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.
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.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NAVY’S DEFENSE
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.
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 OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
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.
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.
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.
NOTRE DAME 35 NAVY 24
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