by Mike Coffey
John Vannie’s surgery recovery continues with no hitches. Meanwhile our guest journalism program also rolls along, with SeanFL taking the reins for a preview of Notre Dame’s tilt against the Midshipmen of the Naval Academy.
After nearly half a century of dominance, Notre Dame hit a rough patch with the Naval Academy. Beginning with the season that we would like to forget (2007), through 2010, Navy ran all over Notre Dame. It would not be a stretch to say that Notre Dame players and fans still have nightmares about fullbacks running untouched up the middle for 20 yard gains. Or wide receivers running free in the defensive backfield after the Irish secondary bit on play action passes. I am sure there were more than a few remote controls see their final moments during that 4 year span. The good news for the Irish faithful is that Coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco seem to have solved the vexing Navy attack.
Notre Dame is currently in a tenuous portion of their schedule. Sitting at 6-2, the Irish cannot afford another defeat if they have any hopes of a BCS game. While Navy and Pittsburgh have given the Irish fits recently, these are games the Irish must win and dominate. Staying healthy, developing the running game and getting playing time for the bench are all added bonuses.
Navy this year has been the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Victories over Indiana and Delaware were followed up with a defeat to Western Kentucky where Navy only rushed for 86 yards. Navy then had comfortable win over Air Force, a blowout loss to Duke, a one point defeat in double overtime to Toledo and a last second win over Pittsburgh . The schizophrenic nature of the Midshipmen, along with bad memories of the recent past, will put more than a few Irish fans on edge.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Navy Defense
The offense begins and ends with Tommy Rees. While not the quarterback most people envision for this offense, Tommy has continually proven his value to this football program. His leadership, knowledge of the offense and abilities in the passing game are the reason the Irish sit at 6-2 and not 1-7. However, in the two blemishes on the Irish record, Rees turning the ball over proved fatal. Key interceptions have been a frustrating trend in the career of Tommy Rees. The formula is simple: If Rees does not turn the ball over, the Irish will win. While the Irish do not have that one elite receiving threat of years past, they may have their best collection of talent at receiver. TJ Jones has been rock steady this year. DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson and Will Fuller all add big play ability. Troy Niklas is next in a long line of great tight ends. The offensive line has been excellent this year is pass protection and limiting penalties. Although, the run blocking has been adequate, it has not been consistent for four quarters. The Irish have been hit by the injury bug on the offensive line as of late, but the recruiting depth along the line has started to show as the Irish have plugged in players and not missed a beat.
It is no secret that Brian Kelly loves to throw. It has been discussed ad nauseam. While the Irish were very successful throwing the ball against Air Force last week, they would be well served to try and run the ball more effectively against Navy. Against a option attack, a team has a limited number of possessions. The need to score touchdowns on every possession is extremely critical. Notre Dame’s offensive line, once again, hold a sizable advantage over the smaller Navy defensive front. The Irish have has success against the academies when they run downhill. Cam McDaniel has been the back that Brian Kelly has relied on most this year. While not as physically gifted as other backs on the roster, his hard running style and penchant for modeling for the camera have endeared him to many Irish fans. Tarean Folston is beginning to look more and more like a future star in the backfield. The time for George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle to step up is now. As their production continues to dip, so do their spots on the depth chart.
Navy’s defense is currently 54th in the country in points allowed, 89th in rush defense and 90th in pass defense. What does this all mean? Nothing! The way Navy prepares for Notre Dame is second only to the way they prepare for Army. Where they have had success in rush defense has been containing the stretch runs and limiting the plays out wide. When teams have run right at Navy that is where the big plays have come. The pass defense is another story. Navy runs primarily a zone defense. Limiting the big plays in the pass gaming and keeping everything underneath is the philosophy of defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Where Navy can surprise is in their blitz packages. The defensive front does not generate a big pass rush on their own, so designed and creative blitzes is what the defense relies on to assist their pass defense.
Navy Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
As with Notre Dame, the offense starts and ends with its quarterback. Keenan Reynolds is the team leader is passing, rushing and touchdowns. His ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm is a formula that has proven difficult for Notre Dame in the past. Luckily for Notre Dame, there is no Alexander Teich or Kyle Eckel on this squad. Chris Swain and Noah Copeland are the main ball carriers and have been solid. They do not possess the big play running ability of their predecessors, but they are efficient. Marcus Thomas and Darius Staten are the dangerous slot men for this attack. Thomas is averaging over 11 yards per carry and Staten almost 10. DeBrandon Sanders leads the team in receiving and is also tied for 4th on the team in rushing. He can be used in multiple positions and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. The offensive line, while always on the smaller side, use the cut blocking scheme to their full advantage to create a very effective rushing attack. Where they struggle is in pass protection. They have given up 11 sacks this year,
It does not look as though Louis Nix will be playing this weekend. While this would be worrisome against another team left on our schedule, it should not matter as much against Navy. The Irish proved against Air Force that with their current rotation of defensive lineman, they are more than capable of eliminating the big runs by the fullback. Where the Irish must excel is in on 1st and 2nd down. Down and distance are a big a factor as any in defeating an option based team. Forcing Navy into 2nd and 10 and 3rd and 8 will go a long way toward the outcome of the game. Jaylon Smith has really come into his own these past few weeks. His sideline to sideline speed and fundamentals add a dimension to the outside linebackers that Notre Dame has not had in years. The improved tackling of the secondary and attention to detail will be critical. Navy can hurt you with their play action passing attack. The safeties in particular will need to play assignment football and not be lulled by the Navy option attack.
Neither of these teams have had especially “Special” teams. Kyle Brindza continues to be solid in the placekicking game, but his punting has left a lot to be desired. George Atkinson continues to confound Irish fans with his enormous talent and speed but poor vision and decision making on kick returns. TJ Jones has been an improvement on punt returns, but considering that this aspect has just been 3 years of fair catch after far catch, there was only one way to go.
Navy kicker Nick Sloan had moment of redemption last week. After missing an extra point in what proved to be the deciding point in a 45-44 loss to Toledo, Sloan kicked the game winning field against Pittsburgh. The return game has been less than spectacular.
Here are the key questions:
1. Will Notre Dame have more rushing or passing attempts?
2. Can Kennan Reynolds channel his inner Ricky Dobbs?
3. Can the Notre Dame defensive line stop the fullback dive?
4. Who will commit the costly turnovers?
5. Can Tommy Rees stay healthy?
6. How long before the first F bomb is dropped in the Romper Room after kickoff?
Brian Kelly and the Irish have seemed to restore order in this annual matchup. While there will be moments of frustration on offense and defense, the Irish will eventually find their footing. Tommy Rees will make some big plays in the passing game. Cam McDaniel and company will wear down the smaller Navy front. Look for the continued development of Jaylon Smith and the Irish defense as they will make enough plays to limit the Navy ground and air attack. If this game is still in doubt in the mid 3rd quarter, remote controls should start to worry.
Notre Dame 41, Navy 21