Pregame Twelve Pack: Big Apple edition

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It’s Friday, so that means another Pregame Twelve Pack, this one a special Yankee Stadium edition. Here’s twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Army at Yankee Stadium in primetime on NBC.

1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the New York Times just spotted us eight thousand.

I’m a sucker for history, so if you are too, head over to the New York Times‘ website for a great photo gallery from the historic clashes between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium.

While we mentioned the 1946 Game of the Century earlier in the week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the wonderful column that ESPN‘s Ivan Maisel wrote about the Army vs. Notre Dame games of the 1930s and 40s. Maisel writes that the Army/Notre Dame rivalry had become so heated after the 1946 game that the Army had to call off the game to save the military’s reputation.

Here’s a snippet, describing why Army walked away from its biggest rival:

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

“West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people,” wrote longtime Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik in “You Have To Pay The Price,” his 1960 autobiography. “We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium.”

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel…

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

“The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army,” Blaik wrote. “The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy.”

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn’t want to play the Yankees anymore.

“The decision was wildly unpopular,” Blaik said. “The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift.”

While many people are talking about the (potentially unsafe) transformation of Wrigley Field for Northwestern vs. Illinois this weekend, the 50th meeting of these two proud schools adds an element that not many rivalries can touch.

2. The primetime game will have the attention of some of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits.

A primetime stage in one of sports most revered venues offers Brian Kelly and his coaching staff the opportunity to impress quite a few potential recruits. They’ll do that on Saturday night with three top targets in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

No recruit draws the adoration of Irish fans quite like Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, a freakish athlete that has the size and speed to be a terror off the edge in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. While rumors have been flying of a potential commitment from Williams to the Irish, they’ve been refuted by those close to the star defender. Still, the Irish are in great shape, hanging in the race for the nation recruit far longer than many thought possible, and Williams will be there watching the Irish battle Army.

Also in attendance is Jersey City’s Savon Huggins, who would be a great addition to the running back depth chart with the loss of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Brian Kelly came out and watched Huggins play while the Irish were in town to play Navy and Huggins is returning the favor this weekend in the Bronx.

IrishSportsDaily.com also reports that Miles Shuler will be at the game. Shuler isn’t a name that Irish fans have talked a lot about recently, but he’s got offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Stanford, and has the Irish in his top seven schools. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco recruits New Jersey, where Shuler is from, and I’m guessing Shuler could look really good out on an island in coverage or using his elite speed on the edge of the offense as well.

3. What’s the difference between Army and Navy? Well, their schedules for one thing.

Only one win separates seven win Navy from six win Army. Both have a top ten rushing attack with Navy rushing for just over 300 yards a game and the Black Knights putting up 280 a game. But a closer look at the way Army got to their bowl eligibility shows were the two teams likely separate.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today’s statistical guru ranks Army’s schedule as the 118th toughest in college football, virtually the bottom of the barrel. The most impressive win on the Army schedule came during week four when they beat Duke 35-21. The Knights hung with Hawaii, Temple, and Rutgers, but lost big to Air Force before recovering to route Sagarin’s 121st ranked team, Kent State.

Take nothing away from Rich Ellerson’s Army team, which is transitioning to the option attack and ahead of schedule on its way back to respectability, but Army hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If Army can win their last two games against Notre Dame and then Navy, Ellerson’s name should be up for every national coaching award (not to mention on a few big college’s short list).

4. Notre Dame vs. Army, it all began on a baseball diamond.

While there isn’t any dirt left on the diamond thanks to a miraculous transformation, the rivalry between the Irish and the Black Knights began on a baseball field back in 1913. I’ll let Jim Lefebvre of Forever Irish take over.

It is ironic, yet fitting, that this great football spectacle was for so long contested in the crown jewel of the nation’s baseball parks, Yankee Stadium. That’s because it was baseball that first brought the two schools together. In January, 1913, Army agreed to host Notre Dame during ND’s spring trip. On May 24 at West Point, Army defeated Notre Dame, 3-0, and a rivalry began.

Also that spring, the leaders of athletics at West Point were scrambling to fill an opening on their football schedule. Army sent numerous letters of inquiry to schools in the East and eventually the Midwest. It initially offered Notre Dame $600 to cover expenses for the trip, and after some haggling, upped the offer to $1,000.

That was barely enough to send 18 players and two coaches via railroad from South Bend to New York. It was said the team brought sandwiches made on the Notre Dame campus, and traveled with just 14 pairs of cleats.

At West Point on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1913, the 3,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the parade of the Corps of Cadets and then filled the Cullum Field Hall bleachers, were looking forward to a match of power football. Notre Dame had romped through its first three opponent by a combined score of 169-7. Army was also undefeated.

