Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen


We’ve had almost nine months to think about it. After finishing the 2011 season on a dour note, Notre Dame — both its team and its fans — have been in an ornery mood hoping to get the bad taste of a disappointing season out of their collective mouths ever since the Irish let Florida State sneak out of Orlando with a victory.

So much has changed from last season. After taking over for Dayne Crist in the season’s opening game, quarterback Tommy Rees now finds himself on the bench with the Irish resetting their offense behind youthful wildcard Everett Golson. Missing the team’s best player, the Irish offense, long identified by the singular brilliance of wideout Michael Floyd, will look to find an answer in the passing game. And while Manti Te’o chose to return for a final season leading the defense, Bob Diaco‘s troops will need to find a back end to stop the big play and a rush end to finally get to the quarterback.

Notre Dame’s first opponent is one of its oldest: Navy. While this game is played 3,600-odd miles farther away than usual, head coach Ken Niumatalolo‘s team is coming off a sour season of their own, a year in which the Midshipmen were uncharacteristically sloppy, and suffered one of their most embarrassing defeats of the year to the Irish.

While we’ve been doing our best to follow the ups and downs of the Navy offseason, we were lucky enough to catch up with Bill Wagner, who covers the Midshipmen for the Annapolis Capital Gazette.

We asked questions, Wagner answered them. Hopefully we can all learn a little bit more about the team the Irish are set to face this weekend.


After winning a few big games against the Irish, Notre Dame really beat up the Midshipmen last year, the ugliest game of the season for Navy. Has that been used as fuel during this fall camp?

Yes, Ken Niumatalolo has harped on the fact “We are opening against a team that beat our brains in last year.”

Not sure he’s using it as motivation, but more to warn the players that this is a very, very tough opponent that has the capability to physically whip Navy.

Last season, the Navy defense struggled to contain not just Notre Dame, but a lot of programs. The Midshipmen already have to replace their best defensive player Jabaree Tuani, can Buddy Green assemble a unit that can slow down the Irish offense?

Navy suffered some significant losses on defense, notably Tuani. However, it returns a lot of players who saw playing time. Navy defense is the same as always. A little undersized and not as fast as most BCS programs. The key is execution, running to the football and gang-tackling. Last year’s team didn’t figure that out until too late in the season.

Trey Miller had a tough debut when he came to Notre Dame last season in place of Kris Proctor. Will he be a capable option trigger man or will the Midshipmen adapt their offense to take advantage of his throwing skills?

Trey Miller is a talented quarterback, as athletically gifted as any Navy quarterback in recent history. He is still young and developing a grasp of the triple-option. However, he has matured as a player and as a leader. He has looked very confident in preseason practice.

Last year, Navy lost a ton of games because of the little things — special teams, red zone play, and penalties. How confident is Ken Niumatalolo they that they’ve solved these problems, and what should we make of the handful of key contributors not being able to pass their physical readiness test, a seemingly modest challenge for a college football player.

Niumatalolo was very upset that Navy got away from its trademark of playing mistake-free football, and also playing with great intensity and toughness. Navy went back to the basics during spring practice and also hit a lot in order to develop toughness and physicality. Truth be told, bad placekicking was the difference between a winning and a losing season. Not sure that has been corrected as the kickers have looked awful this August. Freshman Nick Sloan won the job by default.

Special thanks to Bill who has had a ton of demands on his time as he prepares to head to Dublin to watch the big game. If you want to catch up on all things Midshipmen football, head over and check out some of Bill’s work.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”