Floyd Navy

Opponent preview: Navy


The first of twelve opponent previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents.

The Overview:

After living the good life as the scrappy band of underdogs that won games by doing the little things right, Ken Niumatalolo‘s Navy team fell back down to earth in 2011, losing seven games because of bad red zone play, a horrific kicking game, and making the type of mistakes earlier editions of the Midshipmen used to capitalize on themselves.

Losing five games by a total of 11 points forced Navy to go back to the basics this offseason, with Niumatalolo cracking the whip as he’s forced to replace almost half of the team’s returning lettermen and 12 starters. After one of the biggest drubbings in almost a quarter century, Navy will head to Dublin with revenge on their mind.

Last time against the Irish:

After a chaotic week filled after laying an egg against USC and some somewhat divisive radio comment made by Brian Kelly, many were worried the Irish were ready to fall apart. Those worries lasted less than two minutes, as the Irish rumbled down the field quickly and didn’t stop until they put up 56 points against the Midshipmen, backed by seven rushing touchdowns.

“They whipped our butts today,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s my fourteenth team playing Notre Dame and that’s the most full butt whipping.”

Michael Floyd had six catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Tommy Rees completed 16 of 22 passes, and Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood averaged six yards a carry and ran for five touchdowns before Notre Dame finally took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Navy as the tenth toughest opponent on the schedule.

10. Navy

The Match-up:

After two option quarterback led the Navy offense, Trey Miller captains the ship, a more accomplished passer than his predecessors. Miller faced the Irish last season as an injury replacement, but will be more seasoned this year. Brandon Turner is back with the team after struggling to pass his conditioning test this fall, but fellow receiver Matt Aiken will likely miss the game after hyperextending his knee during a scrimmage. Gee Gee Green will be back in the backfield, but it’ll be Noah Copeland‘s job to replace Alexander Teich. The Midshipmen still need to solve a horrendous kicking game, missing nine kicks in twelve games last season.

On defense, the Middies will need to fill the shoes of defensive end Jabaree Tuani, who graduated after a sterling four year career. Not helping their case is that the line has also lost two other potential contributors, with Jamel Dobbs dismissed from the Academy and Josh Jones walking away from football. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green will rotate a lot of bodies along the line as he looks to find the right combination. Linebacker Matt Warrick will pace the Academy’s back seven, joined by senior safety Tra’ves Bush and sophomore Chris Ferguson. Converted safety Josh Tate also passed the Physical Readiness Test this week after failing earlier and should add some speed to the edge of the defense.

How the Irish will win:

It’s a pretty simple formula for the Irish, though the execution remains to be the wild card of the 2012 season. With Tommy Rees back home in South Bend, it’ll be up to Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix to lead the Irish offense without turning the football over. The Irish have a sizable advantage along the lines, and with running options Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, and Amir Carlisle, the ball doesn’t need to be in the air all that much, unless it’s heading toward All-American Tyler Eifert.

After a rough debut against Niumatalolo, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has done a nice job playing against option attacks, limiting points even if offenses have done a decent job racking up yardage. With Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt, and Louis Nix along the line, Manti Te’o roaming sideline to sideline and the entire defense pretty familiar with the option attack, there’s little reason the Irish shouldn’t win in front of a likely pro-Notre Dame crowd in Dublin.

How the Irish will lose:

The recipe for disaster is fairly well known after last season. An offense that turns the ball over at inopportune times. A defense that gives up yards by the bunch against option opponents. And a secondary that’s had little experience, and will likely be susceptible against the one or two deep shots Navy takes down field.

Navy will do everything it can to limit Notre Dame’s possessions and milk the clock as it moves the ball down the field. With an entire preseason to add some wrinkles to its attack, Navy should try to catch the Irish defense unprepared. If the offense can’t get out of the gates quickly and Navy hangs around into the second half, this might be a nightmarish start to the season and an awfully long trip home to South Bend.

Gut Feeling:

Even with a first time starter at quarterback, there shouldn’t be much to worry about for the Irish. Notre Dame’s strength on both lines should make it difficult for Navy. The skill players the Irish have should overwhelm the Midshipmen’s defense. And after splitting the first two rounds, Brian Kelly and company should take another game from Niumatalolo and his undermanned squad. It’s a good first opponent for the Irish, who get some extra time to prep for the option, while also easing Golson (or Hendrix) into the mix.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.