by John Vannie
Notre Dame opens its 2012 football season in Ireland on Saturday with a game against the Naval Academy. Coach Brian Kelly, now in his third season after consecutive 8-5 campaigns, has anointed untested but talented sophomore Everett Golson as his quarterback. The Irish return a veteran offensive line and defensive front seven, but Golson and a pair of athletes at cornerback who were converted from other positions will largely determine whether this team can succeed against a schedule rated the most difficult in the nation.
Navy is 32-21 in four years under Ken Niumatalolo, who is 2-2 against Notre Dame. The Midshipmen are coming off their first losing season since 2002, and were thrashed by 56-14 last October in South Bend. Niumatalolo does not have many returning starters on either side of the ball, and his biggest challenges will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and rebuilding last year’s porous defense.
These programs met in Dublin for the Emerald Isle Classic during the 1996 season, but this year’s kickoff will require many stateside Irish fans to rise very early to watch the live broadcast. The CBS network will provide television coverage starting at 9:00 AM EDT or 6:00 AM PDT, so yours truly in San Diego may be mixing a pint of Guinness with my bowl of Lucky Charms. A tall chaser of Maalox will stand nearby in case Notre Dame attempts to repeat the five turnover debacle in last year’s opener.
The Irish will play without four players who have been suspended one or two games each for various violations of team rules. Quarterback Tommy Rees, tailback Cierre Wood, and linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Justin Utopo won’t make the trip. Golson is expected to keep the starting quarterback job even when Rees is eligible to return, but Wood was counted upon to lead the team in rushing again this year. Until he can return in Week 3, his duties will fall to Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III, each of whom saw meaningful action last season. There is plenty of depth at linebacker to fill in for Calabrese and Utopo, although Calabrese was considered a starter in the spring.
Notre Dame is relatively healthy coming out of fall camp, but the lone exception is at the already thin cornerback position. Lo Wood, a projected starter, suffered a season-ending Achilles tear and will be replaced by true freshman KeiVarae Russell. The Irish recently announced newly elected captains in Tyler Eifert and Zack Martin on offense, along with Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore representing the defense.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NAVY’S DEFENSE
The Midshipmen have three new starters along the defensive line and do not figure to slow down the Irish ground game even with Cierre Wood watching from 3,600 miles away. Nose tackle Barry Dabney, Jr. is listed at 297 pounds, but the rest of the Navy 3-4 front is typically undersized. Notre Dame’s offensive line features a strong left side with Martin at tackle, Chris Watt at guard and Braxton Cave at center. Given Golson’s ability to run with the football, the Irish should match or exceed last year’s 190 yards rushing.
Golson should have the luxury of time in the pocket, which will give him an opportunity to look beyond his primary target if necessary. The starters at wide receiver are veterans John Goodman, T.J. Jones and slot man Robby Toma. Three talented young players are also waiting in the wings and should see action this week. Freshmen Davonte Neal and Chris Brown are joined by sophomore DeVaris Daniels, all of whom have been impressive at times in practice while striving for greater consistency.
Kelly has additional weapons in the passing game that will be featured prominently this season. Riddick will get the ball in various ways that will take advantage of his elusiveness in the open field, while the greatest strength of the offense arguably lies with its three tight ends. Eifert is an All-American candidate and both Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas are outstanding athletes that could line up in various combinations and sets. Each presents a matchup problem for the Midshipmen.
Navy has a quality linebacking unit consisting of last year’s leading tacklers Matt Warrick and Tra’ves Bush. Josh Tate will be a major contributor if he is healthy enough to play in this contest. The secondary is revamped from 2011 and its best player, 6’2” cornerback Parrish Gaines, is only a sophomore. The talented David Sperry had been expected to hold down the other corner position, but he left the Academy last spring following a rules violation.
The Irish should be able to create several scoring opportunities and relieve any significant pressure on Golson to carry the load. If he is successful in his primary objective of taking care of the football, the considerable physical advantages enjoyed by Notre Dame should take care of the outcome. Kelly articulated this strategy when the team arrived in Ireland. ““I think controlling the line of scrimmage is important,” he said. “This isn’t a referendum on Everett Golson to go out there and throw for 400 yards. This is about managing the offense and controlling the line of scrimmage. I think if we do that, there will be plenty of opportunities for Everett to shine. I’m not asking him to go take the game over in an opener for sure.”
