Navy Looks to Upset Irish

Sixteenth-ranked Notre Dame (7-2) hosts the 23rd-ranked Naval Academy (7-1) on Saturday. The teams have met each season since 1927, with the Fighting Irish holding a 76-12-1 advantage, but the Midshipmen have recorded four victories in the past 12 seasons.  This is the first time since 1978 that both teams are ranked in the Top 25 at kickoff. The game will be broadcast nationally by NBC, starting at 2:30 pm Eastern time.

Niumatalolo has Navy winning again

Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo is in his 12th season at the helm in Annapolis. His record is 94-59, and this may be his most impressive team considering it has achieved a significant bounce back from a rare losing campaign (3-10) in 2018. His teams always play well against the Irish, which is a measure of how much Niumatalolo respects the rivalry and the importance of this matchup to his program.

“We feel very fortunate as a program to be able to play Notre Dame. Just a great program with great tradition,” Niumatalolo said. “If you went through the history of college football and named the storied programs, Notre Dame would probably be No. 1. Playing a marquee school like that brings a lot to your own program in terms of recruiting and notoriety. There are a lot of teams that would like to play Notre Dame,” he said earlier this week.

The Midshipmen enter the contest as the healthier squad. All starters are ready to play and have missed very few games among them all season. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has lost the right side of its offensive line, standout defensive end Julian Okwara, and third down linebacker Jack Lamb to season-ending injuries. Also, wide receiver Michael Young is in the process of transferring to another school.


Navy lines up in a 3-4 set, with the ability to shift highly disruptive linebackers Jacob Springer and Nizaire Cromartie and into pass rushers and run blitzers. Springer leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks while Cromartie is right behind him. The down linemen include senior nose tackle Jackson Pittman and end Jackson Perkins, the latter of whom is returning to the lineup after missing the last three games. The unit is aggressive and willing to take risks to cause negative plays. To date, this strategy has worked well. The Midshipmen have surrendered only 310 yards per game, which ranks 17th in the nation and ahead of Notre Dame at 26th.

Joining Springer and Cromartie at linebacker are Diego Fagot, the team’s leading tackler, and senior Paul Carothers, another team captain. The secondary is young but scrappy. Safeties Kevin Brennan and Evan Fochtman are sure tacklers, and sophomore cornerback Michael McMorris leads the group in pass break-ups with eight despite being listed at 5’9” and 166 pounds.

Book’s running ability is key for Notre Dame

The Irish ground game will be a difficult force for Navy to stop. Tailback Tony Jones is back to full strength and quarterback Ian Book has added another dimension to the attack now that the coaches have turned him loose to call his own number. Jafar Armstrong has failed to bounce back from an early season injury, but this may be the week for a breakthrough performance. Reserves Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister have proven to be capable runners even though they are less productive in the passing game.

Book will face a number of blitzes when he drops back to pass, but that should open up the screen game if the Irish can finally get the timing down on those play despite the new starters up front. Navy will also focus on favorite targets Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet, which might open up a few opportunities for Lawrence Keys, Javon McKinley and Braden Lenzy. Chris Finke is the most likely beneficiary of single coverage, however, as the senior is no longer being slowed by nagging injuries.


Navy’s starting offensive line has been injury free thus far. Center Ford Higgins is a team captain and only returning starter from last season, but the rest are seniors and juniors who have worked their way through the system. Tackle Kendel Wright and guard Dave Forney have good size and ability on the left side of the line. The team averages 358 rush yards per game.

Malcolm Perry breaks into the clear

Quarterback Malcolm Perry leads the way with over 1,000 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in eight games. The fullback tandem of Nelson Smith and Jamale Carothers has combined for 860 yards and 15 scores. A trio of diminutive but fast players are threats to take pitches from Perry and get outside the defense for big gains. C.J. Williams, Tazh Maloy and Myles Fells stand less than six feet tall and don’t reach the 180-pound mark on a scale, but they are dangerous.

When Perry does throw the ball, he completes 55% of his passes for an average gain of 24 yards. Wide receivers Mychal Cooper and Ryan Mitchell are tall and athletic, while Williams is the most productive target among the slot backs.

The extra week of preparation time will give Niumatalolo an opportunity to spring a couple of trick plays on the Irish. Navy knows the odds are against them in a straight up brawl, but stealing seven extra points by using the element of surprise would help balance the scales.

