SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Navy’s triple-option offense had Notre Dame flummoxed and flailing for most of the game.
In need of one stop with 68 seconds left in the fourth quarter, freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith — with some help — made the play the Fighting Irish so badly needed.
Smith and Eilar Hardy combined to snuff out an end-around by Navy’s Shawn Lynch on fourth-and-4 in Irish territory, and Notre Dame held on 38-34 Saturday.
The Midshipmen ran for 331 yards, 207 in the first half. On Navy’s final drive, it ran the ball four straight plays for 18 yards and had it second-and-5 from the Notre Dame 32.
“It’s a scenario you want. On the road at Notre Dame, driving to win the game. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Notre Dame’s hopes of returning to the Top 25 and hopes for a BCS bowl berth appeared tenuous at best.
But Reynolds, who had run for three touchdowns and thrown for another, tossed a pitch just out of reach of DeBrandon Sanders. Sanders fell on the ball at the 41 for a 9-yard loss. Reynolds completed a 10-yard pass to Casey Bolena to set up a fourth down.
Reynolds pitched the ball to Lynch on a reverse and for a moment it appeared he had room, but Smith quickly closed the gap and with the help from Hardy tackled Lynch for no gain.
“Luckily, Eilar was there to slow the guy down initially, and then I was there to make the play,” Smith said.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said Navy was a step too slow on the play.
“Normally it should have been a fraction of a second sooner,” he said.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were fortunate to pull out the victory.
“They executed flawlessly today,” Kelly said. “They really put us in a position where we had to play great in the second half.”
Navy had no turnovers, no penalties and held the ball for 37:36 while the Irish had it just 22:24.
Kelly said he wasn’t disappointed in the win.
“There’s no asterisk next to this one. This is a W. We’re excited about it,” he said.
Notre Dame (7-2) improved to 11-1 in November in four seasons under Kelly and clinched its fourth consecutive winning season, the first time that’s happened since 1995-98. The Irish also keep alive their hopes for a BCS bowl berth. Navy lost for the third time in the past four games.
Notre Dame has won its past 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, tying Kelly with Knute Rockne for the second-longest such streak in school history. Elmer Layden holds the record with 12.
The bright spot for Notre Dame was the play of freshman running back Tarean Folston, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard plunge and rushed for 144 yards on 18 carries, with 116 yards in the second half. He had rushed for only 116 yards on 22 carries before Saturday.
“There was just a big mess, so I just jumped over,” Folston said of his TD run.
Notre Dame finished with 506 yards total offense, averaging 9 yards per play, the most for the Irish since 1998. Tommy Rees threw touchdown passes to TJ Jones and Ben Koyack, George Atkinson III scored on a 41-yard run and Cam McDaniel added a TD. Rees was 12-of-20 passing for 242 yards with two interceptions. It was the third time this season Rees has thrown at least two interceptions. The Irish lost the other two against Michigan and against Oklahoma.
Reynolds completed six of nine passes for 88 yards, including two key passes that gave Navy its final lead. First he threw an 18-yard pass to Marcus Thomas to the Notre Dame 49. After three running plays, Reynolds then found a wide open Matt Aiken for a 34-yard score.
The Midshipmen finished with 419 yards total offense and had 27 first downs, the most ever by a Navy team against Notre dame.
“Coach put together a brilliant game plan. We were able to execute it on the field and move the ball,” Reynolds said
Chris Swain led Navy with 85 yards Quinton Singleton had 77 yards.
“When you play a team like that, you try to get out to an early lead and take them out of their game plan. If not, you’re going to have a nail biter like that because they do a great job of staying on the field offensively and limiting your touches,” Rees said.