by John Vannie
Notre Dame returns to action after a long-overdue bye week to take on the Midshipmen of Navy at the Stadium on Saturday. Evan Sharpley is the probable starter at quarterback for the Irish, as Jimmy Clausen continues to recover from various injuries. The 4-4 Middies are quite capable of finding the end zone with their well-oiled option attack, but their defense has surrendered 50 points per game during October and is gasping for air.
The Irish are depleted at running back, where James Aldridge is still nursing a high ankle sprain and Robert Hughes is on personal leave due to a death in the family. Armando Allen should get plenty of work while Junior Jabbie and Travis Thomas will see action. Defensively, Notre Dame is at full strength as previously injured starters Maurice Crum and David Bruton are ready to play.
The Midshipmen are led by quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who may not be at 100% after getting knocked out of the Wake Forest game two weeks ago and failing to finish last week’s loss to Delaware. Injuries have really taken a toll on the Navy defense, and this fact was highlighted by Coach Paul Johnson during his remarks earlier this week.
“I am surprised we haven’t played better on defense, but part of it has been injuries and part of it is the confidence factor hasn’t been there”, he said. “We have had way too many guys play. You aren’t going to get better if you keep rotating all the time, but that’s been hard to do because of injuries.”
Most fans know that Navy has not beaten Notre Dame since 1963, but the 1-7 Irish are only very slight favorites to extend their long winning streak. Coach Charlie Weis may be playing for next year in theory, but he realizes that this game is as much a must-win situation as he has faced in his three year tenure. It is vital that his young team gains confidence and creates momentum for 2008 by performing well in its final four games this season.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Navy’s Defense
This should finally be the week that Notre Dame establishes the run and sticks with it. The much maligned Irish offensive line has no excuses against Navy’s relatively small and depleted 3-4 defensive alignment. Allen should get more room to run than he has seen to date, and play-action fakes by Sharpley will actually be taken seriously. Since Navy’s offense is capable of long scoring drives and ball possession, it is incumbent on the Irish to demonstrate a little ball control of their own.
Seven of eight opponents have gained over 400 yards against Navy this season, including 581 by Delaware last week. Senior linebackers Irv Spencer and Matt Wimsatt are the leading tacklers, and defensive end Michael Walsh has a knack for disrupting plays in the backfield. Nate Frazier, a 285-pound nose guard, is by far the biggest Navy defender and can hold his own in the middle.
Two key performers in the secondary are not going to play this weekend. Rover Ketris Buffin, who leads the team with four interceptions, is injured. Freshman free safety Wyatt Middleton has 50 tackles to his credit, but the Middies miss the leadership of Jeff Deliz, who is also out.
Navy’s defense has not been very effective since it lost veteran linebacker Clint Sovie and Deliz in September. Depth is a serious problem and there are few seniors who play extensively other than Spenser and Wimsatt. After playing against some of the nation’s best defenses, Notre Dame should find itself in a different world this week.
Despite the offensive ineptitude demonstrated by the Irish in their first eight games, Johnson does not expect them to play poorly against his team. “They have really good players now and they are getting better and better”, he said. “The time to play Notre Dame was early on in the season. Physically it’s going to be a challenge for us. We haven’t made them punt in two years. I’m sure they can’t wait to play us.”
Navy’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The Midshipmen offense is a much more experienced unit than the defense, as evidenced by four senior starters on the line and a mix of seven seniors and four juniors overall. Kaheaku-Enhada leads a ground game that has earned 5.5 yards per carry on the way to a 343 yard per game average. Navy uses the fullback extensively, and the workload is shared by Eric Kettani and Adam Ballard. This pair represents the second and third leading rushers on the team after Kaheaku-Enhada.
Reggie Campbell and Zerbin Singleton are diminutive but dangerous slot men. Each is used as a pitch man in the option, on reverses and on wheel routes in the passing game. Wide receiver O.J. Washington is another speedster well under six feet, but his 27 yards per catch commands the attention of opposing defenses.
Notre Dame must emphasize discipline and sure tackling in order to win. This could be problematic with freshman outside linebackers more suited to defending the pass and cornerbacks who are not very physical. Johnson also has a talent for knowing when to call for a trick play or deep pass in order to keep a defense off balance. The Irish will have to rotate a number of players through the lineup to adequately defend the option, and they may be particularly susceptible to these surprises.
The best way to stop Navy is to put them in long third down situations. Notre Dame may not be able to do this consistently at the outset, but they must assert some measure of control if not dominance before halftime.
The punt has become a lost art in Navy’s games this season. The Middies have punted only nine times in eight games, while opponents have needed to punt only twice per contest. Geoff Price has been a busy man for Notre Dame this season, but he will likely get more rest this week.
Navy employs two place kickers, Joey Bullen and Matt Harmon, on a nearly equal basis. They have combined for 13 of 20 field goals and have suffered three blocks. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has struggled in the field goal department of late with bad misses against Boston College and USC. Bullen and Harmon have faced clutch situations this season with mixed results, while the Irish kickers have not been put to the test.
The Irish return teams continue to disappoint, but there is hope for improvement after an extra week of practice. Campbell handles both kickoff and punt returns for Navy and has managed to break off a few long runs.
The Middies do not force many turnovers and won’t stop Notre Dame if the Irish execute well and avoid self destructive mistakes. Unfortunately, a single missed block has derailed a number of promising plays throughout this season, while too many others have failed due to penalties, inaccurate throws or poor routes by receivers.
It is vital that Notre Dame gets off to a good start on offense. Running the ball against a smaller opponent is a good way to overcome any sluggishness after the bye week and control the flow. Since the defense may be on its heels early in the game, the Irish must be productive with the ball from the outset.
Fans will be able to tell early in the contest whether Weis has focused on the run or the pass during the extended practice time. It will be interesting to see if he can resist the temptation to call an inordinate number of pass plays against the suspect Navy secondary. Sharpley and his receivers have not demonstrated the proficiency needed to sustain an effective passing game regardless of the opponent. A pass-oriented approach will not be a winning formula on Saturday no matter how vulnerable the Middie defense appears on paper or on film.
As for Navy, Coach Paul Johnson will continue to run his option offense and hope to minimize errors. His goal will be to build an early lead while the Irish defense shakes off the cobwebs and adjusts
to the deception and precision of the option game. The Midshipmen will win if they can force Notre Dame to abandon the run and play from behind. Conversely, the Irish could win going away if they lead or are tied at halftime.
A review of the key questions that will determine the winner:
Which team will force the other to pass more than is desirable?
How long will it take the Irish defense to adjust to (and slow down) the option attack?
Will Allen finally be able to display the game-breaking ability Irish fans expect?
Will Navy fool the Notre Dame secondary with well-conceived play action passes?
Which team will be most successful on first down?
How well can Notre Dame’s cornerbacks tackle in the open field?
Can Navy avoid costly turnovers?
This game should be one in which the outcome is in doubt until the final play. It matches strength against strength with the Navy offense facing Notre Dame’s defense, and weakness against weakness as the faceless Irish offense encounters the soft Midshipmen defense. Both teams will score points, but Notre Dame will need to be much more consistent to keep pace with the Middies despite its physical advantage and the extra week of preparation.
Both teams want to win this game for different reasons, but the Irish will be hard-pressed to match Navy’s intensity for sixty minutes. Although they should be able to wear down the Midshipmen, it will be a more difficult task if poor tackling and a rash of incomplete passes leads to a large first half deficit. Barring significant improvement during the bye week, the Irish will fall short in their comeback attempt.
Navy 38 Notre Dame 31