Navy-Notre Dame matchup means plenty to Mrs. Miller


More and more, people outside the Irish fanbase gripe about Notre Dame’s yearly commitment to the service academies. While bashing the Irish for continuing their traditional matchups with Navy and Army, people forget the rich tradition that comes along with these games. Too often people want to label these games “cupcakes,” while lumping them in with the slate of FCS opponents that travel far and wide for a financial guarantee and a likely loss on the field.

With Navy coming to South Bend this weekend, the history of the game between the Irish and Midshipmen should join the actual battle on the field in the forefront. And no one embodies the tradition of this Saturday’s game more than Mrs. Esther Miller.

Mrs. Miller has long been a part of the Notre Dame-Navy rivalry. (Long may be the understatement of the day…) Mrs. Miller is the widow of Rip Miller, a fomer Navy coach and administrator who was also a member of the 1924 Notre Dame football team. Miller played along the offensive line that blocked for the famed Four Horsemen, a group that also earned the nickname the “7 Mules.”

Mrs. Miller was honored last year at the Navy-Notre Dame luncheon in Annapolis, when the Notre Dame Club of Maryland and the Naval Academy Alumni Association unveiled the plan for a Rip Miller Trophy, which will be presented to the winner of the Navy-ND game starting hopefully next season. The occasion also fell on Mrs. Miller’s birthday. Her 102nd birthday.

Jim Lefebvre, the editor of Forever Irish, pointed me to his story about Rip and Esther Miller, the last living link to Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and Seven Mules. Here’s a snippet:

Rip Miller, like all his senior teammates from 1924, went into college
coaching in 1925. In a couple of years, he was coaching at the U.S.
Naval Academy. He took over as Navy head coach in 1931, and over the
next six years led the Middies to their first three victories over
Notre Dame.

The Millers never left Annapolis, raising their three children while
Rip went on to become Navy’s assistant athletic director. In total , he
served the Academy for nearly a half-century before retiring in 1974. 
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966, and
died in 1991 – the last of the 1924 ND regulars to pass.

But his widow Esther, who was five years his junior, survives to this day!

She is healthy, vibrant and full of memories of the “good old days” when Rip played and coached football.

is 102, and turns 103 on Nov. 14, a week after Saturday’s renewal of
the Notre Dame vs. Navy series.  She still attends most Navy home games.

It’s amazing to think that all 11 regulars from the 1924 National Championship team went directly from playing to coaching college football, many of them starting college programs across the country and helping create the game as we know it today. 

Before you start complaining about the commitment to playing Navy or Notre Dame’s game against Army in Yankee Stadium next year, it might pay to take a look back at the history of these games and realize they serve more of a purpose than just filling a place on the yearly schedule.

For more great historical insight into this game or the history of Fighting Irish football, check out Jim’s website or his award-winning book Loyal Sons, about the historic 1924 squad. 

(Writers note: Corrections made on two factual mistakes.)

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”