And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

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“Pitiful, disgraceful and shameful!” “Ugly, ugly, ugly.” “What an embarrassing loss.” “Looks like BK is CW v.2.”

No, those are reader comments from last weekend, those are comments from the last Notre Dame football apocalypse, courtesy of Navy’s 35-17 win over the Irish last year in the Meadowlands.

Sure, the Irish were without Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Theo Riddick and had a hobbled Armando Allen playing in his final game in an Irish uniform, but the story of the afternoon was the defense’s lack of answers against Ricky Dobbs and the Navy offense. The Midshipmen rolled for 367 yards on the ground, hit big gainers on both of Dobbs’ passing attempts and stuffed the Irish at the one yard-line on the game’s first drive. After that, they forced two Dayne Crist interceptions, stifling the Irish offense until freshman Tommy Rees drove Notre Dame to a garbage time touchdown that nobody noticed.

In the grand scheme of things, the only redeeming part of that Saturday’s loss was Rees’ lone possession. That series, where Rees completed six of seven throws and marched the Irish right down the field, gave an unforeseen preview of things to come for the Irish.

Fast forward a little more than a year and the Irish are almost in the same place. Coming off a loss to USC that has the fanbase back in a tailspin, the Irish face a Navy team that finds itself in an inverted position — sitting at 2-5 after entering the game with five wins against two losses last year.

To get up to speed, Annapolis Capital Gazette writer Bill Wagner was kind enough to chat about this Saturday’s game. Bill has been hounded by multiple Irish media outlets, so I thoroughly enjoyed the 20 minutes he gave me. I asked the questions and he got me up to speed on this year’s Navy team.

For those of you still worried about USC, put down the axes and pay attention:

Inside the Irish: What’s been the biggest difference between the nine-win team Navy was last year, and the squad that’s currently sitting at a hard-luck 2-5?

Bill Wagner: They’re not making plays. Navy has been in tons of close games the last eight years they’ve been on this streak of winning seasons. They’ve won those close games and this year they’re not winning those close games. They’ve got four losses by a total of eight points, which is just unbelievable and three of those games a kick could’ve turned the tide.

A little bit of it is karma just turning the other way. The secondary issue is that the defense has been terrible and they’re just not stopping anybody, not getting off the field, and therefore not giving the offense a chance to do what it does, and that’s putting points on the board.

ITI: It looks like quarterback Kris Proctor is going to be out after dislocating his throwing elbow against East Carolina. What do we know about Trey Miller, Navy’s sophomore quarterback that’s taking over?

BW: I was just talking to his high school coach before you called, and what he said is he’s always been calm under pressure — very poised, very heady, never gets rattled. Obviously, none of the beat media here that covers Navy have seen much of Trey Miller until this past game, when he had to relieve Kris Proctor and played just over a half of football.

He was a little bit shaky at the beginning, but he settled down, got his sea legs under him if you will, and he led Navy on three straight touchdown drives to close the game, and it could’ve been four straight but what really should’ve been a touchdown pass was disallowed, but that’s a whole other story.

He threw some great passes, they got some play-action going and East Carolina bit hard. And he threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Turner and a 37-yard touchdown pass to Matt Aiken.  Granted, both of them were wide open but he made some very good throws.

He’s a good passer and a good runner, he’s probably a little bit shiftier than Proctor, but obviously the downside is for Navy when you’re starting a sophomore quarterback who has limited experiences in the offense, is his ability to run the read triple option. That’s Navy’s bread and butter, where they read it from the get go and don’t know where the ball is going until they base it off what the defense does. Miller is not going to be as adept at that because of his experience level. I think you’ll see a lot more predetermined calls where offensive coordinator Ivan Jasper calls plays where he knows what going to happen as opposed to putting it into Miller’s hands.
ITI: This has been a topic of great debate for the past year. What did Navy do to dominate the Irish on the ground last year? Was it something way out of the ordinary? A year later, I still haven’t gotten a great explanation.

