Pregame Six Pack: Blue & Gold (and a certain Irish victory)

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It may count the same as the other fourteen practices allotted by NCAA rules during the spring, but there will be plenty of eyeballs on the last official workout of the school year for the Irish. With a national broadcast on NBC Sports Network kicking off at 1:30 p.m. ET, a spring spent mostly working away from the eyes of media will be opened up for all to see in high definition, tightening the microscope on a Notre Dame football program that’s had a roller-coaster spring.

From position changes to unexpected departures, a quarterback battle that’ll likely last deep into August, and a wide receiving corps in desperate need of reinforcements, plenty has happened since the Irish ended the 2011 season with a disappointing loss to Florida State.

To get you up to speed, the pregame six pack will give you six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings, as we prepare for a football game where the Irish are certain to win.

***

While the focus should stay on the players on the field, the most intriguing football player on campus is still Aaron Lynch.

Brian Kelly isn’t in the business of talking people into staying. In his first days as coach at Notre Dame, he wished wide receiver Shaq Evans well, unwilling to re-recruit a talented player to a team where he wasn’t committed to playing. While mystery still surrounds cornerback Tee Shepard‘s departure, Kelly didn’t blink when Shepard went home to Fresno, looking more and more a lock to never set foot on campus again after being one of the Irish’s most steadfast (and important) recruits.

A week ago, Kelly addressed the media without flinching, announcing that rising star defensive end Aaron Lynch “has quit the football team.” While he remains on campus finishing the semester before deciding where to take his prodigious talents, it appears that Kelly is fine with living the credo “next man in.” But that doesn’t mean his family is.

Thursday evening, Alice Lynch, Aaron’s mother and an active presence on Twitter, took to the popular social networking website to seek the help of former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck. “Please go to Zahm Hall and tell my son Aaron what a bad decision he is making by leaving ND. Thank you.”

The message spread like wildfire across the web, and certainly confirmed the suspicions of many that the younger Lynch is making a unilateral decision, one that wasn’t run by his mother, teammates, or coaches. That Lynch’s mother would reach out of Notre Dame’s best NFL player, a defensive end that battled culture shock in South Bend to become one of the best ambassadors of the university playing professional football, shows both the power of social media, and the lengths Lynch’s mother is willing to go to talk sense into her son.

Former Irish player Spencer Boyd took to Twitter today to announce Lynch would be joining Skip Holtz‘s South Florida team this summer, and there were other reports that Lynch would be visiting Tampa for a visit this weekend. But the fact Lynch’s mother would reach out to Tuck, who is serving as an honorary captain this Saturday, gives you the feeling that the final chapter in Lynch’s Notre Dame career may not have been written in ink.

***

With the depth chart at wide receiver dwindling, it’s time for Daniel Smith and Davaris Daniels to step up.

As the Irish enter the first year of life after Michael Floyd, they’ll walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a depth chart more than a little short. With incoming freshman Justin Ferguson and Chris Brown not coming to campus until summer, even at full strength, it was tough to field a complete depth chart at the outside receiver positions.

Add to that some untimely injuries this spring, and the lack of receivers was a big reason Kelly decided against a traditional scrimmage that split the roster in half. With fifth-year senior John Goodman suffering a minor ankle injury that’ll likely keep him out of the spring game and Luke Massa suffering an ACL injury that’ll likely keep him sidelined into next season, the Irish are down to four scholarship players at the outside receiver positions — a number that just isn’t enough in a spread offense.

But the shortage should benefit two players that were persons of interest this spring: rising junior Daniel Smith and soon-to-be sophomore Davaris Daniels. Both have been under close watch by Kelly, and both seem to have performed up to task.

After bearing the brunt of some candid comments by Kelly, Daniels — who has already been pronounced one of the most dynamic athletes on the roster by the head coach — turned in a steady week of practice and has the staff feeling like he’ll be ready to go come fall.

“This last week, DaVaris Daniels really stepped up his play and became a guy that we can feel comfortable now saying that he’s going to help us win games next year,” Kelly said. “That’s a really important thing.”

After battling a difficult depth chart and some injury woes in his first two years in the program, Smith, a South Bend native that’s yet to make much of a difference on the field, made it through spring practice unscathed and ready to use his 6-foot-4 frame for some good.

“Daniel is important to us,” Kelly said this week. “We need him to come up and be a consistent player for us, and it’s been about injuries for him. He’s got the injury bug and it looks like he’s kicked it because he made every spring practice and he hadn’t been able to do that in his previous time here. So a really positive step for Daniel Smith this spring.”

TJ Jones returns the most snaps at the receiver position, and we’ll see if he can make a leap as an upperclassman after battling through a challenging season off the field last season. We’ll also see walk-on Andre Smith getting some reps, as the North Broward Prep, Florida prospect has done some nice things this spring.

***

While Kelly’s declared the playbook open, don’t expect to see all the new wrinkles.

Talking with coaches the past two years, the Blue-Gold game was one of the least efficient practices of the season. In Brian Kelly’s first year, the offense ran about as vanilla as it could possibly go, with Irish fans dazzled at a quick pace, and more than fine with seeing the same three running plays. On defense, Bob Diaco made sure his unit didn’t run a single alignment that they’d use during the season.

