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TOM DAVIS: Notre Dame emphatically casts aside its past

Navy quarterback Garret Lewis (7) is tackled by Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) during the first half of a game in South Bend Saturday. (By The Associated Press)
Navy quarterback Zach Abey (9) celebrates his touchdown against Notre Dame during the first half of a game in South Bend Saturday. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame running back Josh Adams (33) goes around Navy safety Juan Hailey (13) during the first half of a game in South Bend Saturday. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) is pushed out of bounds by Navy safety Juan Hailey (13) during the first half of a game in South Bend Saturday. (By The Associated Press)
Navy running back Josh Brown (28) is hit by Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) during the first half of a game in South Bend Saturday. (By The Associated Press)

You can look at the record of the past two Notre Dame football seasons and deduce that the 2017 team has been significantly better than the 2016 one.

A 9-2 record heading into the final week of the regular season is certainly better than last year’s 4-7 mark. However, that growth within the Notre Dame program was unmistakably visible in Saturday’s 24-17 win over Navy at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Fighting Irish made plays on both sides of the ball Saturday that last year’s team either couldn’t or wouldn’t, as it lost to the Midshipmen a year ago, and veteran coach Brian Kelly acknowledged such.

“The takeaway is our kids played really hard,” Kelly said afterward in a postgame press conference. “They really cared about their teammates and wanting to win this football game.”

“I loved the way they kept fighting and we may not have won this game last year.”

That is an understatement.

As much as there was that went against Notre Dame Saturday, there would have been no possibility that last year’s squad would have figured out a way to win this game.

The Midshipmen (6-4) did almost everything – short of completing a final half-back pass play – that they needed to do to win this game. But unlike a year ago, when Notre Dame continually found ways to lose games, this year’s team is just different in that regard.

“I don’t really have a lot to ‘wow’ you with,” Kelly said, “it just a game that required a grittiness to them and a toughness and a resolve.”

All of which were missing from last season.

The Navy offense maintained possession of the ball for an insane level (over 42 minutes of a 60-minute game), which limited the Fighting Irish to just eight offensive series, but the first four were essentially a waste of time.

It took Notre Dame five offensive series and 29:52 before it could even score a touchdown. The first four offensive series by Kelly’s team resulted in two punts, a fumble and a field goal.

Much of this victory should be credited to the Fighting Irish defense, because the offense was often inept. But give the Notre Dame offense credit for this: when it had to perform, it did.

Unlike last year.

With 68 seconds left in the first half, Notre Dame took over possession following a Navy score and the Irish trailed 10-3. However, inexplicably, a mostly ineffective Irish quarterback (Brandon Wimbush) suddenly found an ability to make plays for the first time all day and he quickly led a 7-play 62-yard drive to tie the game before the intermission.

“It was critical,” Kelly said of the drive.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo went one further when addressing the game-tying drive.

“That drive at the end of the half killed us,” Niumatalolo said. “That was a back-breaker, because we will get the ball the second half, and then we can really stay on point, but that drive at the end killed us.”

That offensive mojo continued, as the Irish opened the second half with touchdown-producing drives of 5 and 11 plays, while the Irish defense did their part in stopping the Navy offense on a critical third down play, which resulted in a missed field goal, as well as intercepting a pass midway through the final period.

“Our attention to detail,” Kelly said of his team’s defensive play, “in terms of what we needed to do, we really needed to show some great traits today about who we were in this game.”

This year’s Notre Dame team could’ve faltered for the season after last week’s embarrassment in Miami. After all, the likelihood of playing for any type of championship is most assuredly over.

And the Irish could’ve folded Saturday when the game was halfway over and Navy was dominating in almost every way. Last year’s team probably would’ve done both.

But not this year.

This season has been different since the team gathered in January. That has shown many times since and it was apparent Saturday.

“They get a chance to do something that not a lot of teams can do,” Kelly said of his senior class, “and that is win 10 games. So they can be an elite class two out of the last three years in winning 10 games or more. Ten is the number, but they can win 11.”

With this year’s team, don’t doubt that they won’t.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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