Pregame six pack: Hurricanes roll into Chicago

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Notre Dame – Miami. It may not be the blood feud it was 20 years ago, but the match-up certainly lights up the marquee. And with a stage as unique as Soldier Field and in a city like Chicago, there’s plenty of luster left in a game that might not mean what it once did, but still is a headline grabber.

“We understand the history of this ball game,” Manti Te’o said this week. “But we also understand the importance of being ourselves and not buying in to the whole hype of a rivalry game.”

As we prepare for No. 9 Notre Dame to take on a young and feisty Miami team that’s 4-1, let’s run through six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Shamrock Series kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. Despite the whispers, the quarterback job is still Everett Golson’s.

Rumors spread like wildfire across the internet that Brian Kelly, already known for his hair trigger at the quarterback position, was ready to make another big change. Yet when Kelly addressed the media this afternoon, he reaffirmed the news that Everett Golson was still his starting quarterback.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said with a smile. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

And with that, another (ND) national crisis was averted. The news that Kelly is sticking with Golson is far from shocking, and is a consistent tune for a head coach willing to roll with the punches as he develops his young quarterback.

“He is getting better. There is so much development that’s taking place that’s not on Saturdays,” Kelly said. “It’s coming. We’re not a finished product yet, and I’ve got a guy in Tommy Rees who can come in and help us while we go through this process of learning. I’m comfortable with it. I guess that’s all I can really say, but yes, Everett will start.”

A few evenings after watching two politicians carefully craft statements, Kelly’s comments on Golson come off as more declarative than the two men fighting to be the free world’s leader, but there’s still a sprinkle of ex-politico in Kelly’s statements.

Over the bye week, junior Tommy Rees took a large portion of first team reps at practice. And when asked about the state of the locker room in regards to who the team’s quarterback should be, Kelly carefully picked his words.

“I’m aware of our team and I have the pulse of our football team as it relates to who would be the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I’d feel very comfortable saying that our football team will respond to whatever decision I make. I think I’ve got the trust of our football team that they know that I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team, to win right now.”

For now, that means Golson will get the chance to go against Miami’s mediocre defense.

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2. It’s time for Notre Dame’s running game to kick into gear.

The Irish offense hasn’t moved the ball as well on the ground as many expected. Slogging their way to just 3.8 yards per carry and a meager 140 yards a game, Kelly discussed the challenges that have come around with changing up schemes.

“It hasn’t been talked a lot about, but we were a heavy gap-pull team last year, and we are much more of an inside-outside zone team this year,” Kelly said. “The reads are very much different for the running back… The idiosyncrasies of it all are really big. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it takes more patience and we really focused on that more this week.”

Running back Theo Riddick embodies the run game struggles, leading the team in carries with 63, but averaging only 3.8 yards a tote. While the offensive line certainly hasn’t played up to the level it expects, Riddick has left plenty of yardage on the field with his propensity to cut back against the grain too quickly, unwilling to wait for the outside run to develop.

But after a week off, the Irish might encounter the best slump-buster Chicago has to offer: The Hurricanes defense. Entering Saturday night with the nation’s 115th ranked run defense, Miami will be without starting defensive tackle Olsen Pierre.

And after missing the season’s first two games due to suspension and struggling to find a rhythm against Michigan, expect Cierre Wood to get every chance to seize the starting job on Saturday night. Even struggling, the Irish senior has gone for 5.6 yards a touch, a number that should go up on Saturday.

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3. Even if he wasn’t a wrecking ball on the defensive line, Louis Nix is a guy you want in the middle of anything.

Let’s not let Louis Nix‘s tremendous personality get in the way of the work he does on the field. The junior defensive tackle, at 6-foot-3 and far-more-than-his-listed-326-pounds, is a tremendous key to the Irish’s pass rush against prolific thrower and dangerous runner Stephen Morris. He’s played active, relentless football this season, and his three tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks give the Irish a legitimate disruptor at the line of scrimmage that also has the ability to chase down the quarterback.

But leave all that behind, and Nix is still a guy you want to build your team around. If only because you get to listen to wonderful nuggets like these. JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com has plenty more.

As Notre Dame’s defense has spurred its 4-0 start, Louis Nix has begun to earn national praise for his work on the interior of the Irish defensive line.

But not everyone is praising his work as a defensive tackle, although that’s because Nix’s little brother, Kenneth, has his older brother’s position mixed up.

“I don’t know where they got quarterback from,” Nix laughed. “My little brother had a presentation for class and he told them I was the quarterback.”

But Nix wasn’t going to leave it at that.

“You know, right about now, I would love to play quarterback,” he continued, in complete deadpan mode. “I think I’d be real good at it, you know, put me in the wildcat. I don’t even want to play running back, though, I want to be a wildcat QB.

“I look like one, huh?” the 326-pound Nix added between bites of a Hershey’s bar.

Nix said all the right things about his evolution as a player, crediting added maturity for his success in South Bend, a place not many in Florida thought made sense for one of Jacksonville’s elite football talents. But he also let his personality shine through, raising more than a few reporters’ eyebrows when addressing his biggest weakness: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

“If they don’t have it, I get cranky. I don’t want to eat Honey Bunches of Oats. Really? I need something sweet.”

