Categories
Sports

Observer on the Ground: Naval Academy traditions arrive in sunny Baltimore 

By Liam Coolican and Maddie Ladd

As the weather in South Bend turned frigid over the weekend, we were rewarded with a trip to sunny Baltimore. Believe it or not, the weather at kickoff Saturday afternoon was 70 degrees with bright sunshine. We departed South Bend in the early afternoon on Friday and quickly became well-acquainted with the Charlotte airport as we waited out our four-hour layover. Two flight delays and a plate of nachos later, we arrived in Baltimore late Friday night and immediately settled down in our hotel overlooking the waterfront.

We took advantage of the lovely Saturday morning by waking up early (for college students, that is!) and taking a leisurely stroll along the beautiful Inner Harbor and into Federal Hill. Irish fans abounded throughout the city. Although plenty of Navy fans had made the short trip from Annapolis as well.

We stumbled upon Sam’s Bagels, a quintessential East Coast bagel shop, packed with locals and football fans alike. It more than lived up to its reputation. For the curious: yes, they had Old Bay-flavored bagels. No, we were not quite crazy enough to order one. We ate our bagels outside before taking the short walk to the stadium. 

Once we arrived at M&T Bank Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Ravens, we checked out the tailgating scene before heading up to the press box. It was definitely more akin to a professional football tailgating environment, as no tents were allowed. And given the fact that the stadium is right downtown, the lots were much smaller. 

That didn’t prevent Irish and Midshipmen fans alike from enjoying the unseasonably warm November afternoon. The two groups of fans mingled among each other, showing once again why Notre Dame and Navy have one of the friendliest rivalries in college football. 

Once we settled into the pressbox, we took the elevator down to the field to watch warmups. As the teams left the field, the 4,000-plus Midshipmen, composed of 30 companies, marched onto the field in perfect formation.

The student experience at the Naval Academy is so different from that of our own, especially on a game day. Experiencing it firsthand gave us an even greater respect for their service to our country. 

Once each company was in position, the band began to play the The Star-Spangled Banner. Standing on the same field as the Midshipmen as the colors were presented and two fighter jets roared overhead at the conclusion of the national anthem is not an experience we’ll easily forget.

Just before kickoff, three parachutists descended on to the field with perfect landings. And at halftime, we were able to take in the impressive Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon. All in all, it was certainly not a typical college gameday experience. But the Naval Academy’s unique traditions make it an incredibly special place.

After the game, as is tradition, the two teams joined together in front of the USNA band for the playing of Notre Dame, Our Mother, and Navy Blue and Gold, Navy’s alma mater. It is clear these two programs have an immense amount of respect for each other.

Upon arrival at the Baltimore airport Sunday morning, we decided to stop by Miss Shirley’s, a Maryland classic. After seeing that the Food Network said Miss Shirley’s has “the best pancakes in Maryland,” we knew we had to try them out for ourselves. We can both confidently say that the title lived up to the test.

After connecting in Charlotte once again, although thankfully with a much shorter layover this time, the plane descended through the permacloud which had invaded South Bend in our short absence. We let out a collective groan as we saw the snow-covered ground. But we were grateful for our short foray into Baltimore.

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu.

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.

Categories
Sports

Coolican: Notre Dame’s performance vs. Navy exemplifies uneven year

For those wondering how Notre Dame can dominate top-15 opponents Clemson and North Carolina, yet lose against Marshall and Stanford at home in the same season, look no further than Saturday afternoon’s game against Navy. 

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne looked like a Heisman contender in the first half on Saturday. He methodically picked apart the Midshipmen defense, completing 14 of 16 passes for 234 yards and five total touchdowns.

It was a performance that took everyone, the Navy defense included, by complete surprise. A week earlier in Notre Dame’s upset win over Clemson, Pyne completed just nine passes for 85 yards.

But as quickly as his brilliance arrived, it disappeared even faster. If someone had listened to Pyne and head coach Marcus Freeman’s post-game press conference without knowing the result, they’d be forgiven for thinking the Irish had lost.

“We’re going to be better because of it, somehow, someway,” Freeman said after the 35-32 win. “We have to be better because of what happened in the second half.”

“I’m just going to learn from it and keep getting better,” Pyne said. “That’s all I do and that’s all I’ll ever do.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like the coach of a top-20 team that just won their fourth straight contest. Nor like a quarterback who accounted for five touchdowns and nearly 300 yards. 

Credit Navy for an impressive series of halftime adjustments that managed to hold the Irish scoreless in the second half. But something has to go seriously wrong for an offense to go from accumulating 333 yards in one half to just two in the next.

Fans will point fingers at the coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, as they have all season. Pyne deserves some criticism after completing just three passes for 35 yards and being sacked five times in the second half. The run game and the offensive line did next to nothing in the final two quarters. They all deserve some of the blame for a half that saw Notre Dame nearly surrender a seemingly insurmountable 35-13 halftime lead. But the real problem, as Freeman noted post-game, was a complete lack of urgency.