Last season, Kelly and company were happy to get out of the workout unscathed, with defensive starters pulled quickly, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees both protected and pulled quickly, and the second half given to Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, not to mention the breakout performance of Aaron Lynch.

With four quarterbacks that need to see live bullets, and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin running the show, Kelly has reversed course on what he’s trying to get out of the spring’s final workout.

“We’re going to show,” Kelly said. “Everybody has film on us. So we’re going to run our offense and our defense, and our quarterbacks are live, all four quarterbacks are live. They need to be live, they need to be part of it.”

Making his quarterbacks live is a luxury the Irish didn’t have in Kelly’s last two spring games, both featuring Crist rehabilitating a major knee injury. And while each quarterback will be treated like any other ball carrier, don’t truly expect to see all the new wrinkles come out, especially with Martin and Kelly completely revamping the personnel groupings.

One new play in particular to watch for? The “Fly Sweep” that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen used to shred Clemson’s defense with in the Orange Bowl. (For the genesis of the play, here’s a great rundown.) We’ve already seen the play in UND.com practice videos, meaning Martin and Kelly won’t be afraid to show it again. With talented slot versatility with guys like Robby Toma, Theo Riddick, incoming freshman Davonte Neal and even Cierre Wood, don’t be surprised to see this come into play on Saturday.

***

Jamoris Slaughter will only be adding to his versatility.

After dropping down into the box last season to play outside linebacker against Air Force, the defense found one of its most versatile weapons in safety Jamoris Slaughter. After losing most of his junior year with a nagging foot injury suffered in the opener against Purdue, Slaughter showed his value by moving seamlessly from the back of the defense to the front seven, working well taking on both pulling guards and speedy receivers, filling in for field linebacker Prince Shembo, who struggled playing out of position for most of the year.

With field cornerback a major concern with Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson battling it out for the job across from junior Bennett Jackson, don’t be surprised to see Slaughter working in at another spot, optimizing one of the Irish’s most flexible players. What looked like an experiment at cornerback earlier in the spring is now clearly cross-training.

“I don’t think it’s an experiment,” Kelly said. “He’s in there if we need him. If we get into a bind or we lose a guy or two, he can go in there. I remember when I played baseball, I carried two gloves: a catcher’s mitt and a first baseman’s glove. That’s kind of what we’re doing with Jamoris. He’s our safety, but he’s got to be ready to go if we need him.”

There’s no cornerback help coming in the fall, with Shepard gone and the Irish unable to bring in any other recruits after players like Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer had to be taken off the recruiting board. While Cam McDaniel has shown promise in his 14 practices learning a new position, getting the cornerbacks off the field healthy is of the utmost importance, as is making sure Slaughter can play anywhere. With the coaches confident that Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth can handle safety reps, adding another dimension to Slaughter’s game will only help.

***

It’s a recruiting reunion on campus this weekend for the Irish.

In years past, the Blue-Gold game has been a showcase weekend for the Irish coaching staff as they unofficially welcome handfuls of recruits to campus. That’ll stay the same this weekend, though most recruits coming to campus have already given their pledge to the Irish.

Nine of the ten verbal commitments to the Irish will be in South Bend this weekend for the Blue-Gold game. Offensive linemen Hunter Bivin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern will all reunite after seeing each other at the Irish’s last junior day. They’ll be joined by cornerback Devin Butler, defensive end Jacob Matuska, wide receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson and quarterback Malik Zaire. The only commitment that can’t make it this weekend is New Jersey cornerback Rashad Kinlaw.

The Irish hoped to get an appearance from uber-recruit Jaylon Smith, but the Fort Wayne product — who was timed running a 4.4, and dazzled at his regular outside linebacker/defensive end position before taking reps as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound shutdown cornerback at an Adidas combine recently — will be playing in a seven-on-seven tournament.

But fear not, Irish fans. Notre Dame has its own secret weapon working on Smith. None other than the school’s most popular athlete, All-American point guard Skylar Diggins. After Smith tweeted out candidates like Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and USC, Diggins — for all of her 230,439 followers to see — tweeted back at Smith, “Irish. Easy.”

***

Blue-Gold performance is no indicator for future earnings.

There are plenty of reasons to watch the Blue-Gold game on Saturday. (First of all, it’s your last chance to watch the Irish on TV until you’re up at dawn to see them playing Navy in Dublin.) But take anything that happens on the field with a grain of salt. A great performance in the Blue-Gold game is just that: A great performance in a spring scrimmage. For every performance like Aaron Lynch had last season, there’s one by Kyle Budinscak, who racked up five sacks during the 2001 spring game. (He never had more than three sacks in a season.) Cierre Wood’s big 2010 Blue-Gold game was a sign of things to come, while Junior Jabbie‘s breakout 2007 performance is noting more than a fun footnote in Irish lore.

With live quarterbacks, ones-versus-ones, and legitimate competition at several key positions, there’s plenty you can glean from the only up-close look at the Irish we’ll get until Dublin. But a terrific (or terrible) performance by anyone — quarterbacks included — may be big news to us, but only one of many data-points to coaches.

Saturday will be a fun one and will likely give a few hints at what’s to come. But if you’re expecting to reach any conclusions, you’ll walk away disappointed.

 

 

 

 

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.