Pregame Twelve Pack: Navy Edition

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Bring on another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Navy game in the new Meadowlands.


1. Want a key to victory? Irish need to win the turnover battle.

Even though the Irish have won the yardage and first down battle in the last three games against Navy, they’ve been absolutely dominated in the turnover margin, losing 9-2 over the span.

In the 2007 triple-overtime Irish loss, the turnovers were tied 1-1, in the 27-21 escape victory in Baltimore in 2008, the Irish turned the ball over five times to Navy’s one, and in the 23-21 loss last season, the Midshipmen were flawless in the turnover department, while ND turned the ball over three times (twice in the red zone) and also missed two field goals.

Navy enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 in the country with a +1.2 margin on turnovers, while the Irish rank 57th in the country, so holding onto the football will be critical for the Irish.

2. Add to the critical column: Cut down the offensive three and outs.

The fine folks over at Her Loyal Sons crunched the numbers and found that on just under 22 percent of drives, the Irish go three-and-out. Obviously, that’s way too high of a number, and — well, I’ll let Domer.mq explain the rest:

We already knew that ND’s 82nd national ranking in 3rd down conversions, at just 37.89% was bad. It seems even worse if you consider that the 22 3-and-out drives by ND this season account for about 58% of the drives in which ND punted, meaning there’s quite-a-bit better than a coin-flip’s chance that if ND is punting, they’ve made absolutely no headway in one of the most important aspects of any football game: field possession. Further, at the going rate, almost 1/4th of all of ND’s 3rd down attempts will occur in the first attempt at gaining a new first down and will result in the team punting.

The number gets even uglier when you consider that only ND’s on about the same pace with 3-and-out drives as it is with TD scoring drives. Couple those 3-and-out drives with turnover drives, and the Irish offense’s TD scoring rate is overwhelmed by a “negative result” rate of about 37% over 23%. Even if you pair FGs with the TDs, the “positive result” rate only reaches 34%. More “objectively bad” drives have occurred with ND’s offense to this point in the season than have “objectively good” drives.

Just one more thing to think about: No Navy opponent this year has had more than 12 possessions in a game. Further, Navy’s opponents are only averaging about 10 possessions a game. Notre Dame’s offense averages 14 possessions per game thus far. When an opponent, like Navy, manages to eliminate 3-4 of your possessions simply by virtue of the style of football they play, you truly can’t afford to throw away 22% of the remaining possessions by going three-and-out. Some quick, cocktail napkin math extrapolates that, if all of these rates remain unchanged for the Navy/Notre Dame game this weekend, Notre Dame will only score about 17 points.

If Notre Dame is getting the ball only 10 times on Saturday, they’ll have to do better than punting after three plays on two of their possessions. The good news, as HLS points out, the Irish are trending positive, doing a better job of staying on the field.

3. Offensive efficiency is the key to Kelly’s game plan.

Navy limits teams possessions with their ball-control option attack. Head coach Brian Kelly has made it clear that the Irish are going to have to play a cleaner game of football than they’ve played in the past few weeks.

“We have to be efficient, we have to catch the ball,” Kelly said. “We have to throw it accurately, and we’ve got to run the ball.”

The key to that efficiency will be Dayne Crist, who has played good football in his first season starting at quarterback, but fallen into mini-slumps during each of his seven starts this year.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game,” Kelly said. “If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient in throwing the football, obviously, we’ll have to struggle at times.

4. Ricky Dobbs will walk away from the Naval Academy as one of its best ever.

While his preseason Heisman campaign probably ended after a season opening loss, Ricky Dobbs is still one of the best players ever to wear the Navy uniform. Dobbs is just three rushing touchdowns shy of tying Chris McCoy‘s school record. (McCoy sits at 1oth in NCAA history for touchdowns by a quarterback.)

Dobbs’ incredible 2009 season included a NCAA single-season record for TD runs by a quarterback with 27, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that Dobbs played the final six games of the season with a broken kneecap.

Dobbs ran for 102 yards on 31 carries last year against the Irish, and also broke the Irish’s back with a 52-yard touchdown pass on play-action.

5. If Navy wins Saturday, the Midshipmen will make history.

Three wins in four years would help make Navy’s senior class one of the most successful against Notre Dame in school history. A win this weekend by Navy would join the 2010 class with the Class of 1937 and Class of 1964 as the only classes to beat Notre Dame three times.

That 1964 class was captained by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

6. A tip for the Irish defense — Tackle Vince Murray.

Only playing in two varsity games during his first two seasons at Navy, Vince Murray seemed to hit his stride last October. The 215-pound fullback from Union, Kentucky had consecutive games of over 100 yards against Southern Methodist, Wake Forest and Temple before walking into Notre Dame Stadium and setting the world on fire.

Murray absolutely killed the Irish running the ball straight up the gut, and he averaged 11.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame for 158, far and away the best game he’d ever had in a Navy uniform.

Nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will be tasked with making sure Murray doesn’t run wild through the heart of the Irish defense again, though a knee injury may stop Williams Murray before he ever gets the chance to step on the field.