Knute Rockne, the Irish end and captain, is limping late in the first quarter. But on the next play, he streaks downfield, and quarterback Gus Dorais lofts a long pass over the heads of the defenders. Rockne catches it in stride and races to the end zone. Before the afternoon was done, the Irish completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards – numbers unheard of at at the time. The final: Notre Dame 35, Army 13.

Witnesses marvel at the display. “I’ve always believed such playing possible under the new rules,” said Bill Roper, the Princeton coach and the game’s umpire. “But never have I seen the forward pass used to such perfection.”

There’s plenty of rich historical tidbits at Lefebvre’s website, and it’s worth reading more at Forever Irish.

5. The Irish running backs are all battling it out.

The Irish are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season, but Jonas Gray is pushing for a chance to be the first one to get there, breaking out for 44 yards on just three carries after battling back from some injuries. Running backs coach Tim Hinton thinks that Gray will see more of the field this weekend.

“I’m sure he’ll get more reps this week,” Hinton said earlier this week. “We’ve wanted to get him in the game all year, but to be honest with you, he just wasn’t back up to speed. Until he got back up to speed, we didn’t want to put him in. It was nice to see him get an explosive run. He actually had two very good runs. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to put him in the lineup and go.”

Battling Gray is senior Robert Hughes who could be a gigantic matchup problem for the undersized Army defense as well the Irish’s #1 running back, sophomore (or redshirt freshman) Cierre Wood, who head coach Brian Kelly has been pleased with as he continues to mature.

“He’s getting so much better. Just his ability to go out there and compete every snap,” Kelly said. “It requires a concentration level he’s never had to have before. He’s been sitting there watching or just taking some reps, now he’s in there and got to be locked in, and that matures somebody.”

Kelly’s aware that the offense hasn’t put up a 100 yard rusher yet, and if the Irish offensive line can build off the game they played last week, that could change on Saturday night.

“I’m pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do it on a more consistent basis.”