Notre Dame has defended Navy quite well since Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea has been on campus. There are risks, however, especially along the defensive line. The Irish tackles have not seen much of this offense and are not dominant players along the lines of a Jerry Tillery. At end, only Khalid Kareem has played extensively against the option. With Okwara and Daelin Hayes out, players like Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji must control the edge and stay in their lanes. This is much more difficult to do than it sounds, especially against an elusive runner like Perry.


Bennett Moehring is Navy’s capable place kicker, having converted all field goal attempts under 50 yards and all extra points. Punter Owen White sports a 41-yard average, but more than half of his punts are returned for plus yardage. Chance Warren (kickoffs) and Garrett Winn (punts) are the main return men. Both fair-catch the ball on most occasions, especially on kickoffs. The coverage teams are effective with one exception – a kickoff was returned by Memphis for a 99-yard touchdown earlier this season.

The Irish special teams have been embarrassed by mental breakdowns in the past few weeks, and one has to wonder when the next shoe will drop. Chris Finke has helped the cause with a couple of productive punt returns, but on other occasions the Irish have let the ball roll for excess yards or signaled for a fair catch when there was plenty of room to run. Cover teams remain strong with Claypool and Bo Bauer leading the charge, while specialists Jonathan Doerer and Jay Bramblett have had their ups and downs.


Navy is undefeated in the first half of games this season, averaging 24 points before intermission. Defensively, they have surrendered only five of the 16 touchdowns by their Division 1 opponents in the first half. Perry will try to win on first down by alternating between his fullbacks and his own running prowess to pick up five yards or more. If successful, the Midshipmen could put the Irish defense on roller skates before hitting them with an unexpected pass or reverse.

Safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott

The Irish defense therefore must force manageable third downs and get off the field frequently enough to allow the offense to keep pace in the early going. Notre Dame can take control in the second half with its superior depth and size, but that is not a given if they are facing a large deficit. Offensively, Book must engineer productive drives that give the defense time to rest. A balanced attack that defeats the blitz more often than not is their prescription for success.

Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:

Can the Irish defense hold containment on the edges to stop the pitch play?

Will Tony Jones and Notre Dame’s patchwork offensive line ignite the running game?

Can the Irish get off to a fast start and play the game with the lead?

Will Navy surprise the Irish with successful trick plays?

Can Notre Dame’s special teams have a positive impact?

Will the Irish defenders keep Navy well below its 358-yard rushing average?

Which team will best take care of the ball and avoid costly penalties?


Navy’s ability to control the clock and get out to an early lead is worrisome in that the Irish offense must keep pace while the defense finds its footing. Book and his mates have suffered long, inexplicable stretches of drought in games this season. Memphis was the only opponent good enough to make adjustments and come back to beat the Midshipmen, so the Irish would be well advised to study that game film and be ready to play from the first series. Still, don’t be surprised if Navy moves quickly down the field and scores on its opening drive. How quickly Notre Dame recovers and responds will determine whether this game goes down to the wire or lands comfortably in the win column. Another special teams gaffe by the Irish could also become a deciding factor. Navy has not played a strong schedule to date and Notre Dame would win nine of ten times against them based on the comparative rosters, but as we’ve seen in the recent past that tenth outcome can occur if the hosts turn in a lackluster performance.


Tell John what you think in the comments below

19 thoughts on “Navy Looks to Upset Irish

  1. JVan,

    I’ve watched Navy on several occasions this year, and you’re right the two fullbacks
    are really, really good!! Carothers is a beast of a runner and the young Irish Defense will
    not be able to handle all of the Navy weapons on a short week… Perry makes all of the
    right reads and lights us up!

    I JUST have a “bad feeling” about this Irish team and don’t think we can handle 60 minutes
    against the Mids. Irish fall to 7-3..

    Navy 35
    ND 28

  2. It might be time to give it a break with Navy for a while. Their scheme etc doesn’t give me pause but their low blocks do. You can have that in any game but why risk it with a service academy?

    • History says that playing Navy will NEVER end. If it were not for the USN deciding to train cadets into officers on Notre Dame’s campus during the War, then Notre Dame probably would not have survived (and I am not talking a “football team” surviving, I am talking the entire University).

      Notre Dame owes Navy a football game EVERY YEAR no matter what. Navy deserves it, and Notre Dame has too much respect for tradition to end this series. It would be “bad mojo” for the Irish to even contemplate ending this rivalry.