7. Stopping the Midshipmen on 4th down is critical for the Irish defense.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for his aggressive style, and that’s personified in his penchant for going for it on 4th down. Last year, Navy went for it on 4th down the fifth most times in college football, finishing 4th in the country with 19 4th down conversions and a rate just shy of 68 percent. Navy is converting on two-thirds of their attempts this year, attempting nine 4th downs through six games.

Navy converted both their 4th down attempts last year against the Irish, both on their opening drive on short runs by Dobbs, the final attempt for a one-yard touchdown run. The Irish were 0 for 2, with an incomplete pass at the Navy three-yard line costing the Irish points, and a fourth-quarter attempt going for a safety. A net swing of about nine pretty important points.

8. Bob Diaco versus the Option: A quick look.

It’s hard to complain about the job Bob Diaco has done with the Irish defense, and there’ll be no coach more in the line of fire than Diaco this weekend, who is tasked with stopping an option attack that absolutely ate up the Irish for 404 total yards and 6.1 yards per carry last season.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly mentioned that Diaco had experience against the triple-option attack that Navy ran, so I went back and looked for the games. Here’s Diaco’s work against Navy’s triple-option attack:

  • 2003: Navy 39, Eastern Michigan 7. As an outside linebackers coach, Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston‘s over-matched Eagle defense held Paul Johnson‘s Navy attack to only 11 first-half points, before the floodgates opened up.
  • 2005: Central Michigan 14, Army 10. Though not running the same attack as Navy, a Diaco coordinated Chippewa defense held Army to 239 yards and only 66 through the air in a tight battle.
  • 2008: Virginia 24, No. 18 Georgia Tech 17. Coaching linebackers under 3-4 guru Al Groh, the Cavalier defense did such a good job against Paul Johnson’s spread option that when Groh was eventually fired as head coach, he was brought on to coordinate Johnson’s Georgia Tech defense.

Looking at the great work the Cavaliers did against a Georgia Tech team that had taken the ACC by storm, Diaco should have a pretty firm grasp on what Navy’s trying to do.

9. Beware of the Red Army.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Al Lesar did a nice job profiling three Notre Dame back-up quarterbacks, Matt Mulvey, Nate Montana, and Brian Castello, a trio of (mostly) benchwarmers that walk the sideline wearing red hats and have the incredibly important job of signaling in the plays.

Lesar recounts offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talking about their importance.

“Let’s just say this, when a mistake occurs, which it does very, very infrequently, from the signalers to the players out on the field, they’ll be the first to hear about it,” said Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.

“They have to be really perfect in their job because your offense has no chance if they’re not. If a signaler would make a mistake, nobody would have confidence in the signals. We can’t play football that way. (The players) have to have great confidence that the signal’s correct.”

“When they get the play call, they have to signal it almost simultaneously. Usually coach Kelly will communicate it. That’s pressure for anybody, believe me.”

Castello joked that the red hats aren’t for quarterback Dayne Crist to easily see them, but for a larger meaning.

“The true meaning of the red hats, as quarterbacks, we call ourselves ‘The Red Army.’ It came about as we all wear red jerseys as we’re all very valuable and breakable; we don’t see a lot of contact during practice. It’s kinda like a fraternity started by Evan Sharpley.

“I think we’re the most feared group on the team; and also (most) respected.”

Between the Red Army and Team Reckless, there are quiet a few funny guys on this football team.

10. David Ruffer’s expertise can be attributed to another former Notre Dame special teamer.

There’s not much left to be written about David Ruffer, the walk-on kicker that’s turned himself into an Irish folk hero. The former walk-on that’d never played in a football game is now a record-setting field goal kicker and potential All-American candidate.

How about this factoid:

Ruffer’s career as a kicker started under the tutelage of another Notre Dame special teams ace, former Irish punter Joey Hildbold, one of the top punters in Irish history. Hildbold was the special teams coach at William & Mary when Ruffer decided that he’d attempt to play football for the first time.

11. Andrew Hendrix is drawing plenty of praise on the scout team.

While he’s playing a position that won’t let him fight his way onto the field, freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix received quite a bit of praise this week, reminding Irish fans why they were so excited to bring in the rocket-armed quarterback in the first place.

“He’s impressive,” Kelly said of the quarterback that’s playing Ricky Dobbs this week. “The ball comes out of his hand like probably one other guy that I have coached. I mean it comes out that quick and that fast. He has escape-ability and maneuverability. He has all the pieces. It’s now just going to be about getting into the offense and seeing how he picks things up from a spread quarterback standpoint. The tools are pretty impressive. When the defensive coaches rave about somebody, and they don’t do that very often, you know you have somebody who has a chance to be really good.”

I’ve mentioned it a few times this season, but it’s doubtful that all three freshman quarterback remain on this roster until the end of their senior season. Here’s hoping Kelly does a better job convincing guys that they’ve got a chance at winning the quarterback job than Charlie Weis did, who ran both Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones out of town after it was clear that Jimmy Clausen was being given the starting quarterback job his freshman season.

12. A four game winning streak would be incredibly rare for this team.

If the Irish win Saturday against the Midshipmen, it’ll be a four-game winning streak for Brian Kelly’s bunch. How rare of an achievement is that for this team? Well, consider that not a single senior on this roster has won four straight games.