6. With big opponents on the horizon, Notre Dame isn’t the only team looking at a trap game.
With tomorrow night’s game giving the Irish a chance to be bowl eligible, it’s unlikely the Irish will overlook a more-than-able Army squad. But still, it’s hard not to think ahead to next weekend’s showdown with USC as a true check of how the Irish have developed under Kelly and his coaching staff in year one.
But surprisingly enough, Irish fans aren’t the only people worried that their squad may be overlooking this weekend’s opponent to begin prepping for their next opponent. Army coach Rich Ellerson was asked whether the Black Knights are potentially looking past the Irish to get prepped for arch-rival Navy.
“No. The guys will be excited to play,” Ellerson said about the Irish. “We’ll have all kinds of challenges on Saturday and that won’t be one of them. I think having that sixth win on the shelf and in place, we’re done patting ourselves on the back. That’s nice to have, we’ve turned a corner but we’re not looking back at the corner we just turned. We’re looking ahead at the next opportunity, the next challenge. Our guys won’t have a hard time with that. They’re looking forward to it.”
I never thought this could be a storyline, but perhaps the Irish will catch Army sleeping on Saturday night.
7. A closer look at bowl game match-ups stresses the importance of winning out.
It’s kind of an obvious point, but winning games is awfully important for the Irish as they push toward the postseason. Winning one game is mandatory, but it doesn’t necessarily open up all that many opportunities for the Irish.
Double-dipping at both the Bleacher Report and his blog We Never Graduate, Matt Mattare took a look at the five most intriguing bowl matchups for Notre Dame this postseason, with one option not so red hot for the Irish:
5. Notre Dame vs. Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl — Dec. 22, Las Vegas, NV
4. Notre Dame vs. MAC Champ in Little Caesar’s Bowl — Dec. 26, Detroit, MI
3. Notre Dame vs. Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Jan 9, San Francisco, CA
2. Notre Dame vs. Boise State/TCU (Kraft/Vegas)
1. Notre Dame vs. ACC No. 2 in Champs Sports Bowl — Dec. 28, Orlando, FL
Matt did a good job of breaking down the likelihood of these match-ups, so if you’re one of those football fans that love guessing what bowl game your favorite team might end up in instead of waiting a few weeks, this article will be right up your alley.
8. Robby Toma: From forgotten man to starting wide receiver.
It’s quite amazing to consider that a wide receiver largely considered a throw-in to the Manti Te’o scholarship offer is now starting at Z wide receiver, one of the most important positions in Brian Kelly’s offense. But Robby Toma is hardly your average wide receiver.
Thanks to some injuries and the transfer of Shaq Evans, Toma finds himself in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, with TJ Jones still not 100 percent after getting banged up in practice last week.
“TJ practiced again today, but he’s not going with the first unit,” Kelly said. “Robby is still going with the first unit and my expectations are that’s how it would end up on Saturday, that Robby would continue to start at the Z and TJ would back him up.”
I think if you took a poll among diehard Irish fans and asked them who leads Notre Dame in yards per catch, not many would pick the 5-foot-9 (and that’s a gift) Hawaiian that weighs 175-pounds. But there’s Toma and his 13.6 yard average sitting atop the stat-sheet for the Irish. Prediction: Toma scores his first touchdown for the Irish tomorrow.
9. How the Irish handle the option will determine if whether or not Notre Dame wins the game.
With Army’s ability to run the football and Kelly admitting that Notre Dame isn’t able to win a football game with their offense, possessions are going to be at a premium and stops by the defense will be extremely important. The only way the Irish can get a stop is to get a grasp on the triple-option, something they couldn’t do against Navy.
The coaching staff was incredibly quiet on the strategy they’d take to stop the option, but if you listened carefully, Kelly gave the closest thing to intel away with a quick comment:
“They have to defend the arc and they’ve got to be able to play QB-to-pitch for most points, unless you move the point and change things up, which obviously we’re going to do a lot of,” Kelly said of his edge defenders. “When you really break it down, it’s their ability to defend. Take on a block, shed it and ether get to dive, QB or pitch.”
For those of you reading closely, I think this means we won’t see Manti Te’o chasing the quarterback down the line like you saw against Navy. Diaco’s gameplan against the Midshipmen seemed intent on protecting the outside linebackers, a strategy that obviously backfired.
I’m on the record for how I think the Irish will play the option, but if Kelly just gave us a hint, expect to hear from guys like Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and possibly Steve Filer.
10. The Class of 2007… What could’ve been.
The guys at One Foot Down examined the 2007 recruiting class, a group headlined by Jimmy Clausen that was supposed to be one of the best in the country. Instead, the 2007 class is looking at an ugly distinction, going down as one of the losing-est in Irish football history.
Let’s take a bullet-point look at the class and see how they ended up.
Armando Allen — Multi-year starter. Injuries hampered his ceiling.
Jimmy Clausen — Left after three years. Would’ve walked out ND’s leading passer.
Taylor Dever — Starting tackle, has another year of eligibility remaining.
Gary Gray — Playing his best football. Sat out season for personal reasons, returning for 5th year.
Robert Hughes — Bruising back not a great fit in Kelly offense.
Duval Kamara — Started strong, before losing time to Floyd and Tate.
Kerry Neal — System changes hurt development. Average season as starting OLB.
Aaron Nagel — Transferred to Northwestern. Now a fullback.
Andrew Nuss — Playing behind Chris Stewart at guard.
Emeka Nwankwo — Forgotten man finding time in a thin DE rotation.
Steve Paskorz — Linebacker turned fullback and back again is injured and likely done at ND.
Mike Ragone — Between injuries and self-inflicted mistakes, Ragone hasn’t hit potential.
Matt Romine — Highly touted tackle that didn’t live up to hype.
Brian Smith — A roller coaster career could go out on a high.
Harrison Smith — Jerked between OLB and FS, finally developing at proper position.
Golden Tate — Left early after winning Biletnikoff. One of best players in college football.
Brandon Walker — Kicker who battled injuries and couldn’t get off bench.
Ian Williams — Played for four season on the interior of the defense.
OFD answers the question “What went wrong with this class?” His take:
1) Terrible depth provided by Ty. 2) Terrible development by CW. 3) No veteran leadership.
All in all, good insight. This class would look much different if Weis used redshirts better and a Golden and Jimmy decided to stay.
11) Notre Dame and Army competed for the same recruit. (Kinda…)
You wouldn’t think that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Brian Kelly see each other too often on the recruiting trail. But Ellerson tells the story of a battle between the Black Knights and the Irish were Army came out on top for a player.
“We have a guy in this class, that’s a freshman right now, who we think is going to be a really good player, it was us and Notre Dame,” Ellerson said earlier this week. “The deal was, could he walk-on at Notre Dame? If he could walk-on at Notre Dame, he was going to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a spot for him in the 105 and we got him, and we think he’s going to be wonderful. That’s still the pecking order in the recruiting world.”
Ellerson has had his fair share of run-ins with the Irish recruiting, and they certainly all didn’t end this way.
“Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and we were a top-five team,” Ellerson said. “We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting – all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”

People will mistakenly interpret this as meaning Notre Dame’s walk-ons should be able to beat Army, but that’s just not the way college football is anymore. Still, it gives you an idea of the type of player that Ellerson and the other service academy coaches look for when they’re out on the recruiting trail.

12. For all those Irish fans that are yearning for a jumbotron, enjoy the evening.
While I’ll forever push to remove the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium and put in field-turf, I’m still anti-Jumbotron. But tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, Irish fans will be treated to instant replay, moving images, and the ability to play a semi-home game with a working video board.

