. The Midshipmen dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 37:16, moving effectively while keeping a humming Notre Dame offense off the field.
Tommy Rees' two interceptions helped matters, but Navy systematically controlled the pace of the game by winning the battle up front.
Five players rushed for at least 40 yards. Chris Swain, Quinton Singleton, Demond Brown and Reynolds each had more than 50. As a team, Navy torched the Nix-sized hole in the Notre Dame front seven for 331 yards. A week after allowing Air Force to gain 290 yards on the ground, it's safe to say the Irish are missing their mammoth defensive tackle.
Navy's passing game even played a surprisingly huge role late in the game.
Down 31-27 after a Cam McDaniel touchdown run with 12:51 remaining in the fourth, Reynolds went to work through the air on Navy's final scoring drive. He found Marcus Thomas on an 18-yard gain to convert a critical 3rd-and-7 and then hit Matt Aiken for a 34-yard score on another third-down opportunity.
The pass continued a trend of Navy converting first downs when it needed them the most. The Midshipmen converted 10 of their 16 third-down chances, compared to a 2-of-5 rate for Notre Dame. Reynolds finished with 88 yards and a touchdown on 6-of-9 passing.
Not to be outdone, though, Notre Dame carved up the Midshipmen defense as well. Rees threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns when he wasn't throwing picks, connecting with TJ Jones on multiple big plays down the field. Their 36-yard touchdown connection with 6:18 remaining in the second quarter was the only Notre Dame touchdown sandwiched between three from Navy in the first and second quarters.
The Midshipmen carried a 20-17 halftime lead thanks to that run. Reynolds rushed for two touchdowns and Swain added another, as the Irish struggled just to keep up.
But Notre Dame's rushing attack had no trouble keeping pace.
Folston may have provided some clarity to a running back rotation that's lacked it all season. The highly touted freshman chipped away at the Navy front seven, running with patience, power and an important sense of consistency. Although none of Folston's runs gained more than 15 yards, none went for negative yardage and only five for fewer than five yards.
He finished with 140 yards on 18 carries, highlighted by the game-winning score. George Atkinson III added 74 yards on seven carries, including a 41-yard touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead with 12:12 remaining in the first quarter. McDaniel added 52 yards, capping off the Irish rushing total at a robust 264 yards at 7.3 per clip.
Though not the Irish's most impressive win, it comes at a critical time for Brian Kelly's squad. Notre Dame entered the BCS Top 25 for the first time this past week and would have likely had a tough time competing for a January bowl game with a loss to a team like Navy. Even if the scare doesn't ultimately help their bowl resume, the Irish should have no trouble running their record to 9-2 prior to their matchup against Stanford on Nov. 30.
As for Navy, it will return to its quest for bowl eligibility. At 4-4, the academy should have no trouble scoring the two more victories needed to return to a bowl game for the second straight season. But a win over a Top 25 squad would have put them in a much loftier conversation.
The Irish will look to recover from Saturday's near-upset when they travel to the Steel City for a matchup against Pittsburgh. Navy's push for bowl eligibility should get a boost next week when it hosts a Hawaii team yet to win a game this season.
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