“We had to match their urgency throughout the entirety of the game,” Freeman said. “We did the first half, we did not have the urgency, the execution, that we needed to finish the game the way we wanted to.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon for Notre Dame. After spending most of fall camp preparing for the highly-anticipated season-opening matchup in Columbus, they fell flat the next week against Marshall. Following back-to-back impressive wins North Carolina and BYU, they turned in an abysmal performance against Stanford.

The Irish have consistently followed up outstanding performances by looking completely hapless against inferior opposition. It clearly isn’t a talent problem. Notre Dame’s drubbing against Clemson and the first half against Navy, among other performances, have shown the Irish are undoubtedly among the most complete teams in the country.

Until now, I’ve resisted the urge to suggest that Notre Dame has been overlooking certain opponents. It is hard to imagine that some of the best athletes and coaches in the country would ever come into a game with anything less than everything they have.

But it’s difficult to find another explanation for what happened Saturday — and throughout this season. In the first half, 333 yards. Two in the second. I repeat this stat because it is almost unbelievable. The Irish thought they had the game in hand. And Navy almost made them pay for their complacency.

For example, Navy quarterback Xavier Arline went down with an injury, and backup Maasai Maynor entered the game, the Irish were completely unprepared for his throwing ability. Yes, it is true that Navy hardly ever throws the football. But when a team is down by three scores in the fourth quarter, it is safe to assume that they’ll be passing. Maynor, who until two weeks ago was Navy’s third-string signal caller, gashed the Irish defense for multiple big plays in just a quarter of action.

I’m not sure whether to blame the coaching staff or the players for this lack of urgency and preparedness. On one hand, it is the coach’s job to inspire his players and prepare them each week. Yet it is the players who are the ones who take the field each day.

It is a bizarre phenomenon. There’s no other way to describe what has happened with Notre Dame football this year. Under Brian Kelly, the criticism was always that his teams couldn’t compete on the biggest stage. While it is still early, the so-called Freeman Era seems to be trending in exactly the opposite direction. The Irish play their best football in the biggest games, yet struggle to put away twenty-point underdogs. 

It is at times frustrating to watch Notre Dame turn in these types of performances against teams like Navy. However, given where Notre Dame was a month ago after they fell to Stanford, most Irish fans would be thrilled to be in the position they are in now. 

I’m sure Freeman, his staff and the players are working tirelessly to correct this problem. I don’t have a solution to offer. But the team had better find one sooner rather than later. If this trend continues into next year, when the Irish should be CFP contenders once again, they’ll be in trouble. A half like the second one against Navy can cost a team big time. It didn’t Saturday. But it has in the past. And it will again in the future.

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Categories
Sports

Observer staff predicts Notre Dame vs. Navy

After Notre Dame garnered their biggest win in recent memory — a 35-14 drubbing over previously unbeaten Clemson — The Observer staff give their picks for the Irish’s battle with Navy.

Aidan Thomas – Sports Editor

My heart rate hasn’t settled down from what was the most electric Notre Dame Stadium environment I’ve personally experienced in my four years. And now, it’s time for the Irish to do something else they haven’t done: perform well after a big game. So far, the Marshall and Stanford atrocities have followed up a tight loss to Ohio State and then a big win over BYU.

Notre Dame is going to be prepared for the triple option. I don’t anticipate Navy doing much offensively, especially with their starting quarterback out. I would anticipate more of the same for the Irish on offense. There’ll be some great moments and great drives, coupled with some frustrating missed opportunities. The key is getting locked in for a noon game coming off a pair of ranked wins against a 3-6 Navy team. This game might be a little closer than desired early. But ultimately, Notre Dame should handle the Midshipmen.

Notre Dame 34, Navy 10

Nate Moller – Senior Sports Writer

For the first time this season, the performance by the Irish last weekend was stunning in a good way. I truly did not anticipate the Irish being able to run the ball effectively against a seemingly elite Clemson run defense. But I was very wrong in that respect, as sophomore running backs Logan Diggs and Audric Estime were able to both rush for over 100 yards. The Irish will now face a 3-6 Navy team as heavy favorites. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they haven’t played well as heavy favorites this year, as their losses against Marshall and Stanford seemingly came out of nowhere.

To make matters worse for the Irish, the Midshipmen are starting to play better football. They kept the score close against a solid Cincinnati team last week. The Irish will need to take advantage of every offensive possession they have on Saturday. And I don’t think the Irish offense is efficient enough to do that. I expect Navy to eat away at the clock with their triple-option attack and find a way to hang in the game long enough to stun the Irish with a late touchdown drive. In classic Notre Dame fashion, the Irish will follow up one of their best performances in recent memory with a disappointing letdown at the hands of the Midshipmen.