The Jumbotron won’t be the only thing that makes this Saturday a little different from the rest. While Notre Dame has plenty of hallowed monuments around campus, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park will be open from 4:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m. Saturday night, from the opening of the stadium until kickoff for those that want to take in a piece of Yankee history while watching some football.

It’s an incredible weekend that gets started with plenty of pageantry in the Big Apple, before the focus turns to football. While the same was true last week, there’s no game more important for the Irish than the one in front of them. What Notre Dame team shows up? We’ll have to find out Saturday night at 7 p.m.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame in top 15 of both AP and Coaches polls; Brian Kelly on ‘demanding’ culture

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By the end of September, it will have become habit. Fingers will default to adding “meaningless” in front of each typing of “AP Poll.” Doing so will be an overreaction to fans taking offense to Notre Dame inevitably not being ranked high enough, at least not as far as they are concerned.

The fingers should more-accurately tap out “consequenceless.” In the age of the College Football Playoff selection committee, both the AP and the Coaches polls have no effect on the season. There is no reasonable way to claim otherwise in any regard. The committee does not rely on those listings to create a framework for its poll, the only one with impact.

That said, the two polls do offer a reference point and context for the first two months of the season. The preseason Coaches Poll came out at the start of the month, ranking the Irish at No. 11, with Stanford, Michigan and USC filling in from Nos. 13 to 15, respectively. Virginia Tech came in at No. 17 and Florida State was No. 19.

The AP did not vary much. It flipped Notre Dame with Michigan State, dropping the Irish to No. 12, and then came the same trio in the same order. The Seminoles again showed up at No. 19, but the Hokies fell in behind Florida State at No. 20.

Both polls included Northwestern among others receiving votes. Looking at the Wildcats schedule (not to get ahead by a day on the “Notre Dame’s Opponents” series …), they will have three difficult conference games (vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Wisconsin) before facing the Irish, so they almost certainly will not be undefeated on Nov. 3, but a 6-2 record would probably get them into the top 25 by then.

Again, these polls have no bearing on the season. The only one that does premieres Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Until then, use them for nothing more than context and the lightest of debates. Your sanity thanks you.

@NDFootball

Speaking of debates and sanity …
ON THE SHAMROCK SERIES UNIFORMS
Notre Dame got a few things wrong with that reveal last week. For one thing, anything tying to the contest against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium should be left for a Friday afternoon news dump. Such is the general resentment of moving that game to the coast. Any further discussion of the game, the uniforms or even a mention of baseball is met by Irish vitriol at this point.

Secondly, revealing bits and pieces of the uniform may have seemed dramatic, but that drama was only heightened by a poor first impression. The initial bits and pieces did not paint anything of an overall picture. On their own, they received few, if any, positive reviews. The jersey as a whole, though, was not lampooned as severely.

Such a gradual take should probably be applied even further. Perhaps reserve judgement until, hmmm, actually seeing the uniforms? That may seem an outlandish suggestion, but it may be worth considering. They will inevitably look different live than in a photoshopped image on a computer screen. Everything does.

BRIAN KELLY ON MARYLAND & CULTURE
Nearly every college football head coach has had to answer a question this preseason about how their programs protect against tragedies like the player death at Maryland this summer and how an overall culture plays a role. The Irish head coach handled the requisite inquiry on Wednesday.

“The head coach and the strength coach are extremely important in developing a strong relationship on what you want accomplished,” Kelly said. “Everybody is interested in bigger, faster, stronger. How do you get there? I still think you get there by being demanding but never demeaning. I think that’s the line that’s out there.”

Kelly also distinguished between the culture and the role of the training staff.

“When I say demanding, never demeaning, that goes for everybody, and anything in this program is my responsibility,” he said.

“As it relates to protocol relative to the young man that tragically passed, that’s really outside my purview. That would fall under our athletic trainers and the protocols they have in place.”

MORE PLAYERS OF THE DAYS
As he has throughout all of preseason practice, Kelly continued to give Twitter praise to three players after each practice last week, one from offense, defense and special teams. Last week’s “Leftovers & Links” listed off the honorees through eight practices. Since then:

— Chris Finke, Jonathan Jones and Isaiah Robertson (special teams).
— Nic Weishar, Nicco Fertitta and Shaun Crawford (special teams).
— Jafar Armstrong, Ade Ogundeji and Tyler Newsome.
— Kevin Austin, Devin Studstill and Josh Lugg (special teams).
— Khalid Kareem, Braden Lenzy and Chase Claypool (special teams).

Claypool’s special teams designation stands out, considering the junior receiver made only one tackle last season after excelling with 11 as a freshman. Despite his prominent role in the offense, it seems Notre Dame may still need Claypool in some coverage situations.

Only Crawford was named Player of the Day three times across 13 different sets from Kelly.

