by John Vannie
Notre Dame continues its efforts to salvage the 2016 season on Saturday when the 3-5 Fighting Irish battle Navy (5-2) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL. The Irish have won the last five meetings in this series after the Midshipmen won back to back games in 2009-10. The contest will be nationally televised on CBS, and is the first game of a college football tripleheader on that network. As a consequence, the kickoff has been moved up to 11:40 AM Eastern time.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo is in his ninth full season at the academy. His 73-39 record to date includes winning records in all but one campaign. This year, the team’s best win came against Houston, who was ranked sixth in the nation at the time. The Middies were torched last week for 52 points and 629 total yards by South Florida, but made a game of it to lose by only 52-45 after initially falling behind by four touchdowns. The Midshipmen had trouble with USF’s up-tempo style, which the Irish ran effectively early in the game last week against Miami.
Of course, Notre Dame squandered a 20-0 advantage last week before defeating Miami on a Justin Yoon field goal, so another sixty-minute (or longer) nail biter is more likely than not. The triple option is as always the mainstay of Niumatalolo’s offense, and this year’s version has churned out 300 yards per game on the ground despite losing starting quarterback Tago Smith in the opening game. Will Worth has come on to do a credible job as Smith’s replacement, and Worth’s passing ability is above average as compared to others in a similar role.
The Irish have remained healthy for the most part this season, although Daniel Cage will sit out the game after suffering a concussion last week. On the other side, Navy was a bit banged up after last week’s loss. All Midshipmen starters are expected to play on Saturday except possibly cornerback Elijah Merchant, who is questionable. Niumatalolo elected not to employ live hitting in practice this week in the wake of 20 missed tackles against South Florida, but he did concede that his defense needed to improve in this area if they were to have a chance against Notre Dame.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NAVY’S DEFENSE
It’s an understatement to say the Irish running game has been inconsistent, but Navy may be the opponent that can provide the cure. The Middies surrendered 408 rushing yards last week, including multiple long scoring runs. Josh Adams and Tarean Folston are as healthy as they’ve been all season, and the offensive line should enjoy favorable matchups all day. Navy is anchored up front by senior nose tackle Patrick Forrestal at 6’4” 305. He is flanked in the 3-4 alignment by ends Amos Mason and Jarvis Polu.
The linebackers have decent size by comparison to past Navy teams. Leading tackler Micah Thomas is a 250-pounder and rover D.J. Palmore is 6’3” 235. Palmore is the team’s best playmaker in terms of tackles for loss, sacks and all-around disruption. The Middies haven’t been able to put much pressure on the quarterback this season, so DeShone Kizer should have plenty of time to find a receiver. The exception may be on third and long, where blitzes are very likely to be called.
Navy has a competent secondary, but the potential loss of Merchant would be costly. The safeties are senior Daiquan Thomasson, up and coming freshman Alohi Gilman, and Sean Williams in reserve. Gilman may move to corner if Merchant can’t answer the bell. Equanimeous St. Brown has the speed to cause problems for this group, while C.J. Sanders is long overdue for a breakout performance from the slot receiver position.
The Irish should commit to a balanced attack that forces the Midshipmen to defend their athletes in space while respecting the power running game. Navy will attempt to control the ball and minimize Notre Dame’s possessions, so each opportunity must be productive in terms of points or field position. Impatience won’t serve the Irish well and is more likely to create a nervous fourth quarter.
NAVY’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Midshipmen have adjusted to the change at quarterback and have steadily improved since a loss to Air Force earlier this season. Turnovers are the Achilles Heel of an option attack, and they will have to play a clean game to have a puncher’s chance on Saturday. Jarron Jones leads the rejuvenated Irish defense, but the absence of Cage and a long day of guarding against cut blocks could wear on Jones and Notre Dame in the second half.
Navy’s offensive line has three seniors manning the left side and at center, where Maurice Morris will battle Jones. The Midshipmen primarily run inside with Worth and fullback Chris High, who lead the team from a statistical standpoint. Senior slot backs Toneo Galley and Dishan Romine are lightning in a bottle despite their small stature.
Worth has elevated the Navy passing game from previous seasons by hitting 60% of his passes and racking up 140 yards per game. Primary target Jamir Tillman recently became the second leading receiver in school history, and has NFL size at 6’4” and 212 pounds. Notre Dame’s young back seven will be challenged to remain disciplined, make crisp tackles, and respect the play action that Navy so often uses to burn opponents at critical moments.
The Middies are flagged for very few penalties, and will stay in the game if they can avoid turnovers. They are very efficient once they reach the red zone, scoring touchdowns an impressive 76% of the time.
Field position will be very important in this contest, and the Irish will have to clean up significant breakdowns on special teams that have set up easy scoring chances for the opposition. Kicker Justin Yoon has emerged from early season inconsistencies to become ultra reliable. The coverage teams have performed well for the most part, while yardage gained on kickoff and punt returns has fallen off in recent games.
Navy’s Bennett Moehring is not a particularly strong kicker, but punter Alex Barta is one of the nation’s best at his position. Barta sometimes outkicks the coverage, so Sanders may have room to maneuver if he can catch the ball cleanly. Chris Finke replaced Sanders last week and showed he is also a capable return man.
The keys to the game for Navy are efficiency on first down plays, limiting the big chunk plays, minimizing missed tackles and finding ways to put some pressure on Kizer. Notre Dame must run the ball with authority, avoid the mid-game letdown that has been quite prevalent of late, and stay disciplined on defense. Fatigue will be a factor in the fourth quarter, but the Irish can avoid disaster if they play well during the first 45 minutes and build a safe lead. On that note, Kelly referred to Navy’s physicality this week when explaining why Notre Dame will substitute freely on defense this week. It’s amazing how times have changed.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will the new Irish defensive brain trust have a solid plan against the triple option?
Can the Midshipmen keep Notre Dame from making 40-yard explosive plays?
Will Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be a liability?
Can Brian Kelly commit to the run and stick with it?
Which defense will suffer the fewest missed tackles?
Will Adams and Folston match the productivity of Navy’s rushers?
Can either defense generate turnovers?
Can the Midshipmen pull off any trick plays against the Irish?
Will anyone besides me be watching this game?
The Irish had better be prepared to play hard from the opening kickoff in this early start. Building a lead rather than playing from behind is critical, although first quarter dominance will not guarantee that the fourth period will lack suspense. Still, Notre Dame has no excuses and simply cannot afford an embarrassing loss if they are to salvage anything positive from this season.
NOTRE DAME 41 NAVY 34