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Keys to the game: Navy

| Friday, August 25, 2023

Marcus Freeman leads the Notre Dame out on the field at the Fiesta Bowl.Allison Thornton | The Observer
Marcus Freeman leads the Irish out onto the field before their 37-35 loss to Oklahoma St. in the Fiesta Bowl on January 1, 2022.

This Saturday, Notre Dame will open the 2023 college football season with an international clash against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. The contest is set to be a notable one for many reasons. It’s Sam Hartman’s first game in Blue and Gold. A continuation of one of Notre Dame football’s most time-honored traditions. 

It’s also a game rich with narratives, and one Marcus Freeman will need a win in to start his second campaign off on the right foot. Here are the four most important factors for the Irish as they look to extend their winning streak against the Midshipmen.

1. Be ready for the triple option

I mean, duh. This is a “keys to the Navy game” article. If you were expecting anything not triple option-related to be the lede, I’m not sure what to tell you.

The Navy offense should have some new wrinkles to make things interesting in 2023. It’s a new regime in Annapolis, and new head coach Brian Newberry hired former Kennesaw State offensive coordinator Grant Chestnut to lead his inaugural offense. Chestnut comes from Paul Johnson’s triple option coaching tree, so the core elements of Navy’s scheme won’t change. However, some fresh ideas (and the fact that Navy will likely be splitting snaps between two quarterbacks) should make this an intriguing contest for Notre Dame’s defense to prepare for.

Preparation should be an advantage for the Irish defense, though. Playing Navy during week zero means that Notre Dame has had all offseason to get ready for the Midshipmen’s unique attack. That extended preparation time is a far cry from what they had in advance of last year’s Navy game, which the Irish entered in the wake of a physical — if thrilling — win over Clemson. The last time Notre Dame began the season with Navy? A 50-10 rout to open the 2012 campaign.

2. Control the tempo

Marcus Freeman stressed efficiency in his pregame press conference, which is no surprise given the nature of 2022’s Navy contest. Last year’s trip to Annapolis was a tale of two halves for the Irish. Notre Dame went into halftime up 35-13. They then ceded 19 unanswered points in the second half to turn a blowout into a three-point victory.

The difference between the first and second halves? Among other elements, how well the Irish controlled the ball on offense. Notre Dame had six drives in each half. In the first, three of those drives eclipsed four minutes of game clock. In the second, just one drive reached even the three-minute mark. 

It’s no secret that the triple option grinds down defenses. The Irish have a deep stable of defensive line options and an experienced linebacker core. But they’ll need time to rest between possessions for optimal performance on that side of the ball. It will be up to Notre Dame’s offense to provide them that rest.

3. Find the right balance on offense

The Irish offense travels to Dublin with some interesting questions for new coordinator Gerad Parker to answer. Notre Dame’s deepest offensive unit will likely be running back, but Navy’s defense has often thrived against the run under Newberry, who was previously the Midshipmen’s defensive coordinator. The Irish would love to open up the game through their new star under center, Sam Hartman, but he’s yet to have established any in-game experience with his largely untested receiving core. For all of Hartman’s accolades, some growing pains are all but guaranteed.

Of course, a winning effort against Navy likely wouldn’t require exemplary performances from both Notre Dame’s ground and air games. Last year’s second half is plenty indication of that. But if Parker is able to figure out how to best balance Hartman’s prowess at stretching the field and a running back room capable of grinding teams down, it would provide a roadmap to a near-certain victory.

4. Mitigate the weather

At the time of this writing, Saturday’s forecast in Dublin calls for rain throughout the day. Showers in the morning, and a steady, if light, drizzle in the afternoon. Notre Dame has had some mixed run-ins with adverse conditions in recent memory. Last year’s pounding of Boston College in the driving snow was iconic. 2016’s “hurricane” game against North Carolina State was … less so. 

A little rain shouldn’t have the effect on the Irish that it did on that fateful afternoon in Raleigh. But it could very well force Notre Dame into a gritty ground-and-pound effort against an opponent more than willing to engage in such a battle. Inclement conditions, should they come, will mean any and all Hartman downfield strikes could be paramount to setting the tone early. Freeman and Parker would much rather flex their deep running back room — a “five-headed monster,” in the words of running backs coach Deland McCullough — from a position of strength early on.

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About J.J. Post

J.J. Post is a senior in Fisher Hall. Hailing from Mountainside, New Jersey, he's currently working his way towards being the nation's foremost expert on college soccer. Whether via the button below or his overly active Twitter (@JayJayPost), feel free to reach out and talk about Notre Dame soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, baseball or softball. Or any other Notre Dame sport you can think of. Odds are he watches it as well.

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