Head to Head: Notre Dame vs. Navy
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 9, 2015
In a game in which so much went wrong for Notre Dame, sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer’s play at Clemson was a bright spot. In his first road start, Kizer went 19-for-35 for 321 yards and two scores, and that’s with the Irish leaving more than 100 yards on the turf through dropped passes.
That said, no matter how well Kizer played last time out, his receivers have to avoid dropping balls in key situations. Junior receiver Corey Robinson dropped a deep ball that could have been a big touchdown and a crucial 2-point conversion attempt against Clemson, junior Will Fuller dropped a key third-down pass early in the game and other drops plagued the Irish passing game all day long. That has to change if Kizer is to truly have a breakout game.
While they haven’t played a particularly impressive opponent yet, the Midshipmen have allowed just 186 yards per game through the air after four contests. If Notre Dame’s receivers fail to take advantage of the easy catches this week, Navy’s secondary could be good enough to force the Irish to rely even more on the ground game.
Despite a lackluster performance on the ground last week at Clemson, the Irish rush game still ranks impressively high in both yards per game (13th) and yards per carry (seventh) nationally. While that’s mostly thanks to a dominant performance against Massachusetts, one poor game on the ground does not a season make.
Against a squarely average Midshipmen rush defense, it would be expected for the Notre Dame ground game to have a bounceback game against Navy. A weaker run game notched 218 yards and four scores on the ground in Notre Dame’s win a season ago, so it would not be a surprise to see the Irish run game hit the 200-yard mark for the fifth time this season.
The offensive line’s play a week ago could be cause for concern, but C.J. Prosise ran rampant over each of Notre Dame’s four previous opponents, and he should be able to do so once more against the Midshipmen.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
It took a few possessions, but Brian Kelly and the Irish staff eventually advanced into a solid offensive game plan a week ago at Clemson — poor execution by the offensive line and receivers had more to do with Notre Dame’s struggles than the tactical choices themselves.
At the end of the day, the Irish have still topped 400 yards in each of their five games this season, a sign Kelly has a good familiarity for where this unit is, something that should not be surprising given his past success with young quarterbacks.
Navy’s defense is nothing special, so a solid game plan should be more than enough to get the job done offensively.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
As has been the story so often this season, a couple key mistakes plagued the Irish special teams unit once more at Clemson last week.
After a quick score and stop from the Tigers on the first two possessions of the game, sophomore Tyler Newsome shanked his first punt attempt of the game, putting the Irish defense in a terrible spot, one from which Clemson scored easily for a 14-0 lead.
And a week after taking a punt to the house, freshman receiver C.J. Sanders fumbled on the opening kickoff of the second half, effectively handing the Tigers seven more points.
Despite positive flashes from Newsome, Sanders and freshman kicker Justin Yoon, who did well to convert his one field goal attempt, it’s tough to put much faith in the unit to avoid more costly mistakes.
Senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds is certainly the most prolific playmaker on Navy’s offensive side, but that doesn’t really extend to his passing game. Thus far into 2015, he has only 27 attempts in four games. And while his efficency rating of 158.7 would rank among the top in the nation if he qualified, the general trend in his career has been downward. His attempts per game and yards per contest have both dropped from his sophomore year.
Reynolds’ targets are limited as well. Junior Jamir Tillman is the only Midshipman receiver with more than three career receptions.
Meanwhile, the Irish defensive backs are coming off a solid performance against Clemson in which they limited Deshaun Watson to 97 yards passing. Junior safety Max Redfield came back from injury to lead the team with 14 tackles, junior cornerback Cole Luke had his second interception of the year, and senior safety Elijah Shumate looked strong. After a shaky start to the year, this unit appears to have turned a corner.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Notre Dame has already faced a triple-option offense this year in Georgia Tech, but they have yet to face a player like Keenan Reynolds. Just four touchdowns away from breaking the NCAA record for rushing scores, Reynolds is far and away the leading quarterback in rushing yards in the country and spearheads an attack that ranks third in the nation in rushing yards per game.
Both teams played in the rain last week. But while Notre Dame’s defensive front surrendered nearly 200 yards rushing and five yards per attempt, Navy’s offense kicked into high gear, racking up 270 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers.
MIDSHIPMEN OFFENSIVE COACHING
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder prepped his team to near-perfection for its matchup against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense. The Irish limited the Yellow Jackets to one rushing score and just a tad over 200 yards.
But the Irish defense fell apart in the final few minutes of the game and then came out flat and uninspired against Clemson, only to rebound for a stellar second portion of the game. So consistency remains an issue with the unit.
Navy has been a model of consistency under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, making six bowl games in seven years. What’s more, he has honed and perfected the triple-option offense he inherited from his predecessor, Paul Johnson. Navy has given Notre Dame fits under Niumatalolo, winning twice and keeping things close several other times, largely on the strength of its offense.
MIDSHIPMEN SPECIAL TEAMS
While not the most explosive unit, Navy’s special teams has put together a solid albeit unspectacular season thus far. The Midshipmen have not returned any punts or kicks for touchdowns or kicked a field goal longer than 40 yards. But they also have only lost one fumble on the season, have not missed any of their field goals and average 42.5 yards per punt, including one that went 72 yards.
Navy only averages 19.1 yards per kickoff return, but Notre Dame’s coverage team ranks 58th in the country. The situation is the same on punt returns: Navy averages eight yards per return, while Notre Dame allows eight yards on defense. On kickoffs, senior Austin Grebe gets touchbacks on more than a third of his kicks.