“Which Irish unit do you see underperforming expectations for this year? Which would you bet on exceeding expectations? Andrew from Fairfax, Va.

These answers will seem tied to each other. That is more coincidence than intention.

Notre Dame’s receivers are getting decent praise this preseason. Trotting out two physical, 6-foot-4 upperclassmen will create that, and Claypool and senior Miles Boykin undeniably have the potential to change the season. But wasn’t the same said about those two and Equanimeous St. Brown last year, not to mention Kevin Stepherson?

It didn’t happen.

Sure, some of that tied to inconsistent quarterback play, but that receivers corps did not do much to help Brandon Wimbush. Until they do in real competition, it may not be the worst idea to pump the brakes on the hopes for the largely-unproven receivers.

The Irish running backs are even more unproven, but they are also not receiving much faith at this point. With senior Dexter Williams likely sidelined for the first four weeks of the year, it is an exceedingly young group of five, with 40 percent of the stable first getting reps at running back within the last six months.

However, behind a strong offensive line and with an offensive coordinator intent on running the ball, they will be well-positioned to surpass the meager thoughts afforded them to date.

AND HERE WE ARE, WITH THE UNDERWORLD FROZEN OVER
Yes, a reader among you submitted such a stellar comment it must mean ice has replaced fire. To you, RBmat, I raise tonight’s bottle of Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark.

“In honor of Ball State’s most famous alumni … D Letterman Esq., I give you the top-10 reasons why you might be interested in the [Sept. 8] game:

10) Since her significant other, Steadman, is a BSU alum, maybe Oprah will be at the game.
9) Many fans will leave early, making the drive back to Chicago a little more tolerable.
8) You will learn the roster, as everybody in uniform may play thanks to the new NCAA rule.
7) 1,000 yards of total offense.
6) Paul Shaffer will be guest director for the ND band at halftime.
5) ESPN’s GameDay will not be there, saving us from Lee Corso dressing as the leprechaun.
4) Reported sightings of the apparition of Knute Rockne on campus, floating about muttering, “Ball State … We have sunk to playing Ball State …”
3) This will be the closest anyone will get to Muncie, Ind.
2) I have run out of reasons, seriously, except …

The No. 1 reason to be interested in Notre Dame vs. Ball State on Sept. 8: Jurkovec, Jurkovec, Jurkovec.”

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s preseason continues with contact drills and ‘Players of the Day’
Three Michigan natives may (finally) provide Notre Dame a genuine pass rush
Notre Dame’s backup QB Ian Book’s progress removes some restrictions on starter Brandon Wimbush
Notre Dame reveals Yankees-inspired look for 2018 Shamrock Series
40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ball State
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Vanderbilt
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy

OUTSIDE READING:
Film analysis: Six plays with Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love ($)
Tyler James’ ranking the top-25 players on Notre Dame’s roster for 2018
— SI’s 2018 preseason All-American teams
25 college football QBs I’d pay to see in 2018
The next great USC QB shouldn’t even be in college
Vanderbilt offensive line bears burden of turnovers, run game, protecting Kyle Shurmur
How Charlie Weis Jr., FAU’s 25-year-old offensive coordinator, earned Lane Kiffin’s trust

Have a question? A suggestion? An abstract wondering? Send it to insidetheirsh@gmail.com

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy

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Pick your Notre Dame-specific storyline pertaining to Navy at will. There are at least three worth mentioning this year. The micro bit will focus on junior safety Alohi Gilman, now a season removed from his time with the Midshipmen and a starter for the Irish. The focused angle recognizes Notre Dame plays Navy after the Irish bye, preferable when facing the triple-option change of pace.

The macro view harps on the Academy moving the contest to San Diego. If anyone should have opted against that cross-country venture, it was actually Navy more than Notre Dame. Even though the Irish will go coast-to-coast-to-coast in the season’s final month, they have it easy compared to the Midshipmen. Navy starts the season in Hawaii, returns to the eastern coast within a week and then bounces back-and-forth between time zones before heading to southern California to face Notre Dame. After that? A return to the mid-Atlantic once more before a stop in the Bayou.

Realizing Navy never brings the Irish to Annapolis, Md., one does wonder why this was not a Baltimore or even Jacksonville year.

2017 REVIEW
Despite finishing a middling 7-6, the Midshipmen nearly had an excellent season. Finishing 3-4 in one-possession games will leave those thoughts of missed opportunity lingering even after the offseason. The only reasons those regrets are not the defining thoughts of Navy’s 2017 are the late arrival of then-sophomore Malcolm Perry and how strongly both he and the defense played in a 49-7 Military Bowl victory against Virginia.

Perry began the year at slot back, a pivotal spot in the triple-option offense but not one as impactful as the quarterback, the position Perry was recruited for. When Zach Abey went down with a concussion, Perry moved to quarterback and both his and Abey’s careers changed.

