by John Vannie
Notre Dame will try to get back on a winning track by hosting the Naval Academy on Saturday in an afternoon contest. The Midshipmen have been victorious in their last two visits to South Bend but have struggled this season with five consecutive losses coming into this contest. Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s rushing attack ranks third in the country, however the Navy defense has sprung massive leaks. The 4-3 Irish must overcome injuries along the defensive line and any bruises to their collective pride after being manhandled by USC last week.
The Midshipmen have injuries of their own to address. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor dislocated his left (throwing) elbow last week against East Carolina and his status for the game is very questionable. Sophomore Trey Miller came on to display his passing ability and nearly overcame a ten point deficit late in that game. He threw touchdown passes of 59 and 37 yards, and engineered a last minute march that ended with a narrowly missed 42-yard field goal as time expired in a 38-35 loss.
Despite its 2-5 record, this 2011 Navy team is still a threat against Notre Dame. The Midshipmen have suffered only one blowout loss, while the other four defeats were by a combined eight points. Other than the quarterback situation, the starting lineup on offense has been intact all season and will attack the Irish with typical precision and relentless effort. On the defensive side, several opening day starters have been replaced due to injury or performance reasons, and the group has surrendered an average of 36 points per game during the current losing streak.
Tommy Rees should be ready to start at quarterback for Notre Dame, although fans should expect a large dose of Andrew Hendrix in light of his success against a similar Air Force defense. The Irish need to resurrect their running game, as Cierre Wood took up residence in Coach Brian Kelly’s doghouse following the USC game and Jonas Gray’s likeness appeared on milk cartons all over the Midwest this week despite his 25-yard touchdown run.
The Irish defensive line will carry on without end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Senior Ethan Johnson will try to play with a gimpy ankle, but that may be a difficult task against the low-blocking Middies. Freshman Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will have to prove their mettle against Navy’s unconventional veer option. Kelly will also have to bring Chase Hounshell, Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke into the rotation to keep the troops fresh.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NAVY’S DEFENSE
The Midshipmen are ranked 95th in overall defense this season and are particularly weak against the run. Nose tackle Jared Marks and end Jabaree Tuani are full-sized linemen, but the remaining members of Navy’s 3-4-4 alignment are shy of 225 pounds. In short, the Irish should be able to rush for 200 yards without breaking a sweat. Gray in particular could have a career best game, and the running ability of Hendrix cannot be overlooked.
Rees and Hendrix should also be able to throw the ball at will. Only one member of the Midshipmen back seven, rover Kwesi Mitchell, was in the starting lineup for the defense that shut down Notre Dame last season. Floyd and Tyler Eifert will pose mismatches for Navy’s small outside linebackers and secondary, and any attempt by the visitors to close off one area of attack will leave them vulnerable in another.
The Midshipmen are likely to blitz in passing situations, both from the outside linebacker position and from any of their cornerbacks or safeties. Tuani leads the team in sacks with five, while Mitchell and cornerback David Sperry each have three. The Irish have protected the quarterback quite well all season, and Navy should not be able to bring much pressure barring any blown assignments.
Notre Dame may not hit the 59 point mark as it did against Air Force, but Rees and his mates should surpass the 40 point mark if they can protect the ball.
NAVY’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Proctor was the team’s leading rusher and it remains to be seen whether Miller can provide a true running threat in the triple option. Fullback Alexander Teich, who has tormented the Irish during the previous two games between these teams, has performed well in his senior season. Notre Dame had some difficulty defending the outside pitch man against Air Force, and Navy has two speedsters in Gee Gee Green and John Howell to take advantage. Both are about the same size as USC’s Curtis McNeal, and we remember how that worked out.
With Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson on the sideline, the young Irish defense will have to be very disciplined to contain Teich inside. The play of the linebackers has been somewhat poor of late, and even Manti Te’o has been caught out of position on numerous occasions. In other words, Notre Dame could be doing a lot of chasing on Saturday. Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco could not generate effective adjustments in last year’s debacle, and the adequacy of this year’s game plan will be heavily scrutinized.
The passing threat posed by Miller may make his team harder to defend unless they fall behind and lose the element of surprise. Receivers Brandon Turner and Matt Aiken can shake loose for long plays, while Green is a dangerous player anywhere he lines up. Irish fans will remember the perfectly executed screen pass caught by Teich for a touchdown last season, and Navy is sure to call that play again during the course of the afternoon.
Miller and the offense will feel the pressure to score points in order to stay with Notre Dame, and the mistake-free football that requires may be a tall order. From Navy’s perspective, it will be critical that Miller get past any early jitters and play well. To his credit, Niumatalolo did not seem overly concerned about his backup quarterback. “He’s kind of a cool, calm-natured kid, but I’m sure he’s going to have some nerves,” he said. “If it’s to be, ready or not here we go.”
Navy kicker Jon Teague has experienced some difficulty from short range this season, suffering two blocked field goals and four missed extra points. His attempt at a game-tying three pointer last week clanked off an upright, so he is obviously struggling. Freshman punter Pablo Beltran averages slightly over 38 yards, but leaves little opportunity for a return. Marcus Thomas brings back kickoffs for the Midshipmen and has a 90-yard touchdown to his credit.
The Irish counter with freshman George Atkinson, who has two kickoff returns for touchdown this season including a sparkling 96-yarder against the Trojans. Kicker David Ruffer has settled in of late and performed well when needed, while punter Ben Turk has also found a successful rhythm. It would not be a surprise to see Atkinson chip in with more electrifying returns this week, although the Irish would prefer that Navy only kick off once during the game.
The depleted defensive line is a concern for Notre Dame, but not an excuse. The Midshipmen run an efficient offensive system, but the Irish still have superior athletes. Whether this game is close or not will depend on the Irish defensive coaching staff. Of course, turnovers by the offense are always an unwelcome element.
This matchup has recently become a trap game for Notre Dame, but last year’s embarrassing loss to the Middies and the rumblings that the team and coaching staff quit last week against USC should put the Irish in a foul mood for this one. Even former players questioned the toughness and leadership within the current locker room, and there is no reason why the team should not come out with guns blazing. That said, Navy has developed a level of confidence by winning three of the past four games, and their recent string of heartbreaking defeats will motivate them as well.
Let’s review the key questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will Miller have success in the passing game?
Can Navy’s shaky defense fare any better than Air Force?
Will the Irish rediscover their running game?
Can Notre Dame stop the inside runs by the fullback and cover the pitch man?
Will Hendrix get another extended look and be allowed to throw the ball downfield?
Can the Irish shake the turnover virus that returned with a vengeance last week?
Will the Irish match Navy’s discipline (#1 in the nation with fewest penalties and penalty yards)?
Although a win against Navy will not alleviate the sting of last week’s loss, a defeat would be too catastrophic for words. The Midshipmen gave South Carolina a battle early this year before losing a close one, but have suffered attrition on defense since then and were swamped by Southern Mississippi. Although Navy may gain considerable yardage in the middle of the field, Notre Dame’s ability to tighten up in the red zone will matter most. Despite their own problems in this area, the Irish should find the end zone more often.
NOTRE DAME 42 NAVY 28