Pregame Six Pack: Notre Dame (and Mother Nature) head to Clemson

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As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame prepares for a gigantic football game. The Irish head to upstate South Carolina on Friday, ready for the elements, not to mention a football game with No. 12 Clemson.

The Irish practiced with a wet ball this week. They worked out on natural grass. They drilled down and tried to cover everything, from squib kicks to rain delays, any potential scenario they might face, on or off the field.

“We booked a hotel for a couple extra days just in case,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got a place Sunday or Monday, we’ll be down there and ready to play.”

After a week of work, Kelly is confident that his team won’t be worried about the weather. After all, the Tigers seem to be challenge enough.

So as DeShone Kizer gets ready to lead the Irish into Memorial Stadium and a rain-soaked Death Valley, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. (Hopefully you brought an umbrella.)

 

Forget about Hurricane Joaquin. All Irish eyes should be on DeShone Kizer.

There is no single player more important to the Irish’s fate this weekend than quarterback DeShone Kizer. The sophomore is coming off three performances where he’s looked at home in the pocket, never displaying any of the shakiness you might expect from a first-time performer.

But traveling to Clemson will be different. As will the elements. Kizer covered both parts of this equation on Wednesday, sounding not all that worried about any slickness that might come with a wet football.

“I’ve never really had too big of an issue when it came to rain. I have pretty good-sized hands where I can grip the ball pretty well,” Kizer said this week. “We’ll definitely prepare for that with using wet balls in our practice and understanding that the wind is going to come into play and things like that. But it’s all going to be a mental mindset.”

Dealing with the crowd is another point. After recalling the feeling that came when he heard his first Tomahawk chop at Doak Campbell Stadium, Kizer expects this crowd to be even louder, giving him all the more reason to do his best to quiet them down quickly.

“Doing the extra small things—making sure you’re being quick in getting up there and relaying the play a couple times down. And getting back into your stance so you can be able to make a check,” Kizer said. “Also with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays…so we’ve got to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”

 

It’s been since 1977 since Notre Dame and Clemson did battle. Let’s hope this one is as good of a game as the one 38 years ago. 

It’s a trip beyond Memory Lane for me, but the last time Notre Dame traveled to Clemson, Joe Montana led the Irish to an epic victory that helped spring a national championship. Trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Montana put the team on his shoulders, running for two touchdowns to pull out a 21-17 win, their closest game in their national championship season.

(Fun fact: Montana faced off against his professional teammate, TE Dwight Clark, that evening in Clemson, collegiate opponents before becoming one of the game’s historic QB-TE connections, including “The Catch” from the 1982 NFC Championship game.)

But while Montana’s comeback is all that remains in most stories, one controversial call still stands above the rest. On a critical 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, Clemson looked to be stuffed just shy of the end zone (feel free to watch for yourself). But the referee found a way to block Notre Dame’s defender from making the tackle, allowing Clemson’s Lester Brown to get to the pylon before the Irish could chase him down.

It’s the type of play that would’ve likely melted the internet (certainly more controversial than the illegal pick called last season) today, with screams of home-cooking surely to last for years to come. Instead, the Irish pulled the victory out, rallying from the 10-point deficit to turn the play into a forgotten footnote.

Are we in for a game as memorable as that one? Check out this spooky stat:

 

Keep your eye on the trenches. While the Irish offensive line is stout, Notre Dame’s front seven might hold the key to victory.

Clemson’s offensive line is a work in progress. While the Tigers skill talent is among the best Notre Dame has faced, the guys protecting Deshaun Watson are still figuring it out.

So while most of us have wondered if Harry Hiestand’s boys can continue their dominance up front, take a look at Notre Dame’s front seven, because there’s a chance this group is the one that wins the game for the Irish.

Clemson starts a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was a blue-chip recruit and a Top 100 player, but at this time last year he was playing at North Gwinnett high school, not in the ACC. A matchup with Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell might be a good one for Notre Dame.

Starting center Ryan Norton is out with a knee injury, replaced by junior Jay Guillermo. Even veterans Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, both fifth-year seniors, hardly inspire much confidence.

In their preview of the offensive line before the season, Shakin’ the Southland had this to say about the veteran duo.

Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career.

Notre Dame’s front controlling things could be key this weekend. And facing an offensive line that finished last season ranked 101st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and has had to deal with injuries and replacing two key starters? This might be a place where the Irish could take control of the game.

For all the join a conference talk, Notre Dame is still plenty comfortable in the ACC. And they should be, considering the Notre Dame alums running athletic departments across the conference. 

It’s not exactly a story that’ll impact the play on the field this weekend. But Dabo Swinney’s non-comment comments about Notre Dame and the ACC stirred up a bunch of old news, namely complaints from other coaches that the Irish should join a conference.

The Irish did join a conference, in all sports but football. And Notre Dame’s made a quick home in the ACC, a partnership that has all parties involved saying nothing but good things. That ACC commissioner John Swofford accepted partial-admittance in exchange for five regular season football games raised a few eyeballs. But no group of athletic directors likely understand the value of the Irish to the conference more than the ACC.

We see that this week, in ticket prices. We saw that in Notre Dame’s trip to Virginia. And as the Irish continue their tour of ACC opponents, they’ll play to packed houses, not always the norm for an average Saturday in a conference that isn’t as rabid as the SEC.

In this week’s game notes from Clemson, Tigers Assistant AD and football SID Tim Bourrett (a 1977 Notre Dame grad) points out the Irish alums in leadership positions inside the conference, likely a reason the move was such a good fit to begin with.

Georgia Tech’s athletic director Mike Bobinski is a 1979 Notre Dame graduate. Florida State’s AD Stan Wilcox graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, playing for Digger Phelps on the 1977-78 basketball team that reached the Final Four. North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham played golf for the Irish and earned both a bachelors degree and a master from Notre Dame. He also spent over 15 years in the Irish athletics department.

So while some head coaches inside the conference may not understand why Notre Dame’s allowed a unique relationship with the conference, don’t worry—their bosses do.

Going up against a tough Clemson defense, Notre Dame’s offensive line knows it has a chance to make a statement. 

Notre Dame’s running game has taken college football by storm. Expected to be a backup, C.J. Prosise‘s 600 yards are the most in school history through four games. His yardage, touchdowns and average per carry all are within the nation’s best dozen statistically.

That work has been fueled by the offensive line. Both Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin look like top NFL prospects. The Irish rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense at 284.8 yards per game, the most through four games for an Irish team since 1992, exactly 23 seasons ago. (Another fun fact: Not a single player on Notre Dame’s team was alive for that season.)

Center Nick Martin talked about the mindset the Irish offensive line has as they head into their most challenging environment of the year, facing their most capable opponent.

“It’s a sense of pride. As an O-lineman we love to run the ball. We like when we have success,” Martin said. Our running backs, the way they run, you guys have all seen it. It’s unbelievable.

“Up front, we work our butts off to try and make holes and do our best. But beyond that also, it’s about the people that come before you, too. The O lines, having guys like Chris Watt, Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, those guys, and even before that, the O line at Notre Dame, especially in the 90s and ever since then, has always been a sense of pride, and we just try to carry that on.”

Saturday evening, with a 99 percent chance of rain in the forecast, the offensive line will be asked to dictate terms. After earning the game ball last week, Martin and his linemates couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.

 

With the hype machine turned up to an 11, every little thing counts. And it’s certainly added some fuel to the matchup of Will Fuller against Clemson’s talented secondary.

We’ve already talked about Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander. Clemson’s top corner is ready for the receiver that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is calling perhaps “the best receiver in America.”

Alexander’s teammates are also ready. They took this tweet by Fuller and used it as fuel, a slight only understandable with an advanced degree in social media and youthful hashtags.

“I actually ‘favorited’ the tweet,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse told local media on Monday. “They’re talking a lot. Obviously they don’t know what we do down here in Death Valley, so I’m looking forward to this.”

The Tigers have put together quite a winning run at home over the past few years. But Fuller has also dominated college football these past two seasons as well, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver in college football since the start of 2014.

So Saturday night, something’s got to give. And with the weather, the Irish and the Tigers all set to do battle in Death Valley, it’s got the ingredients to be a classic.

 

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.