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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame prepared to see Zero Blitz again after second-half struggles against Navy

November 16, 2022

Notre Dame escaped Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium with a 35-32 victory over Navy. 

The Irish led by 22 at halftime, only to surrender 19 unanswered second-half points to the Midshipmen.

Tommy Rees’ offense had scored three touchdowns against cover zero in the first half, but Notre Dame scraped together just 12 total yards on offense against the same defensive call in the second half. 

“I had the chance to talk to their defensive coordinator [Brian Newberry] after the game, and he said, ‘It’s the only call I felt like I had left,’” Rees said. “It’s the only thing they were going to do. I said, ‘Yeah, you guys set a record for blitz 0 in the second half.’”

Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne looked frazzled as a result. He failed to throw a single pass in the third quarter and connected on just three of his five throws in the fourth quarter for 35 yards. 

For as frustrating as Notre Dame’s second-half performance may have been, it turned out to be enough for a Fighting Irish victory.

Still, Rees wishes Pyne could have a number of opportunities back. 

“There are certainly ways to attack it,” Rees said. “I thought there were a couple on the first drive where we need to get our eyes in the right spot and make decisions that are easy game-control type throws that get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand against one-on-one [coverage] in space.”

At times, such one-on-one opportunities were available to Pyne, but he missed them, including an overthrown ball to tight end Michael Mayer. On that play, a completion likely would have resulted in a touchdown. 

With Navy playing so much cover zero, those misses made it increasingly difficult for Notre Dame to run the ball against the Midshipmen’s front.

“That’s their deal. They’re seventh in the country in rush defense,” Rees said. “They sell out to stop the run. We knew that going in we were going to have to attack them down the field. That was our plan.”

The Irish finished with a 23-yard rush deficit in the second half after running for a respectable 89 yards in the first. 

Now, much of this is due to the fact that Pyne was sacked five times in the second half for a total loss of 30 yards, but Notre Dame’s running back trio of Logan Diggs Audric Estime and Chris Tyree still only produced nine yards in the game’s final two quarters. 

“Eight, nine-man fronts are tough,” Rees said. “We carved enough out in the first half, but we knew we were going to have to throw it over their heads to score.”

Pyne also threw his fifth interception of the season in the second half, which lead to a 23-yard Navy touchdown pass on the ensuing play.

The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and deflected up into the air. For the 5-11 Pyne, this has been a bit of an issue over the last several weeks. 

Outside of chugging milk and praying it helps him sprout a few more inches, Pyne needs to do a better job of finding open passing lanes on a consistent basis.

But that’s easier said than done.

“That’s something we’ve talked about,” Rees said.  “If we’re getting rushed, can we slide? If we’re looking for throws that are outside the pocket, can we find that clean window to our left and to our right? Find opportunities to climb and find alleys, but it’s hard, man. Defensive [linemen] do a good job of using their hands.”

The Notre Dame offense has experienced a number of ups and downs throughout the season.

For the first time since becoming Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, Rees has had to navigate those without former tight ends coach John McNulty, his right-hand man in 2020 and 2021. 

While Rees says he has built a strong relationship with the four new offensive assistant coaches, he still misses the console of McNulty, even though they still talk multiple times per week. 

McNulty will return to South Bend this weekend as Boston College’s offensive coordinator.

“He was definitely a sounding board for a couple of years,” Rees said. “He was the first person I called last December when everything was going down. Before my father. He was the first person I called. He’s been through coaching for a long time. He was definitely the guy that I went to with football decisions, game plans, all that stuff.”

Still, Rees is confident that if another defensive coordinator calls too much cover zero later in the season, their team will get burned. 

“You’re risking a lot there as a defensive coach,” Rees said. “Guys are going to see it and be aggressive. We feel like we have a good plan of how to attack it and how to beat it. You got to get guys down if you’re going to play that way. We would welcome that.”

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