The only members of the roster that have a four-game winning streak under their belt are Barry Gallup, Chris Stewart, and Darrin Walls, all fifth-year players that were a part of the 2006 team.

It’s been a tough four-year stretch…

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

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Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.

And In That Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

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If Notre Dame ends its season with two wins, a headline-grabbing bowl berth will be assured and the Irish will have rebounded quite nicely from a 4-8 campaign only a year ago. If, however, Notre Dame loses this weekend, the talk of the issues that led to that dismal season will abound anew.

First up in the concluding fortnight is Navy. For some intel on the Midshipmen, let’s chat with Ava Wallace of The Washington Post.

At 6-3, the Midshipmen are already bowl eligible, but do not have a genuine chance at the American Athletic Conference title game. That makes the focus rather narrow this week, simply on beating Notre Dame. For so long, this series was decisively one-sided. Obviously that has shifted in the last decade. Does that diminish Navy’s reaction to getting the win last year at all? How much does that carry over to this point?

Ken Niumatalolo has seen all sides of the Notre Dame-Navy series, being on the sideline for all four Midshipmen wins in the last 52 years.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo actually addressed this in practice this week. He mentioned Navy’s four wins against Notre Dame since 2007, but one thing that’s pretty deeply ingrained in the team culture under Niumatalolo is humility. The Midshipmen know they are oftentimes not as big, strong or fast as their opponents that can recruit without the restrictions that come with being a service academy. A win over a program as elite as Notre Dame is always a big deal for these guys, and even if his players are used to a more even series with the Irish, Niumatalolo was around when Navy was losing year after year. He makes sure his guys realize how meaningful a win over Notre Dame is. (Niumatalolo was an assistant at Navy from 1995-1998 and 2002-2007, at which point he became head coach when Paul Johnson headed to Georgia Tech, partly thanks to finally beating Notre Dame in 2007.)

It has been an up-then-down season for Navy, opening 5-0 before losing three straight. What was the downfall during that stretch? I would blindly chalk it up to the competition, but Memphis only squeezed by 30-27 and Irish fans know Temple is not what it used to be.

Part of the reason for Navy’s slide was teams started to figure out junior quarterback Zach Abey’s tendencies. He stays in the middle and doesn’t execute on the perimeter as much as, say, sophomore Malcolm Perry did against Southern Methodist. Once teams figured out how to slow Abey, defenses had an easier go of it. (Temple held them to a season-low 136 yards rushing.) Niumatalolo also said speed was a problem for his team during those losses, as in, the defense wasn’t reacting quickly enough.

To my understanding, any one of three quarterbacks could get the start this week, Abey, Perry and junior Garret Lewis. Who do you think will start, and what differences do each of them bring to the offense?

Niumatalolo said it’s likely Perry, who sprained his ankle last weekend against Southern Methodist, won’t be healthy in time for the Notre Dame game. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is left to decide between Abey and his backup Lewis, who has been used strictly for cleanup duty so far this season. Niumatalolo said Navy might not reveal its starter until kickoff.

If his non-throwing shoulder is healthy enough to play, Navy junior quarterback Zach Abey will give Notre Dame’s defense all it can handle. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Though players and coaches call Perry the team’s best athlete, Abey is the Midshipmen’s leading rusher, averaging 150.2 yards per game. He hurt his left, non-throwing shoulder earlier in the year and is still a little beat up, which is why he didn’t play at all against SMU. But Niumatalolo praises Abey for his toughness above all else — he was an accomplished rugby player in high school in Baltimore — and the junior can execute Navy’s triple-option offense, whereas Niumatalolo calls Lewis a spread quarterback at heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abey gets the start against Notre Dame — the Mids need all the toughness they can get.

Last year Notre Dame got the ball a total of six possessions against the Midshipmen. How much of an anomaly is that when going against Navy? Obviously, the Irish hope to have the ball a bit more often this weekend.

Six possessions is low even for Navy’s defense, but because they run the triple-option, the Mids tend to out-possess their opponents regularly. This season, they’ve had the ball for an average of 35:48 each game, compared to their opponents’ 25:12.  Niumtatlolo is conscious the Irish are running the ball more this year, so that may skew in Notre Dame’s favor against a tired Navy defense.

As it seems is often (always??) the case, opposing teams do not struggle to put up points against the Midshipmen, averaging 30.3 points per game. They just can’t stop Navy’s triple-option attack. Looking at the first aspect of that, how much will Niumatalolo focus on simply keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands compared to actually stopping the Irish outright?

Niumatalolo would certainly say he’ll try to do both, but you’re completely right — his teams go as the offense goes. Part of why he started Perry against Southern Methodist was because the team needed a spark on offense. Correcting the defense wasn’t less of his focus, per say, but in my opinion that move showed what Niumatalolo values most. If his team isn’t running the ball well, there aren’t many teams Navy can beat. I think the Temple game showed that.

The spread is currently 18 points. As much as a score prediction, how competitive do you expect Saturday afternoon to be?

Notre Dame 38, Navy 28.