NAVY’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
It should come as a relief to Notre Dame fans that fullback Alexander Teich, a long time nemesis of the Irish, is currently serving our country as a member of a SEAL team. His graduation left the door open for a pair of players to take up that considerable slack. Noah Copeland and Prentice Christian will share the load in support of quarterback Trey Miller, who started last year’s game against Notre Dame due to an injury to then-senior Kris Proctor. Miller was advertised as a capable passer, but could manage only five of thirteen for 33 yards and one touchdown.
Miller has progressed rapidly following spring practice and fall camp, and is reportedly much more comfortable executing the option offense where timing and repetition are critical. He is joined by veteran receivers Brandon Turner and Matt Aiken, as well as speedster Gee Gee Greene at wingback (update: Turner will not make the trip to Dublin per Niumatalolo). This supporting cast will provide a particular challenge to the Irish cornerbacks Russell and Bennett Jackson. Each will be called upon to contain the pitch man in the triple option and tackle well. Since Navy is expected to provide more than a token passing game, Notre Dame’s secondary will also have to remain alert for the play action pass. Look for the Midshipmen to attack the Irish in this manner while running inside just enough to keep the rest of the defense honest.
Notre Dame is big and powerful along the defensive line with Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. After being hobbled most of last season with a severe ankle sprain, a healthy Te’o leads the four linebackers. It’s quite possible that Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco will elect to play five defensive backs as he did last year against Navy when he placed safety Jamoris Slaughter into an outside linebacker slot to counter the option. This strategy work very well and may be employed again as defensive quickness will be more important than pure size against this non-standard attack.
The Midshipmen have been able to develop bigger players along the offensive line in recent years, and this year’s group averages just under 290 pounds. Guard Josh Cabral is the only full time starter from last season, although right tackle Graham Vickers saw action on the left side in a few games. While the Irish are not going to be blown off the ball by this group, Navy’s strength lies in the deceptive ability and decision making of the quarterback. Another significant concern for the defense is the cut-blocking technique used by the Middies. Notre Dame is relatively thin along the front wall and can ill afford an injury to a key player.
Navy has a new place kicker in Nick Sloan, while punter Pablo Beltran is back after averaging 38 yards in 2011. Aiken is the primary punt returner while the dangerous Marcus Thomas brings back kickoffs for the Midshipmen. The junior recorded a 90-yard touchdown against East Carolina last year.
The Irish feature Atkinson as their kick returner, and he brought back two of them for touchdowns last season. Neal will get the call on punt returns in the hope that he can change what was a non-existent component in the team’s 2011 repertoire. Nick Tausch won the place kicking specialist job with consistent performances in spring and fall practices, while strong-legged Kyle Brindza will handle the kickoffs. Senior Ben Turk has worked hard to become a better than average punter.
Navy must rely on its ability to control the time of possession by moving the chains and scoring points with big plays against the Irish secondary. The Midshipmen will need help from Notre Dame’s offense in the form of turnovers and other breakdowns to get their defense off the field and keep the score from getting out of hand. They can usually rely on a disciplined approach that minimizes mistakes and penalties while Notre Dame has struggled in this area under Kelly.
The Irish can use this game as a learning platform and confidence builder for Golson and other new faces. The overall game plan should be simplified for maximum efficiency. Defensively, any breakdown in assignment discipline or poor tackling may be exploited by Navy for long gains. A few surprises are inevitable early in the game since Navy is a well-coached team, but Notre Dame should be able to adjust and shut down any serious threat.
Let’s review the key questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will Riddick and Atkinson gain enough rushing yards to compensate for the loss of Wood?
Can Navy’s offense control the clock and manage the scoreboard?
Will one or more of the Irish wide receivers emerge as a reliable target in the post-Michael Floyd era?
How will Notre Dame’s cornerbacks handle the multiple challenges of an option offense?
Can Golson demonstrate the play-making ability with his arm and legs that won him the starting job?
How will Notre Dame’s players and coaches handle adversity during the contest?
Will Notre Dame’s performance be good enough to keep me awake throughout the game?
The Midshipmen are anxious to get back on track with a winning season after last year’s 5-7 campaign, but the defense remains suspect. Miller is a talented athlete that will play much better than last year when his lone start came against the Irish. He has a few weapons at his disposal and could test Notre dame’s secondary if he has time to throw, but Navy should not be able to match scores with Notre Dame under any circumstances. Golson must simply be poised and efficient. Notre Dame will win the game by virtue of its superior power and athleticism, so there is no need for a high risk attack where a flurry of mistakes can bridge the gulf between these teams.
NOTRE DAME 45 NAVY 20