Notre Dame 20, Navy 21

Mannion McGinley – Assistant Managing Editor

The Irish have fallen twice after better-than-expected performances against top teams. Both the Marshall and Stanford losses seemed completely out of character in light of the weeks before them. That being said, the Irish had yet to look like they did last weekend. Freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison had the game of his life, and the Irish defense shut down two quarterbacks and star running back Will Shipley. For the third time this season, the Irish seemed to be living outside their pay grade. But for the first time, they looked comfortable doing it.

So, are positive and negative performances infinitely linked? Do the Irish have to succumb to an insane loss after a massive win? No. This is the weekend to break that streak. But regardless of Navy’s record, it won’t be a cakewalk. The same defense that shut down the Clemson offense will have to shut down the triple option. And time will fly in this game as both run-oriented offenses attempt to stomp downfield. The Irish will have to come out of the gate ready to go, since they’ll get no extra time from the Midshipmen. After a slight first-quarter lull from the offense, a once again stellar defense will propel this victory.

Notre Dame 24, Navy 17

Liam Coolican – Associate Sports Editor

What was most impressive in Notre Dame’s victory over Clemson was that the Irish were dominant in the trenches. Not only did they shred Clemson’s star-studded defensive line, but they also held the Tigers to 90 yards on the ground, their lowest output of the season. The Irish will need more of the same against Navy this weekend. Navy is having a down year, but the triple option is always difficult to defend. Coming directly after the biggest game of the season, my concern is the Irish may not have had enough time to devote to this unique style of play.

On the other side of the ball, Navy’s run defense is stout, allowing opponents just 88 yards on the ground per contest. But as Marcus Freeman said after the Clemson victory, the Irish can’t shy away from their strength. It clearly worked last week. And after a season of searching, I believe Notre Dame has finally found their offensive identity. In this strength versus strength matchup, I’ll take the Irish. 

Notre Dame 27, Navy 13

Emily DeFazio – Associate Sports Editor

If I thought the 2020 Clemson game was electric, I didn’t know what electric meant. That was defined Saturday night against the Tigers. I think I’ve been feeling the after effects of the adrenaline rush this entire week. I doubt it’ll go away if the Irish keep playing the way they did Saturday.

While Navy is a respectful rival of Notre Dame, I don’t feel too nervous heading into Saturday’s matchup. The Irish should walk in confident knowing that they have what it takes to notch a definitive win. The only caveat is that, in this inexplicable season, the games with less pressure are the games they have fallen short in. If they can keep the momentum going, maybe even going so far as to experiment a little on offense against a milder opponent, the Irish should have this one.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14

Madeline Ladd – Associate Sports Editor

Last weekend was spectacular, but this is an entirely new week with an entirely new opponent. Notre Dame must avoid the hangover from the big upset over Clemson. I said after the monumental BYU, and I will say it again — now is not the time to rest. Navy’s talent isn’t great, especially since Navy QB Xavier Arline only threw the ball six times in two games combined as the starter. However, Navy has choices. They utilize QB Maasai Maynobu as a passing option and have demonstrated the ability to control the clock. Stopping their offense will require the Notre Dame defense to be especially disciplined.

The Navy defense is nothing to shrug over, and they have the ability to stop Notre Dame if they play down to their opponent, as shown previously with Marshall and Stanford. Freeman’s team has turned the corner and finally figured out their identity as a team. I predict a big game from junior quarterback Drew Pyne with 300 yards passing, with Estime, Diggs and junior running back Chris Tyree going all out on the Midshipmen. Notre Dame has this win — at least, they should.

Notre Dame: 42, Navy 10 

Categories
Sports

Zwiller: ZeLO’s CFP Rankings and Week 11 Picks

After a weekend of significant upsets (yes, I am counting No. 3 Georgia defeating No. 1 Tennessee as an “upset,” even though Georgia was a 10-point favorite), the playoff picture got much clearer.

Alabama, it would seem, is officially out of the playoff race as they no longer control the SEC West and are a two-loss team.

Clemson and Tennessee are now one-loss teams who do not control their destiny. Clemson needs to win out and clinch their conference to have a shot. Even then, they would likely still need help.

Tennessee is in a much more enviable position. While they are not likely to be conference champs, they should finish as a one-loss team whose only loss is to the No. 1 SEC Champions.

Meanwhile, TCU and Oregon now seemingly do control their destiny. By putting TCU fourth, the committee has said that as long as TCU emerges as an undefeated conference champ (not at all a tall task), they will make the playoff.

And though Oregon is a one-loss team, their loss comes against Georgia at the beginning of the season. Should they win the PAC-12 title, there is no reason the No. 6 Ducks should not leapfrog Tennessee.

