Head-to-Head: Navy vs. Notre Dame
Observer Football Beat Writers | Thursday, October 31, 2013
This category may seem like an oxymoron, as Navy averages just over five completions per game. However, Midshipmen sophomore Keenan Reynolds is a legitimate dual-threat at quarterback, and can sling the ball around the field when given the chance. The Mids force opposing secondaries to think run first with their triple-option barrage, then are able to get big gains over the top when they pass. Navy has averaged 16.2 yards per completion this season, the sixth best mark in the country.
Less is more for the Midshipmen here, as going back to 2003 they are 18-1 when throwing five times or less, and have a losing record when they pass 10 times or more.
That paucity of passes will require vigilance from Notre Dame’s corners who also factored heavily into the run defense last week. Senior captain Bennett Jackson and sophomore KeiVarae Russell will have their work cut out for them at cornerback, and will need to stay disciplined on every down. The duo was up to that challenge last week against Air Force’s option attack though, shutting down the pass while recording 10 tackles.
If Notre Dame can stop the big momentum plays here, they’ll control the air.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Navy runs the triple option as well as any one in the country, and is able to make little adjustments to tweak the legendary scheme every week. Reynolds calls the shots under center, and so far has preferred to call his own number, as he has nearly twice as many rushes as any other back. The system has continued to be prolific though, as Navy grinds opponents down by averaging five yards per carry and 292 yards per game.
The Irish will benefit from good scheduling in this game, as they were able to get a primer in defending the triple option from Air Force last week. However, two consecutive weeks against the option can be especially punishing to the front seven, and senior defensive lineman Louis Nix is questionable to return. Much of the spotlight will fall on freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was regularly put on an island to slow down the quarterback in space last week.
MIDSHIPMEN OFFENSIVE COACHING
Before Ken Niumatalolo arrived at the Naval Academy, the Mids had just one win against the Irish in their last 44 tries. Under Niumatalolo, they’ve won two out of five. In Niumatalolo’s first meeting with Irish coach Brian Kelly in 2010, Navy sliced Notre Dame for 367 yards rushing and 35 points, but the Irish have held them to just 24 points in the two games since. Still, Navy has reached the end zone on 39 percent of their drives this season, the 12th best mark in the country.
Kelly talked this week about how difficult Navy’s slight variations can be to defend, meaning defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will have his hands full in gameplanning. The Irish were able to work out the kinks after getting gashed by the option last week, adjusting on the fly to take some automatic checks out of their systems. The Irish will need to be similarly flexible this week, but two weeks with the option is still far less experience than Navy can respond with.
MIDSHIPMEN SPECIAL TEAMS
In addition to the grinding triple option game, the Midshipmen can control field position with the leg of junior punter Pablo Beltran. Beltran has averaged 43 yards per punt this season, but has downed 1/3 of his kicks inside the 20. That should further limit senior TJ Jones in punt returns, as Jones has just one return of more than five yards in his last six games.
Midshipmen sophomore kicker Nick Sloan has had an average year, with a long of 40 yards and and 5-8 kicking overall.
MIDSHIPMEN SCHEDULE (4-3)
Sept. 7 @ Indiana W 41-35
Sept. 14 Delaware W 51-7
Sept. 28 @ Western Kentucky L 19-7
Oct. 5 Air Force W 28-10
Oct. 12 @ Duke L 35-7
Oct. 19 @ Toledo L 45-44
Oct. 26 Pittsburgh W 24-21
Nov. 2 @ Notre Dame
Nov. 9 Hawaii
Nov. 16 South Alabama
Nov. 22 @ San Jose State
Dec. 14 Army
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees had a career day against Air Force last week, spreading the love to hit five different receivers for touchdowns.
Senior captain TJ Jones has been an elite receiver for the Irish this year, and freshmen receivers Will Fuller and Corey Robinson have emerged to give the unit even more depth below its veterans. The Irish offensive line will be without senior Christian Lombard for the rest of the year, and graduate student Chris Watt is recovering from an injury that sidelined him last week. Even with instability on the line last week, the pass blocking was still good enough to keep Rees off the ground most of the day, and freshman Steve Elmer has showed early composure as a new starter.
The Midshipmen will have their work cut out for them in trying to slow the Irish down, as Notre Dame has put up 106 points in their last two meetings. Still, Navy has held opponents to 204 yards passing per game, and their most experienced starter is junior safety Parrish Gaines, who has started 25 straight games. Junior outside linebacker Chris Johnson missed his first two seasons with the team due to redshirting and tearing his ACL, but has busted out to lead the Mids with three interceptions this season, as well as 48 tackles. Navy’s corners are both in their first year as full time starters, however, and may have issues covering Notre Dame’s multitude of weapons on the outside.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
The Irish rushing attack has reached at least 134 yards in four straight games, but the efficiency has not been there. Against Air Force, Notre Dame needed 37 rushes to accumulate 135 yards. The yards-per-rush is probably lower than Brian Kelly would like, but Saturday offers a chance for the running backs to improve on its 4.1 yards-per-attempt average. Navy has allowed 4.7 yards-per-rush to its opponents this season.
Who will carry the load for the Irish from week to week is still a toss up. Despite George Atkinson receiving a bulk of the chances early on, in recent weeks it has been Cam McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston to emerge by game’s end. Notre Dame will spread the ball around to the many horses in its stable, and the Irish offensive line should make use of its size advantage to guarentee success on the ground.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
It’s hard to argue with what Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin and the rest of the Irish staff have done in the past few weeks. Notre Dame only managed 300 yards against USC two weeks ago, in large part due to Rees’ exit due to injury, but on either side of the offensive dud the Irish put up 424 yards against Arizona State and 466 yards against Air Force. With the luxury of opening things up by allowing Rees to spread the ball around and pounding it on the ground, Notre Dame’s coaching staff could cause major headaches for the Midshipmen.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
George Atkinson still looks ready to explode for a kickoff-return touchdown. He’s worked his way up to a 27.3-yard return average by taking a few kicks to the threshold of the opponent’s territory. Kyle Brindza’s punting has been servicable, but his performance on the field-goal unit has been notably better. He has converted nine of 13 attempts on the year but hasn’t missed a crucial kick yet. TJ Jones has looked considerably more comfortable at punt retun than he had earlier in the year, making tough fair catches when necessary and putting together a few nice retuns.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SCHEDULE (6-2)
Aug. 31 Temple W 28-6
Sept. 7 @ Michigan L 41-30
Sept. 14 @ Purdue W 31-24
Sept. 21 Michigan State W 17-13
Sept. 26 Oklahoma L 35-21
Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State W 37-34
Oct. 19 USC W 14-10
Oct. 26 @ Air Force W 45-10
Nov. 2 Navy
Nov. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Nov. 23 BYU
Nov. 30 @ Stanford