With the season on the line and Navy lined up to run a critical 4th-and-4, Notre Dame's defense didn't look like the unit head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco built.
All-American defensive tackle Louis Nix was watching from the sideline in a sweatpants. Starting defensive end Sheldon Day was down after re-injuring an ankle. Kona Schwenke, who had already made 11 tackles in place of Nix on Saturday afternoon, was out with a lower-leg injury. So was outside linebacker Ben Councell.
As Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds took the game's most important snap, Notre Dame's defense had fifth-year benchwarmer Tyler Stockton giving chase. It had backup outside linebacker Romeo Okwara playing defensive end. And it was seldom-used safety Eilar Hardy running down wide receiver Shawn Lynch, joined by freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, playing mostly because senior Danny Spond retired after battling debilitating migraine headaches.
"They're all banged up," Kelly said after the Irish victory. "They all will require some attention that I'll have to get further information. I tried to talk to Rob Hunt, our head trainer, but it was a triage in there."
The Irish escaped with a 38-34 win over Navy. But can they survive their final three games as injuries continue to mount?
|Critical Injuries to the Notre Dame Defense|
|Player||Position||Injury||When it happened|
|Danny Spond*||OLB||Migraine Headaches||Preseason|
|Tony Springmann*||DE/DL||Knee Injury||Preseason|
|Nicky Baratti*||S||Shoulder Injury||Preseason|
|Chase Hounshell*||DE||Shoulder Injury||Preseason|
|Sheldon Day||DE||Ankle Injury||Purdue|
|Jarrett Grace*||ILB||Broken Leg||Arizona State|
|Louis Nix||DT||Knee injury||USC|
|Ishaq Williams||OLB||Knee injury||Air Force|
|Kona Schwenke||DE/DT||Leg injury||Navy|
|Ben Councell||OLB||Knee injury||Navy|
One look at the season's opening depth chart gives you an idea of just how much bad luck the Irish have had on the defensive side of the ball.
Key defensive lineman Tony Springmann was lost before the season began with a knee injury. So was safety Nicky Baratti, who needed season-ending shoulder surgery. Defensive end Chase Hounshell injured a shoulder for the second year in a row. They joined Spond as critical August losses even before playing a game.
Starting inside linebacker Jarrett Grace broke his leg against Arizona State, forcing the Irish to use former walk-on Joe Schmidt as the primary backup behind Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Ishaq Williams suffered a knee injury against Air Force, robbing the Irish of a guy who cross-trained as both an outside linebacker and defensive end. Elijah Shumate still hasn't returned after a hamstring injury, thinning out the back of the defense as well.
With injuries at every level of the defense, Brian Kelly turned to an unlikely source of inspiration heading into the game as they simply tried to make things work even as problems mounted: Tom Hanks.
Kelly played a clip from Apollo 13, as a team of NASA engineers on the ground worked to solve a critical problem that could've doomed the space shuttle.
"They throw all this stuff on the table to all of these guys in Mission Control, and they say, you guys have got to figure out with all this stuff here, how to get this done," Kelly recalled after the game. "That's what we did this week. We threw it all on the table, and we figured out how to get it done. That's why I'm proud of the guys.
"We didn't complain about it. It's part of the game. Injuries happen. You've just got to find a way to get it done, and they did. We'll find a way to get it done."
For the Irish to beat Pitt and BYU and set up a win-and-in scenario in Palo Alto, they'll need to get healthy. But they'll also need to lean on the depth that Kelly has recruited, a front seven rebuilt from scratch, the priority from the moment he took the Notre Dame job.
The first step in the right direction was surviving against Navy. The Irish managed to slow down the Midshipmen after allowing 207 rushing yards in the first half, getting two key second-half stops that helped win the game. While it wasn't pretty, Bob Diaco's halftime adjustments were just enough, as the Irish shut out an opponent for the fourth straight game in the third quarter.
Don't expect Brian Kelly to apologize for beating Navy.
But for the Irish to achieve their postseason goals, they'll need to get healthy quickly. That means getting Louis Nix back on the field after sitting the past two weeks with knee tendinitis and a balky shoulder. It means getting getting Ishaq Williams back and healthy. And it means getting some much-needed positive news on injuries to Kona Schwenke and Sheldon Day, two guys who'll be key to the Irish holding up against the run games of Pitt, BYU and Stanford.
Navy pushed the Irish defense to its limit. Now Notre Dame will need some good fortune to get out of November alive.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first hand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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