      As to the game itself, this game, as it has for the past 15 years, scares me. Navy runs such a unique offense, very different than any other team in college football, that it is difficult for many teams to adjust their entire defense for just this one game. It is more of a “mathematical equation”, and if you can solve the problem early enough in the game (i.e. “Stop the RUN”), then you have your answer that leads to victory. Otherwise, it becomes a nailbiter to the bitter end.

      I think that Notre Dame solves that mathematical equation in the second half, and pulls out a 7-point win. 35-28 Irish.

      Go Irish!

  3. I guess all good things must come to an end. The news out of the local ABC affiliate said that it looks like Notre Dame’s sell out streak is coming to and end this weekend with Navy and that the Boston College game next week is also not a sell out. I was surprised to hear that since Navy and Notre Dame are ranked this year. I guess people are getting tired of the high ticket prices, (I did see Vivid Seats advertising tickets for the game as low as 15 dollars). Maybe the alumni are sending a message that they are tired of high prices and I think many people are staying home because of the early snow storm and extreme cold South Bend has had this past week. It is sad to see that streak end though and now Michigan can keep bragging how they still have their consecutive sell out streak going and ours lasted from Thanksgiving Day 1973 until the Virginia Tech game. The reason why the game was not full in 1973 is because the students were on Thanksgiving break and the students relinquished their tickets so underprivileged children could attend. I also have a funny feeling about this game and that Navy is going to come in fired up and the ND football team and fans are going to be flat. I hope I am wrong,

    • Nice summary,
      And is this not the clearest sign of that French disease? Malaise.
      One year after ascension into the CFP we can’t even fill the bleachers?
      Readers of this board know the reason is Kelly. It’s not the team’s
      The Navy is fielding a tough unit and the contest will probably be
      pretty good. Niumatalolo would be among my favorites as a replacement
      were it not for tactics contemporaneous with the Battle of Lake Erie.
      Go Irish beat Middies!

  4. The Irish are probably looking at between 20-24 minutes of total possession time. Book cannot afford a few bad series in this one. The offense has to come out with urgency and hit some big plays against what will undoubtedly be an over matched secondary. I have a hunch the Irish score on their first 4 possessions which will provide just enough breathing room. Irish 31-22

  5. Robert Derengoski says:

    Large screens, high definition, 20 bucks to park, high ticket prices, bad stadium hot dogs, multiple games on tv and crummy weather make the end to the sellout streak inevitable. Plus the realization that we lost the two big games again this year and, due to our stubborn independence, there is really not much to play for. Plus, Navy just doesn’t let you have the ball much. I am glad we didn’t do anything silly, like UM did, to artificially keep the streak alive. One other point: the loud, awful music and the unending recognition of everyone who ever did anything down on the field has diminished the in-game experience. Not to mention the five minute commercials the fans in the stands have to sit through.

    • What Robert said +. He ñailed everything that is a negative for me as far as the “game experience” is concerned. I’m not a purest. I just want to watch a football game without all the interruptions and distractions.

  6. I believe every Navy player will play with a passion to win that too many on this Irish Team do not have. ND does have talent and size, but most of the O-line do not have passion and heart to punish a smaller team. ND should win easily given talent and size, but they will fall short, and look bad doing it. Navy 24 Irish 17.

  7. Navy’s D will limit ND possessions. I’ll be surprised if either team scores more 24. ND is always good for a couple 3 and outs. I smell an upset, Navy 16-14. (btw, what Irish ground game are you referring?)

      • Vannie, why bother answering a really stupid question? It’s funny, any other QB in the nation can run the ball and this bunch will say, “Why isn’t our QB dynamic?” However, as soon as ND’s QB turns in a dynamic performance while playing to his strength, and it’s “What a shame our QB had to account for more than half of the rushing output?”

        • Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what is just plain nonsense and what might be a “teaching moment” for the illiterate masses. Also, people should be willing to admit that Book is a much better runner on plays that are designed for that purpose than when he tries to improvise on pass plays by bailing out of the pocket. Most of the latter plays end with him running sideways out of bounds or chucking a desperate heave off his back foot into a group of cheerleaders.

    • Hey Kevin, where are you today? Navy 20 ND 52. I’d be interested to hear your misguided analysis and what led you to believe that our boys would only score 14 against the AAC’s sunken treasure chest. My silent prediction was pretty close. I had our boys sinking Navy’s vessel via tidal wave, 49-14.