BW: If they had watched film over a long stretch of time, they would have seen what Navy did. Navy really just adjusted their blocking schemes. The offensive linemen widened out their splits and all they did was change their blocking scheme. They didn’t change anything about the offense, it’s not like they ran a different offense, the plays were the same, it was just that they blocked it different. And that’s part of what Navy does. They alter their blocking schemes here and there to throw opponents off.

We found it interesting after the game that Coach Kelly was talking about Navy running the veer. They weren’t running the veer, they never have run the veer, they’re not going to run the veer. It may have looked like the veer, because of the way the blocking splits occured, and they ended up getting a lot of holes off tackle, but it wasn’t the veer. It was merely the coaching scheme.

Not to be at all condescending at all to the Notre Dame coaching staff, but when you come out of a game thinking a team ran the veer when all they did was change their blocking schemes, it tells me you don’t really know the offense very well. I’m thinking that since then, they’ve gotten themselves up to speed. I do know they shut down Army. Army is not Navy, they have not run that offense anywhere near as well and have only been running the option for two years since Rich Ellerson showed up, but we’ll see how well they’ve figured out the option. It may not be as good of a test without Kris Proctor running the true triple option and Trey Miller starting.

ITI: Ken Niumatalolo is a fiery guy that has certainly gotten under the skin of Notre Dame fans the past few years. What do Navy fans think of Niumatalolo? Has their opinion changed during this trying season?

BW: Navy is having the same type of season that they always have. They’re always in close games — they have been for eight years. What they’ve been able to do for eight years is pull out the close games and this year suddenly everything has gone the other way. They’ve had some really tough officiating calls go against them, too. I don’t think anybody sees anything that’s happening this year as an indictment of Niumatalolo, if anything it’s more of an indictment of Buddy Green and the defense, as the defense has been the problem.

Navy has scored enough points to win games, their defense just hasn’t been able to stop anybody. Worst than not stopping people, they’re just not doing it in crunch time. You take a lead against East Carolina at one point 35-31 and all you need is one defensive stop and you win the game and they couldn’t get it. East Carolina drove right down the field and scored a touchdown.

Niumatalolo’s a very competitive, very fiery guy. but off the field he’s a very quiet, calm and cool. It’s like night and day between on the field and off the field, he’s done a great job and people recognize that. They realize at Navy it’s a very thin margin of error and right now they’re just not getting the breaks.

ITI: Is there some really stark difference between the Navy of last season that dusted the Irish and the team that’s a 20-point underdog?

BW: The only team that I’ve seen beat Navy like that in the last 5 or 6 years is Southern Mississippi this year. So it is possible, just based on the fact that Navy’s pass defense has been so bad this year and Notre Dame is quite capable in the passing game that they could get away from Navy. Do I think it’ll happen? No. Number one, Navy’s backs are against the wall and they are going to play like men possessed. They’ve got to get a win. SC was a 20 point favorite against Navy and I told everybody that would listen to put their money on Navy, they don’t ever lose to teams like this by 20 points. I don’t think it’ll happen. There’s the potential to have it happen there, yes. You’ve got one team that can open it up in the passing game and another team that’s really struggled to defend the pass. So there is the prospect. Do I think it’ll happen? No.

ITI: What’s the key to a Navy upset?

BW: They’ve got to possess the ball. The way their defense has been going this year they’ve got to keep them off the field. It’s gig to have to be ong touchdown drives and a couple turnovers from Notre Dame would obviously help. It’s a tall order, but again the big disappointment this year has been the defense. They’ve always played a bend but not break style defense, but this year it just hasn’t happened for them. They just aren’t doing it on defense. They look a little slower at a couple key spots. They’ve got some senior defneders that have been career special teams guys and I think what’s happened is that you’re seeing why they’ve been career special teams guys. It’s been magnified when playing those spread teams.

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For more from Bill as we approach Saturday’s game, check out his work at the Navy Sports Blog.