Make no mistake: Abey was having a strong season. In 12 games, though really only 11 considering how little he took the field against Army, the then-junior ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns. Abey was just better once he got a chance, rushing for 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU and 250 yards with one score against the Black Knights.

That loss to Army likely haunts the most in Navy memories. After two penalties pushed the Midshipmen backward on their final drive, a missed 48-yard field goal as time expired sealed Army’s 14-13 victory.

Following that defeat, the third in a three-game losing streak that began at Notre Dame, Navy exorcised some demons against the Cavaliers, allowing a mere 175 yards and no offensive touchdowns.

WHAT NAVY LOST
Fullback Chris High is the biggest name here, having rushed for 621 yards and two touchdowns last season, but a number of other ground game contributors also finished up their collegiate careers. Eight Midshipmen rushed for at least 100 yards last year, and half of them are gone.

Obviously little regard is given Navy’s passing game, but when it is used, it is typically effective and efficient. That may shift this year, returning exactly zero receivers with game experience aside from Abey, now moving there to keep his playmaking involved.

Defensively, leading tackler Micah Thomas (81 tackles and three interceptions) left, as did three more of the top five tacklers, one from each level of the defense.

Both line coaches also departed: Offensive line coach Bryce McDonald went to UCLA and defensive line coach Shawn Nua joined Herman Edwards’ staff at Arizona State. That would be a concern at any program, but it may be especially so in one where the irregular trench techniques are so distinct.

WHAT NAVY GAINED
This can be a bit tougher to define than for any other opponent. Such is the nature for a military academy and its different protocols involving recruitment, enrollment and roster size.

For now, know the Midshipmen have made an impressive science out of reloading. That will only be aided by spending an entire offseason working with Perry at quarterback. In order to emphasize that development, head coach Ken Niumatalolo pushed spring practice back a few weeks so Perry would have a bit more time to recover from offseason foot surgery.

HEAD COACH
Ken Niumatalolo nearly left Navy this offseason after a decade leading the triple-option offense. The prospect of bringing that pedigree led to a social media gripe from Arizona star quarterback Khalil Tate. Maybe that cost Niumatalolo the Wildcats gig; maybe it didn’t. The optics certainly indicated Tate’s public complaint at least had an effect.

It is also possible Niumatalolo would never have gone through with the move, but it warrants mentioning this is the second time in a few seasons Niumtalolo has considered leaving his only head coaching job to date. When BYU had a job opening following the 2015 season, Niumatalolo went through that interview process at length, as well.

With Malcolm Perry sidelined by an ankle injury, Zach Abey returned to the primary role in Navy’s triple-option offense in a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, taking 29 carries for 87 yards and this touchdown. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In describing Perry as possibly the best rusher of Niumatalolo’s decade, one is not being held captive by a small sample size. Perry was quarterback for only a few games, but he played the entire season, finishing with 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns on 138 attempts, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.

When applying such lauds to Perry, the likes of Keenan Reynolds and Ricky Dobbs have not been forgotten. In fact, they have been very much remembered.

Perry does need to develop something of an aerial threat. It is not that Abey was exactly a stellar one — throwing seven interceptions in only 72 attempts says otherwise and certainly did not help the Midshipmen in those one-possession games — but he had worked at it for a few years. Perry had not until this offseason.

Abey has moved to receiver, showing the faith Niumatalolo has in the senior’s athleticism.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the defensive line, Navy has to replace quite a bit, returning only two starters in the back-seven. That front may be a decent one, though. Of late, the Midshipmen have taken to a more aggressive, blitzing scheme. Their sacks jumped from eight in 2014 to 22 in 2015, 20 in 2016 and 16 last year. While those numbers are nothing more than passable, they are still a marked improvement. Continuing that trend could help hide the young defensive backfield.

SEASON OUTLOOK
By traveling to Hawaii, Navy gets to add a 13th regular season game. The general reason for that NCAA accommodation is to compensate team’s for that excessive travel by granting them another chance to get bowl eligible. Otherwise, most mid-level programs would avoid the trip deep into the Pacific, hamstringing Hawaii’s abilities to schedule.

The Midshipmen should be eligible before finishing the season against Army, but that will not inherently be a sure thing. Bookmakers, as one metric, set their expectations at 7.5 wins for Navy, while the American Athletic Conference preseason media poll slotted the Midshipmen at third in their division, behind Memphis and Houston.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh

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If there is a trap game for Notre Dame this season, it just may be Pittsburgh, as always seems to be the case when the Panthers are on the schedule. The other prime candidates would be trips to Wake Forest and Northwestern, but the Deacons gave Notre Dame enough of a challenge last year to be remembered and the Wildcats received plenty of votes in the preseason Coaches Poll to be sure they are not off all radars.