So, this week, I want to pick games that should impact the following weekend’s CFP rankings.

But first, ZeLO and FPI went 39-21 (.650) last weekend. Because it was a somewhat crazy week, the much more conservative ZeLO won the Brier Point tiebreaker (316.24-313.09), so, very little difference between the two models.

Now, onto the picks!

No. 25 Washington @ No. 6 Oregon

By putting Oregon in 6th behind the one-loss Volunteers, the Committee has shown they value Tennessee’s loss to Georgia much more than Oregon’s one loss. However, by putting Oregon at No. 6, I think the committee suggests that a one-loss Pac-12 Oregon squad could and should make the CFP.

Oregon has a 60.8% chance of winning this week, so the team should continue its CFP run. I could see the Huskies offense giving the Ducks some fits, so this will be a good game.

No. 4 TCU @ No. 18 Texas

This is arguably the most challenging game remaining for TCU in a schedule that is already challenging. ZeLO currently ranks TCU’s remaining strength of schedule seventh. Texas, Baylor, and Iowa State are all legitimate threats to TCU’s CFP ambitions.

Though Texas is a seven-point favorite, ZeLO currently gives TCU a 63.1% chance of beating the Longhorns.

While I do think that TCU can win the Big 12, I do think this may be where their unbeaten streak ends. Texas at home is a tough challenge (ask the Tide). TCU’s habit of needing to comeback may catch up with them.

No. 22 UCF @ No. 17 Tulane

This might be the most crucial game I will talk about this week. Why?

UCF and Tulane are the strongest AAC teams and the likeliest to win their conference. Tulane is currently undefeated in conference play, while UCF is just a one-loss team.

If UCF wins, they should make their conference championship (the AAC takes the two highest teams for its championship game) as they boast a win over 7-2 Cincinnati. Tulane would then play what amounts to an elimination game against Cincinnati in their season finale.

If Tulane wins, they become a lock to make their conference championship, even if they lose to Cincinnati. Both scenarios are equally likely, with ZeLO giving the Green Wave just a 52.7% chance to win.

No. 9 Alabama @ No. 11 Ole Miss

In contrast to UCF and Tulane, this might be the least important game of the week. That feels weird to say. But in all likelihood, the two-loss Tide have already been eliminated from the CFP.

Ole Miss might have a chance to win the SEC West (and the glorious prize of being dismantled by Georgia on national television for 60 minutes). But it is a longshot, as LSU has a head-to-head advantage over the Rebels. Alabama should win this game, with ZeLO giving the Tide a 55% chance of victory. But Ole Miss could make this interesting, utilizing a high-powered offense and a home-field advantage to give Alabama trouble. Alabama is tied for most penalties per game in the country. Last week, Death Valley helped contribute to that stat, as the Tide took nine penalties for 92 yards.

Louisville @ No. 10 Clemson

Thanks in large part to Notre Dame, ZeLO majorly downgraded the Tigers. Though ZeLO still has Clemson as its favorite to win the Atlantic and the ACC, Clemson took a significant step back in ZeLO’s CFP rankings, falling to 14th.

As a result, Clemson has just a 51.7% chance to beat Louisville and keep its playoff hopes alive. A two-loss team has never made the CFP. And the Committee is not going to start with this iteration of Clemson.

Even if Clemson does defeat against Louisville, they feel like a stretch to make it to the CFP. But a solid bounce-back showing could be just what the Tigers need.

No. 15 North Carolina @ Wake Forest

At the start of the season, I wrote that I was skeptical of ZeLO0s faith in UNC. ZeLO has UNC as a divisional dark horse behind both Pitt and Miami. Pitt took a step back this season, and the entire college football world discovered that the U is not back.

So, UNC is looking to win ten games, the division, and maybe even the conference. Right now, the Tar Heels have an excellent chance to win 10 games and reach the conference championship against a weaker-than-normal Clemson.

However, ZeLO thinks Wake will dash Carolina’s hopes of making the CFP. These two teams are dead even on a neutral site, so the Wake home-field advantage is the difference maker here. It is slight, but Wake’s 55% chance to win might end Carolina’s CFP ambitions before Clemson does.

Look for Wake to take advantage of a porous Carolina defense that would struggle to stop a middle school flag football squad.

No. 20 Notre Dame @ Navy

By dominating Clemson in all three facets of their matchup, Notre Dame has launched itself back into the top 25 rankings. In all honesty, if ND wins and winds up 9-3, you can argue that the season was incredibly successful, despite the bumpy start.

ZeLO has the Irish going 2-1 down the stretch, and this game against Navy is a winnable one for Notre Dame (62.9%). Though it would not shock me if Notre Dame went 2-2 in its last four, losing to Navy and BC but beating Clemson and USC. Because why not?

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@nd-hcc.edu.