Opponent preview: Navy Midshipmen


Eight and counting for series of previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt and Western Michigan.

The Overview:

Make no mistake, this is no longer a friendly rivalry. With Navy stunning the Irish 23-21 at Notre Dame stadium last season, the Midshipmen now have won two consecutive games at Notre Dame stadium, after a half-century of ineptitude against the Irish. Making things even more heated, was head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s comments in the postgame press conference, calling out the Notre Dame coaching staff’s game plan. Under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame treated Navy reverentially, leveling the playing field psychologically, and possibly doing the Midshipmen a favor by treating an inferior football team (talent-wise) with too much respect. The senior class, with two losses to Navy in three years (and a narrow escape in 2008) will likely come out looking to at least settle the series. While everybody realizes it now, with 12 returning starters including Heisman dark horse Ricky Dobbs, this game will be a true test for the Irish.

Last time against the Irish:

If the Michigan loss eats at the stomach’s of Notre Dame fans, the Navy loss was the one that broke their heart. The Irish found a way to lose the game without punting, a statistical anomaly made all the more ridiculous when you consider the Irish neither punted nor scored a point in the first half. Niumatalolo’s gameplan was orchestrated to perfection behind a running attack that absolutely killed the Irish defense, who gave up 348 yards rushing on 6.1 yards per carry. Notre Dame’s red zone execution, which including baffling play-calling, terrible execution, critical turnovers and missed field goals started the Irish on the freefall that would end their season.

Said Niumatalolo after the game:

“I really hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but I think the thing
that helped us this year was last year because we knew that they’d line
up the same way. We didn’t execute very well last year, and coming into
this year they did a great job against us last year defensively, so we
had a pretty good clue that they were going to come back and do the same
things as they did last year, and we had a few things. We were
expecting that same defense that we saw last year.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Navy as the ninth-toughest game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Only when you look at Navy as the 9th hardest game on the schedule do you start to understand that this slate isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. There’s absolutely nothing positive the Irish get out of playing Navy anymore. Beat them, you’re supposed to. Lose? You’re packing your bags and coaching the offense in Kansas City. If Notre Dame comes out flat at the Meadowlands, I’ve extremely overestimated this coaching staff’s ability to motivate.

The Match-up:

The Irish defensive will live and die by how they stop star quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs had one of the more impressive statistical seasons in the country last year, both rushing and throwing for 1,000 yards. He only threw the ball three times against the Irish, but of one was a crucial third quarter strike for 52 yards that all but broke the Irish’s back and pushed Navy’s lead to 21-7. Also rejoining Dobbs is fullback Vince Murray, who absolutely shredded the Irish defense with the dive play, rumbling for 158 yards on only 14 carries. The 3-4 defense will help when playing against the vaunted Navy triple-option, but the Irish would be wise to key on Dobbs and Murray if they want to win.

The defense loses stand-out linebacker and Irish nemesis Ram Vela, but returns a veteran group. Three of four members in the Midshipmen secondary return, including both starting safeties. One name you’ll likely hear plenty of is rover Wyatt Middleton, who led the team in interceptions. For the Irish offense to succeed, they’ll need to play mistake-free football as well as attack the Navy defense on both the ground and through the air. Notre Dame racked up 502 yards of offense last year, so moving the ball wasn’t the problem, executing when it mattered, whether on field goals or in the red zone will be the key for success. 

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat Navy by stopping the run and playing solid fundamental football. Regardless of whether or not the coaching staff had a good gameplan, the linebackers failed to tackle the fullback, a mortal sin when facing an option attack like Navy’s. With the athletes the Irish have at linebacker, and run-stuffers like Ian Williams and Manti Te’o in the middle, there’s no way that Navy can have the same success on the ground as the year before, especially if Bob Diaco has properly coached his defense. Offensively, the Irish will win with a solid run-pass ratio, and by keeping a handle on the football. Navy knew they needed to steal possessions and starting with Robby Paris’ first-half fumble, they did just enough to keep the clock in their favor and the ball in their hands. In the brand-new Meadowlands, the Irish should start a new winning streak.

How the Irish will lose:

Take last year’s blueprint, wash and repeat. Want to beat a football team with superior talent? Control the clock, win the turnover battle, and force an offense to become one-dimensional. Navy did all of that with an option offense second to none, and they’ve got all the pieces coming back to do it again. Ricky Dobbs is an elite college football player, the defense is opportunistic and good enough. If Navy wins this match-up in late October, the Irish will most likely put another opposing quarterback on the front-burner for the Heisman.

Gut Feeling:

Remember all those Irish fans who thought Charlie Weis meant no more losing to teams like Purdue, Michigan State, and other seemingly inferior opponents? Well, I’ve got a feeling by late October Irish fans will be feeling the same way about Brian Kelly. There’s too much motivation out there for the Irish starters to lose to Navy again, and the coaching change will allow this team to step back from the reverential treatment of the Midshipmen and treat Navy the way they should be treated: like a dangerous but undermanned opponent. Paced by a high-powered running attack, the Irish will take care of business, beating the Midshipmen by double-digits.  

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.