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Head to Head: Notre Dame vs. Navy

Observer Sports Writers | Thursday, August 30, 2012

No, that’s not a misprint. The two words a couple lines up do indeed say “Navy Passing.” Although due to Navy’s option offense, the Midshipmen’s passing attack is nearly non-existent.
Despite the structure of the offense, look for Navy to pass the ball slightly more than in years past under the direction of new junior quarterback Trey Miller. Miller is a better passer than former Navy signal caller Kriss Proctor, who ran for more yards than he threw for last year. Irish fans should recognize Miller from last year’s 56-14 blowout win – a game in which he made his first career start. While Miller produced subpar numbers in South Bend, he gained valuable experience against the Irish that can only benefit him this year.
Notre Dame’s pass defense enters the season as one of the largest questions marks for the Irish. After losing both cornerbacks from last year and safety Harrison Smith to the NFL Draft, the secondary was set to plug in three new starters. But with the season-ending injury suffered by Lo Wood, freshman KeiVarae Russell was thrust into the starting lineup. Despite the inexperience, the secondary should have no problems defending Navy’s primitive passing game.

The triple option has been Navy’s equalizer for years now in its attempt to compete with the big boys of college football. The deceptive and quick option had handed Notre Dame losses in three of the previous four meetings before last year’s rout. In the 42-point victory over the Midshipmen last year, the Irish defense seemed to have the option figured out, holding Navy to 196 yards on 50 carries.
While the system remains the same, the personnel has changed a lot for Navy. It lost Proctor and former fullback Alexander Teich, their top two rushers last season who combined for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground. Senior slot back Gee Gee Greene is Navy’s top returning rusher after racking up more than 500 yards.
Notre Dame’s front seven, led by All-American senior linebacker Manti Te’o and mammoth sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt, is now a cohesive unit capable of containing Navy’s rushing game. The deep rotation of defensive linemen that includes junior Louis Nix and graduate student Kapron Lewis-Moore should be able to withstand Navy’s notorious cut blocks at the line of scrimmage.
Navy will be assured of large rushing numbers Saturday. Whether they are effective, though, is a different question.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has taken the Midshipmen to new heights against Notre Dame in recent years and will have his guys mentally prepared for the season opener. But Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has faced three triple option teams since the Navy debacle in 2010 and shut them all down.

Navy entered camp not with a quarterback controversy but with a kicker controversy. The Midshipmen named freshman Nick Sloan the placekicker this past week despite inconsistent performances in practice. Sloan’s inexperience could hurt Navy if the Midshipmen keep this game close until the end.
In the return game, Navy brings back junior Marcus Thomas and senior Bo Snelson to handle kickoff duties while junior Shawn Lynch will make his debut at punt return. Thomas was solid a year ago, averaging 22 yards per return and scoring a touchdown.

Much like Navy, Notre Dame will be ushering in a new era under center with a mobile and inexperience signal caller. After surviving a four-man quarterback derby, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson will take his first snap as Notre Dame’s starter against Navy. While fans have not seen Golson in action since the Blue-Gold Game in April, he promises to add arm strength and a running dimension to the Notre Dame offense.
Golson will not have the benefit of throwing to departed receiver Michael Floyd but he will have something close in senior tight end Tyler Eifert. The Irish coaching staff plans on using the 6-foot-6 Fort Wayne, Ind., native in a variety of ways this season, including split out wide against smaller defenders. His versatility and athleticism will cause fits for Navy’s undersized secondary, whose biggest starter weighs in at just 196 pounds.
Expect some mistakes out of Golson but his receving corps should be too much for the Midshipmen.

Last year, Notre Dame ran for an unreal seven touchdowns against Navy. Amazingly enough, due to graduation and suspensions, sophomore running back George Atkinson is the only player on Saturday’s roster that scored in the six-touchdown romp. Atkinson will see plenty of carries as the bigger back while senior Theo Riddick will earn the lion’s share of action after senior Cierre Wood’s suspension. Golson’s ability to run should also pose problems for the Navy defense.
Despite the lack of returning experience in the backfield, Notre Dame has one big advantage – literally. The Irish offensive line returns four players who saw significant playing time during last season’s eight-win campaign. Anchored by graduate student center Braxston Cave, the offensive line has only one member under 300 pounds. The Midshipmen, meanwhile, have no players weighing more than 300 pounds.
The Navy front seven also suffered a big blow when projected starter and sophomore outside linebacker suffered a knee injury that will keep him out an extended period. A defense that gave up 442 total yards to the Irish last October needed all the help it could get.
The Irish would be hard-pressed to top last year’s total of seven rushing touchdowns but running the ball against an undersized front should not be an issue.

After two years under Brian Kelly, the Irish will finally be running an offense that resembles his regimes at Central Michigan and Cininnati. Golson’s versatility will give Notre Dame additional options in Kelly’s spread offense.
Navy, meanwhile, has given up at least 38 points in three of its last eight games, dating back to last year.

Senior kicker Nick Tausch will make his return to the playing field after the departure of David Ruffer and a solid camp, according to the coaching staff. Following a rough start to last season, senior Ben Turk continuously improved as the season progressed although the Irish may not need him much Saturday – Notre Dame punted just once during last year’s game.
Irish fans will be delighted to see familiar face George Atkinson (and his two return touchdowns from 2011) returning kickoffs while freshman Davonte’ Neal will handle the punt return duties. Notre Dame managed just three total yards on punt returns during the regular season in 2011.