Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen


After over forty years of frustration, the Naval Academy has finally turned the tide on the Fighting Irish. After years of having victory snatched out of their hands by a football team with greater pedigree and higher-ranked recruits, 2007 marked a watershed victory for the Midshipmen, and the opening of the floodgates that have turned this lopsided series into a potential rivalry.

(At least what counts as a rivalry these days anyway…)

Two of the last three years, Navy has beaten Notre Dame, with the Irish escaping in 2008 after nearly giving the game way in outrageous last-minute fashion. Following along through all the good and bad has been Mike James, the proprietor of the outstanding Navy blog, The Birddog, the “unofficial peanut gallery of Navy Sports.”

Mike was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in anticipation of Saturday’s game between Navy and Notre Dame.

Inside the Irish: Navy sits at 4-2, a respectable record certainly, but one that has to be a disappointment fter some considerable preseason hype was muted with the stunning loss to Maryland. How confident is this Navy football team going into Saturday’s game against Notre Dame?

Mike James: It’s only a disappointment to people who bought into the
hype. Losing to any BCS team, even one as underwhelming as Maryland was
last year, isn’t all that stunning for a service academy. If anything is
disappointing, it’s that the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is in jeopardy
of leaving Annapolis. This is the fourth straight season that Navy has
started 4-2, so it’s not as if the Mids are having a down year.

I’m in no position to judge the state of mind of the Navy team, but
I’m sure that outscoring a pretty good SMU team 28-7 in the second half
last week doesn’t hurt their confidence.

ITI: The Irish receiving corp has been decimated by injury, with potentially all three top targets — Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Theo Riddick — out for the Irish. (Floyd is the only game-time decision, the other two are out.) Navy’s been playing some very good defense, allowing only 18 points a ballgame. Can the Midshipmen shut down a Notre Dame offense that’s struggled with consistency?

MJ: That depends on your definition of “shut down.” Can they play well
enough to win the game? Sure. But Navy’s defense has injury problems of
its own, especially on the line and in the secondary. Containing a Notre
Dame offense that is averaging 286 passing yards per game will be their
biggest test to date. The offenses lining up against the Navy defense
this season have really been on one extreme or the other. Maryland only
attempted 5 passes against Navy, while Georgia Southern and Air Force
both run spread option offenses. On the other hand, Wake Forest threw 50
passes, SMU runs the run & shoot, and Louisiana Tech is now coached
by Mike Leach and Hal Mumme disciple Sonny Dykes. The Irish offense is a
little bit more eclectic (and talented, regardless of injuries) than
what Navy has seen so far this year.

ITI: While Notre Dame under Charlie Weis did its best to show respect to
Navy and their service to the country, there was some bad blood brewing
after head coach Ken Niumatalolo questioned the Irish coaching staff’s
strategy in his post-game comments, and a Navy WR committed a pretty flagrant cheap shot on cornerback Robert Blanton. Do you expect any of that anger to bleed into this week’s game?

MJ: Niumatalolo didn’t question anything. All he said was that given the way
the 2008 game ended up, he expected the Notre Dame staff to use the
same defense. And if you want to talk about “flagrant cheap shots,”
knock yourself out. Bloggers and message board fans can whip themselves
into a frenzy about that nonsense, but nobody on the field cares.

ITI: With many of the same pieces, the Navy offense has slipped an entire touchdown a game in scoring. What’s been the problem? Is the trend of a decreased running game under Niumatalolo one of the problems?

MJ: Navy has moved the ball pretty well; the problem has been mistakes
in the red zone. The Mids are just outside the top 30 teams in getting
to the red zone, but are 109th in the country in converting on those
opportunities. They scored touchdowns on each of their 8 red zone
chances in their last two games, though, so that appears to be turning

Navy isn’t running for as many yards as they have in years past,
but that doesn’t really reflect a problem with the offense. Coach
Niumatalolo likes to speed up the game and help out the defense by
controlling the ball and reducing the number of possessions each team
gets. And frankly, a lot of the regulars on Navy’s schedules– Pitt,
SMU, Duke, Temple, Army, Air Force– are just better than they used to

ITI: Navy showed the blueprint on how to beat Notre Dame in 2009. Outside of the final two minutes of the 2008 game, the Irish seemed to show the blueprint on how to stuff Navy. What’s the game plan for the Midshipmen if they want to make it two in a row and three of four against the Irish?

I don’t think either team showed much of a blueprint, really. Notre
Dame tried the same defense in 2009 that they used in 2008, and Navy
won. But the way the Irish were moving the ball up and down the field,
it was clear that Navy hadn’t solved any magic formula either; instead,
Notre Dame had red zone issues of their own. Controlling mistakes is
part of the game, and the last two games have been won by the team that
made fewer of them. That’s pretty generic, I know, but it’s been as much
of a “blueprint” as anything else.

Bob Diaco and Mike Elston have faced the Navy offense once before,
when both were assistants at Eastern Michigan in 2003. EMU spent most of
the game in an odd front, alternating between a 5-man front (3-4) and a
3-3-5. Paul Johnson tinkered with a few different formations in the
first quarter to see how the EMU defense would react. Whenever Navy
would line up in what’s called “Over Right Brown” or “Over Left Brown”
(twin WR and a slotback on one side of the formation, with a slotback on
the other side of the formation on the line of scrimmage like a tight
end), EMU’s linebackers would shade toward the side of the formation
with the slotback on the LOS. This created a numbers advantage going the
other way, and Navy stayed in that formation running plays away from
the linebackers pretty much the rest of the game. Navy ran for 372 yards
that day in a 39-7 win, so I’m not sure how much of that game
plan Diaco will want to repeat. The closest thing to Navy that Notre
Dame has faced this year is Michigan. The Irish spent most of that game
in a 4-man front, so already Diaco has done things differently.
I expect Notre Dame to run the ball a little more than usual this
week. Running the ball out of the spread formations that Charley Molnar
and Brian Kelly prefer puts a lot of pressure on individual defenders
because they’re usually isolated. Maryland and Louisiana Tech were both
able to have some success catching Navy’s new linebackers out of
position by doing just that. The LBs have improved in recent weeks, but
I’m sure that Notre Dame will put that improvement to the test.

ITI: With the Meadowlands likely a wash for homefield advantage, what’s your gut feeling on Saturday’s game? Who comes out with a win?

MJ: Let’s not kid ourselves; Notre Dame is going to have the home field
advantage at the Meadowlands, not that it really matters. I don’t like
to predict winners, but I will say that I think the game is going to go
quickly. Navy is going to take their time when they have the football,
and their defense will keep everything in front of them to force the
Irish offense into long drives. Notre Dame is favored for a reason. Navy
won’t keep the Irish from moving the ball between the 20s. Whether
those drives end in field goals or touchdowns will be the story of the


Great stuff from Mike, especially the in-depth look at Bob Diaco and Mike Elston’s first run at the Navy triple-option. For more Navy perspective and a healthy dose of postgame haikus, head over to The Birddog.

Kelly stays in the moment

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


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

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: