No. 3 Notre Dame got off to an inauspicious start against Navy when top receiver Miles Boykin fumbled after a catch on the first play from scrimmage.
Turns out that was merely a hiccup.
“There’s no point in thinking about what happened when you have the whole game ahead of you,” said quarterback Ian Book, who was remarkably efficient in leading the Fighting Irish to a 44-22 win that kept them undefeated and in the playoff picture.
Book threw for 330 yards and two touchdowns, and Dexter Williams ran for 142 yards and three scores.
Notre Dame is 8-0 for the first time since 2012, when it remained undefeated until being routed by Alabama in the BCS national title game.
Notre Dame had 584 yards of total offense as it extended its dominance in the oldest continual intersectional rivalry to 78-13-1.
Playing in San Diego for the first time, Notre Dame used its superior size and talent to take a 27-0 lead just before halftime. While the defense kept Navy’s triple option in check, Book kept the Midshipmen off-balance with lots of play-action. He completed 27 of 33 passes, to 10 receivers. He threw one interception.
Book, from El Dorado Hills near Sacramento, improved to 5-0 since replacing Brandon Wimbush as the starter. Book threw touchdown passes of 4 and 22 yards to Boykin to in the second half.
The opening-play fumble didn’t hurt because Notre Dame held Navy to a three-and-out.
“We needed to do something and we couldn’t,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “A lot of it had to do with them. They are a good team.”
Book said the Fighting Irish just needed to have “the next play mindset. I know Miles is mentally strong. It was the first play. Takes a little bit of momentum away. We come back as an offense, I know we’re strong. That’s football. Stuff like that happens. It’s how you bounce back.”
Notre Dame did that by scoring on four of its next five possessions. JaFar Armstrong had a 1-yard scoring run, and Williams then had touchdown runs of 12, 9 and 2 yards. Williams carried 23 times.
“We played it very, very well,” coach Brian Kelly said of the first half. “We liked our plan. We thought it was comprehensive in what we wanted to do. … Glad to get out of here with a victory, with a lot of good things to build off of going into the last month.”
Navy (2-6), which lost its fifth straight, finally broke through thanks to some big plays that led to Zach Abey scoring two 1-yard touchdowns in the third quarter. Book was intercepted early in the fourth quarter, setting up a 33-yard touchdown run by Mike Martin.
“I’m glad this game’s over,” Kelly said. “Any time we play Navy, it is a chore for preparation. They’re very difficult to prepare for because you’re dealing with the most efficient and effective operation relative to the triple option in all of football. I just don’t like this week, preparing for Ken’s teams. I’m just excited to move on to the next week with a victory.
Niumatalolo knew the Midshipmen had to play perfect to pull off an upset, and they didn’t.
“They are ranked No, 3 for a reason,” Niumatalolo said. “Just a really solid, focused group. We have played coach Kelly’s teams before and this is one of his better teams.”
Navy came in third in the nation with 309.4 yards rushing per game and had 292 against Notre Dame. Malcolm Perry had 133 yards on 12 carries.
The game, which drew a crowd of 63,626 to SDCCU Stadium, was promoted by the San Diego Bowl Game Association.
Notre Dame: After rallying to beat Pitt and save their season, the Fighting Irish had a week off to prepare for Navy’s triple option. It showed, as the Midshipmen weren’t able to get anything going until the second half, when they were way behind.
Navy: The Midshipmen dropped to 3-5 in San Diego. This was the first time they played an opponent of Notre Dame’s caliber here. The Midshipmen were 1-0 in the Holiday Bowl, 2-2 in the now-defunct Poinsettia Bowl and 0-2 against San Diego State.
Notre Dame visits Northwestern on Saturday.
Navy returns to American Athletic Conference play Saturday at Cincinnati.