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4. Brian Kelly isn’t shying away from the idea that Manti Te’o is a Heisman candidate. But for as good as he’s been between the lines, he’s been even more impressive off the field.

Linebacker Manti Te’o has already found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And as he continues to fill up the stat sheet as a sideline to sideline tackler and a turnover forcing machine, Brian Kelly has no problem pushing Te’o’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.

“I’ve said this from day one,” Kelly said. “What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate? If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don’t think he plays on offense. But if you’re looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program‑‑ look, if you said it was the MVP, does it have to be an offensive player MVP?  Sure.  He’s got to have some offensive numbers or statistics. But you’re also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball.”

But more importantly, Te’o’s ability to play excellent football at a time of severe duress is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed from a student athlete. More important, he’s shown his teammates — college kids that play a rough and tumble game — that it’s okay to show vulnerability during a time of need, as he’s opened himself up to his teammates and community during this difficult time.

Te’o spent over 40 minutes with the assembled media this week, an unprecedented amount of time for a single player, let alone the Irish head coach. He was emotional, honest, humble, candid, and strong. He was the perfect example of what any athlete should strive to be.

If you’ve got the time, it’s the best performance Te’o has ever had representing Notre Dame, on or off the field.

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5. Notre Dame’s roster management is beginning to take shape.

The biggest personnel news to come out of South Bend was the decision to redshirt running back Amir Carlisle for the season. The sophomore running back, who transferred from USC to Notre Dame during the offseason, had received an NCAA waiver exemption to play this season. But after breaking his ankle in the days leading to spring practice, Carlisle was slow to return to health, and he’ll sit out the year, with three full seasons of eligibility remaining.

“We’re going to redshirt Amir. He will not play this year,” Kelly said. “He’s made close to the kind of recovery that we were hoping when we saw some really good things from him. We don’t want to waste him now.”

The news comes the same week as the Irish announced sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell will also sit out the rest of the season, with season-ending shoulder surgery allowing Hounshell to save a year of eligibility and still have three seasons left. That extra year of eligibility will come in handy with a guy like Stephon Tuitt looking like he might not need four years of college football.

Just like in Hounshell’s case, the decision to hold Carlisle out, a dynamic player that I expected to fight his way into the two-deep at running back, helps for the long term growth of this football team.

“He’s really close and to try to fit him in in week five or six and use up another year for a half season wasn’t prudent in my mind,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to shut him down, put him on scout team, let him be a great guy over there and let our defense prepare, and then have him back for three seasons of competition.”

After watching Charlie Weis butcher the use of redshirts, Kelly’s understanding of the strategic elements should be a welcome sight for Notre Dame fans. Keeping Carlisle protects Notre Dame in case Cierre Wood wants to test the NFL waters. Keeping an extra year of Hounshell gives the Irish some protection on the front line in life after Tuitt.

As we head to the middle of the season, Kelly’s also looking at other young players that might also be able to save a highly valued year of eligibility.

“We’re getting close to that. We’re not there yet,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a make a decision up to game six and you can’t play in more than three games. So we’ve got a couple of guys on the bubble for the next couple of weeks where we’ll have to make some decisions.”

It might have been painful, but injuries to guys like Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth help slow down the eligibility clock of guys that are racing through their collegiate career. And while we’ve seen youngsters like Romeo Okwara and Ronnie Stanley, perhaps there’s a method to Kelly’s madness and a plan to extend the careers of some young Irish players, while also getting them valuable on-the-field experience.

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6. It might not be Catholics vs. Convicts, but Notre Dame vs. Miami still means an awful lot.

There isn’t a player on the Irish roster that’s old enough to remember the bitter rivalry between Notre Dame and Miami. After Jimmy Johnson‘s 58-7 beating of Notre Dame all but ended the Gerry Faust era, the rivalry turned into the Hatfields and McCoys in 1987, with the Irish splitting the series 2-2 over the next four years, including one of the greatest victories Notre Dame has ever had in its 31-30 win over the ‘Canes in 1988.

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While it took 20 years to renew the rivalry, it still matters, as director Billy Corben, filmmaker behind the terrific ESPN documentary “The U” notes.

“Literally, national championships were on the line,” Corben reminisced with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Every call mattered. Every play mattered. In 1988 in particular. Of course you had the tunnel fight that year as well. Similar things started to happen with a lot of teams from that era like the University of Florida wanted to stop playing Miami.

“I liked that there was a genuine lack of respect for each other. I appreciated that because in those days it was the WWF, the fake wrestling. So this was real. These were real kids and they really wanted to literally take each other’s heads off.

“It was just a real visceral and profound quality to the rivalry that got you really, really pumped. You’d feel your pulse and your pulse would go up. You were genuinely excited about the whole thing. Who was going to win? How were we going to get robbed?  And we’re going to kick their a** before, after and during the game.”

Those sentiments are certainly echoed by many Irish fans that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to this week. And after the Irish embarrassed Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl — a game that saw Hurricanes players take refuge next to heaters are hide behind face warmers in the brisk El Paso weather — the team’s might not be the national contenders they once were, but there’s still an edge to this game.

“The teams aren’t quite at that level, so the excitement isn’t quite at that level anymore,” Corben said. “That being said, I hope we destroy them.”

Spoken like a true Miami fan.

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.