LANDOVER, Md. — On a night in which Notre Dame blew a 21-point lead and its youthful defense surrendered 454 yards, coach Brian Kelly still found reason to smile.
Mostly because the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish somehow found a way to beat Navy 49-39.
“As a coach that’s really all you can ask for, to win a football game and give a lot of young guys experience,” Kelly said Saturday night. “And then, not have to play Navy against until next year.”
Everett Golson became the first player in Notre Dame history to throw for three touchdowns and run for three scores. The Irish (7-1, No. 10 CFP, No. 6 AP) needed that kind of performance to win, because their defense had no answer for Navy’s triple option.
After Notre Dame ended its first four possessions with touchdowns, the Midshipmen (4-5) tallied 24 straight points to move ahead 31-28 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
Golson put Notre Dame back in front with a 3-yard burst into the end zone, and a 25-yard touchdown run by Tarean Folston made it 42-31 with 12:22 remaining.
No, it wasn’t over yet.
Two missed field goals by the Irish kept Navy’s hopes alive. The Midshipmen took advantage by scoring a touchdown and 2-point conversion to close to 42-39 with 4:18 remaining, but the onside kick failed and Golson wrapped it up with an 8-yard TD run with 1:27 to go.
The game was quite similar to last year’s, a 38-34 Notre Dame win.
The Irish have won four straight in college football’s longest continuous intersectional rivalry and now lead the series 75-12-1.
“I challenge anyone to put these guys on their schedule,” Kelly said, “anybody that thinks Navy is an easy team to play. It’s very difficult.”
Off last week, Notre Dame had two weeks to agonize over a 31-27 loss at Florida State. Needing a victory to stay relevant in the college football playoff, the Irish averaged nearly 10 yards on their 35 plays during the opening 30 minutes and finished with 533 yards.
The defense wasn’t nearly as impressive. Navy ran for 336 yards — most against Notre Dame this season — and the Irish have now yielded a total of 113 points in their last three games.
Golson, however, was virtually unstoppable. He completed 18 for 25 passes for 315 yards and ran for 33 yards on nine carries to help Notre Dame to its highest point total of the season.
Just like last year, when Notre Dame allowed 419 yards, the Irish counted on their offense to compensate for a defense that had all sorts of trouble.
After cutting a 21-point deficit to 28-17 at halftime, Navy took the second-half kickoff and held the ball for 7 1/2 minutes before Geoffrey Whiteside scored on a 13-yard run.
The Midshipmen then forced Notre Dame into its first punt in this series since 2012. Mids coach Ken Niumatalolo kept his offense on the field for a fourth-and-2 from the Navy 42, and Noah Copeland justified the decision with a 54-yard run around left end to set up a 4-yard touchdown by Chris Swain for a 31-28 lead.
Golson’s 3-yard TD run put the Irish back in front, and Navy tried to keep pace by pulling out a trick play on a third-and-7 from its own 39. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds pitched the ball to Copeland, who passed it to a wide-open Reynolds. But the ball went through Reynold’s hands, and the Midshipmen had to punt.
After Golson hit Chris Brown for a 42-yard gain, Folston scored for an 11-point cushion.
At that point, many in the crowd of 36,807 at the home stadium of the Washington Redskins began heading to the exits.