The first half was nearly perfect, the second half decidedly not, but the result was a relatively easy 44-22 ND victory over Navy that sent the Irish to 8-0 and, at minimum, a #3 ranking on Tuesday when the committee unveils its first top 25.

It looked very briefly like another annoying ND/Navy slugfest when Miles Boykin fumbled the ball to Navy on the first play of the game, but the Irish defense stiffened, as they would throughout the first half, and the rest of the half was exactly how you would hope ND would play against Navy: Ball control, effective short passing and pound-it running. 27-0 at halftime, game over.

Then the second half happened. Navy decided to unleash Malcolm Perry, and it was a 30-minute shootout. Luckily, ND had built such a lead that it didn’t much matter.

The biggest issue going forward is the health of Drue Tranquill, who was rolled up on (not cut-blocked, ND reporters eagerly made sure we knew) and did not return, but, gods be praised, appears to have ‘only’ suffered a high ankle sprain. Still clearly not good, but not enough to knock him out for the season. He was, as far as I know, the only ND injury of note (Asmar Bilal was briefly injured, but came back).

Let’s go over some of the big storylines from the game:

ND “out-Navy’s Navy”

Aaron Taylor, in between letting you know how many penalties ND was getting away with to make sure you knew his degree didn’t blind him from his job calling Saturday’s game, made a nifty point early on that the Irish were playing Navy’s game. They were passing more, obviously, but the ethic behind it – ball control – was pure Navy.

The offense, two turnovers excepted, was pretty close to flawless. The running game was consistently there, and when ND was pushed to third-and-long, Ian Book usually bailed the Irish out with some excellent throws. (Just in terms of throwing decently-long deep balls, it was a big step forward for Book since the Va Tech and Pitt games, I felt; the long scramble before hitting Jafar Armstrong for a first down in particular was impressive.) The back-shoulder game was there and Book hit several of them for key gains.

Fourth-down aggressiveness was a big factor. ND went for it three times and converted all three. Brian Kelly knew the Navy game was a different animal and coached like it tonight. Props to him. Would’ve liked to see him go for it on that last possession just to ice it and cap off the strategy, but no harm done there.

Hey, uh, let’s cover #10

ND seemed to have solved Navy right off the top – until, that is, Ken Niumatalolo recalled that Malcolm Perry was on his team. After being a virtual nonentity in the first half, Perry dominated the second and almost single-handedly kept Navy on the fringes of being in the game. It’s probably fair to say ND was feeling itself a little bit after an impressive first half on defense and didn’t quite keep their heads in the game in the second, though certainly Navy deserves a bit of credit for that too.

344 total yards for the game isn’t bad against Navy, even this version of them, but the Middies went for 6.1 yards a carry, albeit more like five outside of Perry’s big run to start the second half. Option being what it is, there’s not a ton to take from that into next week, but it was mildly frustrating seeing the Irish unable to deliver that final killshot to ensure a blowout tonight.

That being said, the defensive line made several nice plays on the interior, and Te’von Coney continues to be a dude. Nice to see Drew White get in on a couple plays after replacing Tranquill as well.

Dexter is fun, and it’s good to see Jafar

I’ve said before that Dexter Williams’ immediate emergence from suspended guy on the brink to utter mainstay of the offense is among my very favorite subplots of this season, and he gave me nothing to be disappointed about tonight. 142 yards on physical runs, open-field runs, good-vision runs…you name it, Dex did it tonight. Hope he has 6 more games like this in him.

As if that wasn’t enough, Kelly gave him credit for his blocking, the biggest weakness in his game prior to this season, and awarded him the game ball for the win.

He can’t do it alone, though, and Jafar Armstrong made an extremely impressive return to the lineup. Armstrong dealt with a knee infection that by all accounts was far more serious than originally discussed, and yet you’d never have known it Saturday. He was ND’s leading receiver, with five catches, seemingly all of them clutch, and also gained 52 yards on the ground, good for over 100 in total offense. We hadn’t seen a lot of his receiving game in past weeks, and if we can get used to that he’s going to be a very valuable Theo Riddick-type piece for this team.

Oh, hey, Doerer!

None of us really know whatever issues have been keeping Jonathan Doerer from being the kicker ND thinks he can be, but maybe he took a step in the right direction tonight. With Justin Yoon sidelined with a mysterious groin injury, Doerer missed a PAT to start the game and every ND fan recoiled. But Doerer never missed again, and by the end of the night seemed downright on his game, albeit never having to make a long kick. Hopefully we look back at this game at his turning point.

So here we are. 8-0. Very few but the most desperately optimistic would’ve thought this possible. There are land mines ahead – Northwestern will be coming off its best game of the season to date next week, Syracuse looks to be perhaps a legitimate top-20 team (we’ll see), and USC isn’t going to roll over and die for an 11-0 ND if we get to that point. We’re into November. The ride is in full swing. Stress about every second, yes, but in between, let’s enjoy a playoff race.

(Photo credit: South Bend Tribune)