Pittsburgh being a headache is not inherently an Irish difficulty. The Panthers upset both Penn State and Clemson in 2016 and topped then-No. 2 and undefeated Miami to close last year.

2017 REVIEW
Pittsburgh went through three quarterbacks last season, originally due to injury and then out of ineffectiveness. Max Browne started five games in the first half of the year before getting knocked out, at which point Ben DiNucci took over. When freshman Kenny Pickett subbed in and nearly pushed the Panthers past Virginia Tech in the penultimate week of the year, he earned the start against the Hurricanes.

Pickett’s first career start marked a high note for all involved. He scored three total touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air.

The other change for Pittsburgh as the season progressed came from its defense. Early in the year, the Panthers hardly stopped anyone — Oklahoma State most notably hung 59 points in the season’s third week. In their final five games, however, only one opponent broke 17 points, winning three of them to push the record to a nearly-respectable posting of 5-7.

WHAT PITTSBURGH LOST
Browne and DiNucci, for starters, but Pickett’s closing and age made him the frontrunner for the starting quarterback gig, anyway. He will need to find new receivers, with leading man Jester Weah (41 receptions for 698 yards and four touchdowns) done and multi-positional threat Quadree Henderson (17 catches for 186 yards; 36 rushes for 251 yards; 46 combined returns for 767 yards and two punt return touchdowns) now working his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.

Pickett will also have to trust a new offensive line, having lost three starters, including first-team All-ACC left tackle Brian O’Neill.

Defensively this listing is rather short. Cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead are the only names not returning among Pittsburgh’s top-15 tacklers.

WHAT PITTSBURGH GAINED
Pickett’s dual-threat abilities make him the almost-certain starter, but if he struggles in his first extended time, the Panthers can turn to former USC and Arkansas quarterback Ricky Town, eligible immediately thanks to a year in junior college. Pittsburgh also added four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin.

Returning nine defensive starters means not much is needed on that side of the ball. First-year coordinator Randy Bates likely will not complain about that, having arrived from Northwestern, where he was the linebackers coach.

Pat Narduzzi. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Pat Narduzzi is a known name for Irish fans. He is, indeed, the same Pat Narduzzi who used to coordinate the Michigan State defense. He did quite well there, but has yet to find a groove in Pittsburgh.

Narduzzi began with two 8-5 campaigns before tailing off last year. Nonetheless, the Panthers are a worthwhile 2-3 against top-10 opponents in Narduzzi’s three seasons.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Pickett gets off to a strong start, he will get the attention. Part of that strong start will presumably derive from a running game, one most likely hinging on a committee of …

Junior Darrin Hall: 128 carries for 628 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Senior Qadree Ollison: 90 carries for 398 yards and five touchdowns.
Sophomore A.J. Davis: Preserved a year of eligibility.

Pittsburgh’s ground attack regressed last year, but that is in part due to losing two-year starter James Conner. Even then, it was an emphasis for Narduzzi. He has kept a balanced offense throughout his Panthers tenure. There is no reason to expect that to change now.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This defense could be vintage Narduzzi. It returns its entire front-seven, its top-six defensive linemen and 13 of its top-15 tacklers, including eight of the top nine.

Last year those players gave up 26.6 points per game, to establish a middling comparison point.

SEASON OUTLOOK
More than looking at 2018, a strong season from Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020, but that is getting ahead.

Staying ahead, November could halt that hype, though that will be a bit of a short-sighted overreaction. Ending the year vs. Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest and at Miami is not anybody’s idea of an ideal finish. That stretch could also short-circuit any chances of the Panthers exceeding the win total over/under of 5.5 or them even finishing as high as No. 5 in the ACC’s Coastal division, as the media projected in a preseason poll, only ahead of North Carolina and Virginia.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech

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There is not inherently a spot below to discuss Virginia Tech’s entrance to the field at Lane Stadium. This space makes too much of it, admittedly, considering the scribe has long been a fan of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

The soon-to-be first-ballot Hall-of-Famer used the same entrance song the Hokies use: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The classic piece of metal sets the atmosphere in Blacksburg, one that should not reach the crescendo of Hard Rock Stadium last November, but will still very much test Notre Dame’s lessons learned from that 41-8 debacle at Miami.

2017 REVIEW
Virginia Tech relied on a first-year starter in sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson last season, and he began very well, exceptionally well, to win a 31-24 rivalry matchup with West Virginia in the opener. Jackson completed 15 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a score, adding 101 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Such success continued until Clemson visited in week five, picking off the youngster twice.

As the season progressed, though, Jackson seemed to regress. Conference competition and available film will do that. In the regular season’s final six games, he did not break 218 passing yards, throwing for as few as 153 at Georgia Tech and 143 at Virginia. In three of those six, Jackson’s completion rate fell below 50 percent.

