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Head to head: Navy

| Friday, November 17, 2017

Elizabeth Greason | The Observer


Navy is not a team known for passing the football. The Midshipmen may occasionally catch opponents off guard with a big passing play — as evidenced by the team’s 25 yards per completion — but, as always, Navy is built on the option run.

This week, the Midshipmen passing game faces further questions, as it is still unclear who will start at quarterback for the team. Zach Abey began the season and is the team’s strongest passing option with over 700 passing yards and a rating of 155.0, but sat last week with a shoulder injury as Malcolm Perry took over. Perry, who played running back before last week, is a run-first quarterback even by Navy standards and ran for 282 yards against SMU, but he is also facing an ankle injury this week.

The Irish pass defense was a relative highlight against Miami, giving up only 5.7 yards per attempt and one touchdown, though the Hurricanes had little need to pass the ball with a commanding lead.



As a triple-option team, the Midshipmen make no secret about their dependence on the run. Navy is one of the few teams to have outrushed the Irish this season, with over 369 yards per game to lead the nation in rushing offense. Abey has shown great success when keeping the ball himself, rushing for over 1,200 yards and 13 scores, while Perry’s dominant game against SMU and 9.6 yards per carry for the season make him a player the Irish will have to worry about, regardless of which position he plays.

Two weeks ago, the Irish run defense looked like one of the best in the nation, but after back-to-back weeks of giving up over 230 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish have slipped to 39th in the nation in rushing defense, and now they face the option attack.



It takes discipline to run the option, and Navy has discipline in spades.

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has consistently led his team to one of the best rushing offenses in the nation while maintaining enough of a passing element to take advantage of teams that sell out against the run during his time in charge, achieving this by making sure his less-talented recruits can execute the Navy offense to perfection.

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko looked like one of the best coordinators in the nation before the Irish faced Wake Forest, but his defense has now struggled in consecutive weeks. However, strong field position from turnovers certainly helped the Hurricanes, while familiarity with Elko helped Wake Forest the week before. Elko should still be trusted to bring the Irish defense back to an elite standard.



Navy’s option offense makes the team perfectly suited to converting fourth-and-short plays, meaning Niumatalolo is less likely to turn to his special teams unit if there’s an opportunity to keep his offense on the field instead. The team has gone for it on fourth down 21 times this year, tied for 15th in the nation.

When the Midshipmen have elected to kick field goals, they have not had great success. Junior kicker Bennett Moehring has converted only 6-of-10 kicks this year, after making 8-of-10 last year. Sophomore punter Owen White has only punted 29 times, averaging 39.2 yards per punt, while also attempting five extra points and making four.



Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush appeared to have taken huge strides since the beginning of the season going into the Miami game, but came crashing back down to earth with three turnovers and only 119 passing yards, bringing his passer rating for the season back below 120.

A home game against the less talented, and perhaps more importantly, less ball-hungry Midshipmen might be just what Wimbush needs. The Midshipmen have given up almost 250 passing yards per game and four passing touchdowns in each of their last two outings, to the passing attacks of Temple and SMU. The Midshipmen have accrued a total of six interceptions this season, a welcome change from Miami last week for Notre Dame.

Yet, Wimbush’s struggles against Miami are still a concern, and the Irish will likely do their best to avoid putting the junior in a position where he needs to make many throws.     



The Irish run game, dominant in eight of the first nine weeks of the season, struggled to get going against Miami, as the Hurricanes chased down Irish plays from the backside and held the team to only 109 yards on 36 attempts.

But considering the way the Irish ran the ball after struggling against Georgia, bouncing back should not be an issue, and it appears that it takes a rare combination of talent and experience on the front seven, where Navy certainly don’t match up to Georgia and Miami, to stop the Irish on the ground.

The Navy run defense ranks 64th in the nation, although that is boosted by strong performances in the opening three weeks of the season, where the Midshipmen gave up an average of less than 100 yards per game. Since then, Navy’s opponents have averaged more than five yards per rushing attempt, and against the strong Irish ground game, that could continue.



After Notre Dame’s blowout to defeat to Miami, Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt said his defense was aware of which plays the Irish offense was running, while Notre Dame seemed to struggle to adapt when the Hurricanes stopped them early on.

However, before that, Chip Long’s offense had looked like one of the best in the country, putting up impressive numbers even when stars like junior running back Josh Adams were out.

Navy’s defense has not been formidable under defensive coordinator Dave Pehrson, giving up over 30 points per game both this year and last, despite the team’s offense giving opponents few possessions per game.



Junior kicker Justin Yoon remains relatively untested this season, not being called on at all last week and having only attempted 13 kicks this season, leaving it still up for debate if his career-low field goal percentage of 69.2 percent is a fluke or a cause for concern.

In the punt game, the Irish have had more success, with senior punter Tyler Newsome averaging an impressive 43.7 yards per punt this year.

Perry was Navy’s leading returner this season, but likely won’t be used if he’s starting at quarterback. Seven other Navy players have returned a kickoff, but none have gained much ground, as Perry accounted for 13 of Navy’s 28 kick returns.


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