Sound familiar, Irish fans?

As Jackson struggled, the Hokies could rely on a fantastic defense. Even with Clemson scoring 31, Miami and Georgia Tech each tallying 28 and Oklahoma State reaching 30 in the Camping World Bowl (all losses), Virginia Tech gave up only 14.8 points per game last year along with an average of 319 yards.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
This offseason could have been worse for the Hokies, but not by much. For a few days, smoke swirled around Jackson’s eligibility, but when it cleared there was nothing to see.

That was not the case with likely starting senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, gone in June. Senior nickelback Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program, and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb furthered the difficulties with an Achilles injury knocking him out for the year.

Even without those unexpected departures, Virginia Tech’s secondary had already lost Greg Stroman (20 tackles, 11 passes broken up plus four interceptions) and Brandon Facyson (19, 2, 5).

If that sounds like it would result in a dearth of depth, it pales in comparison to the Hokies’ linebackers. Tremaine Edwards (109 tackles with 14 for loss including 5.5 sacks) heard his named called 16th overall in the NFL draft and Andrew Motuapuaka (92, 11.5, 3.5) is gone, as well. Including others, Virginia Tech essentially lost all of its linebacker rotation to natural attrition.

To top off the defensive woes, tackle Tim Settle (36 tackles with 12.5 for loss including four sacks) went to the Washington professional football franchise in the fifth round of the draft.

Offensively, the losses seem minimal in comparison. Running back Travon McMillian (104 rushes for 439 yards and two touchdowns) transferred to Colorado, top receiver Cam Phillips earned first-team All-ACC honors in his final season (71 catches for 964 yards and seven scores), and first-team All-ACC right guard Wyatt Teller finished his collegiate career.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not necessarily intentionally, the Hokies counteracted some of those defensive farewells by bringing in 10 early-enrolled freshmen. That may not pan out in production, but given the NCAA’s relaxed views on eligibility concerns, there is a better chance than ever that some of those freshmen make their presences felt.

More specifically, speedy freshman running back Cole Beck will be a local favorite throughout his career, hailing from Blacksburg. His quickness alone could get him onto the field.

Justin Fuente (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Junior receiver Damon Hazelton sat out last season after he transferred from Ball State, where he caught 51 passes for 505 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. That debut campaign made him think he could play at a higher level, and Virginia Tech agreed.

HEAD COACH
Justin Fuente enters his third year in the unenviable role of being the guy to replace a legend, but thus far Fuente has fared well following in Frank Beamer’s footsteps. The Hokies won the ACC’s Coastal division in 2016, finishing 10-4, and then fell to second in the division last year behind Miami.

Fuente’s system might be a bit more familiar to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long than it is to most. Long arrived at Memphis immediately after Fuente and his staff headed east. In familiarizing himself with his new team, Long undoubtedly studied an abundance of Fuente’s film. That does not necessarily mean he knows the intricacies and nuances, but it is a starting point.

If any Virginia Tech receiver is going to present problems for Notre Dame’s secondary, it will most likely be sophomore Sean Savoy. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
This offense will go as far as Jackson takes it. By season’s end, his will likely still be the only name on it known nationally. The best other chance would be sophomore receiver Sean Savoy. As a freshman, Savoy caught 39 passes for 454 yards and four scores. If he emerges as Phillips’ replacement, those numbers could all easily double.

Fuente has made a career of preferring a running back by committee approach. Three look ready to share carries this season:
Junior Deshawn McClease: 108 carries for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Steven Peoples: 70 carries for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore Jalen Holston: 70 carries for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

As such, do not be surprised if Jackson actually leads the Hokies in rushing yards, having gained 324 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in 2017. One way or another, Fuente generally insists on running the ball, even if unsuccessfully at points.

Three returning starters along the offensive line will attempt to keep Jackson upright, but it was not inherently an excellent front last season, so development will be needed. It cleared the path for the Hokies’ offense to average a mere 3.9 yards per rush last year, including four games of less than 3.0, one of which was against FCS-level Delaware.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any other year this would be a much greater concern for opponents, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster returns only five full-time starters and even less overall experience.

Then again, Foster has been leading the Virginia Tech defense for more than two decades, and he has a strong building block to start with in three returning defensive line starters, led by third-team All-ACC tackle Ricky Walker (41 tackles with 12.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks). Pertaining to Notre Dame concerns, this defense will have had four relatively unconcerning games to come together immediately before facing the Irish.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Of all seasons to have a young defense, the Hokies undoubtedly wish it was not one in which they opened at Florida State on Labor Day. Blame the ACC conference offices. However that game ends, Virginia Tech should cruise to four wins before facing Notre Dame (vs. William & Mary; vs. East Carolina; at Old Dominion; at Duke).

Doing so would get the Hokies halfway to the bookmakers’ projected win total.