Opponent preview: Navy

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The first of twelve opponent previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents.

The Overview:

After living the good life as the scrappy band of underdogs that won games by doing the little things right, Ken Niumatalolo‘s Navy team fell back down to earth in 2011, losing seven games because of bad red zone play, a horrific kicking game, and making the type of mistakes earlier editions of the Midshipmen used to capitalize on themselves.

Losing five games by a total of 11 points forced Navy to go back to the basics this offseason, with Niumatalolo cracking the whip as he’s forced to replace almost half of the team’s returning lettermen and 12 starters. After one of the biggest drubbings in almost a quarter century, Navy will head to Dublin with revenge on their mind.

Last time against the Irish:

After a chaotic week filled after laying an egg against USC and some somewhat divisive radio comment made by Brian Kelly, many were worried the Irish were ready to fall apart. Those worries lasted less than two minutes, as the Irish rumbled down the field quickly and didn’t stop until they put up 56 points against the Midshipmen, backed by seven rushing touchdowns.

“They whipped our butts today,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s my fourteenth team playing Notre Dame and that’s the most full butt whipping.”

Michael Floyd had six catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Tommy Rees completed 16 of 22 passes, and Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood averaged six yards a carry and ran for five touchdowns before Notre Dame finally took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Navy as the tenth toughest opponent on the schedule.

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10. Navy

The Match-up:

After two option quarterback led the Navy offense, Trey Miller captains the ship, a more accomplished passer than his predecessors. Miller faced the Irish last season as an injury replacement, but will be more seasoned this year. Brandon Turner is back with the team after struggling to pass his conditioning test this fall, but fellow receiver Matt Aiken will likely miss the game after hyperextending his knee during a scrimmage. Gee Gee Green will be back in the backfield, but it’ll be Noah Copeland‘s job to replace Alexander Teich. The Midshipmen still need to solve a horrendous kicking game, missing nine kicks in twelve games last season.

On defense, the Middies will need to fill the shoes of defensive end Jabaree Tuani, who graduated after a sterling four year career. Not helping their case is that the line has also lost two other potential contributors, with Jamel Dobbs dismissed from the Academy and Josh Jones walking away from football. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green will rotate a lot of bodies along the line as he looks to find the right combination. Linebacker Matt Warrick will pace the Academy’s back seven, joined by senior safety Tra’ves Bush and sophomore Chris Ferguson. Converted safety Josh Tate also passed the Physical Readiness Test this week after failing earlier and should add some speed to the edge of the defense.

How the Irish will win:

It’s a pretty simple formula for the Irish, though the execution remains to be the wild card of the 2012 season. With Tommy Rees back home in South Bend, it’ll be up to Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix to lead the Irish offense without turning the football over. The Irish have a sizable advantage along the lines, and with running options Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, and Amir Carlisle, the ball doesn’t need to be in the air all that much, unless it’s heading toward All-American Tyler Eifert.

After a rough debut against Niumatalolo, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has done a nice job playing against option attacks, limiting points even if offenses have done a decent job racking up yardage. With Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt, and Louis Nix along the line, Manti Te’o roaming sideline to sideline and the entire defense pretty familiar with the option attack, there’s little reason the Irish shouldn’t win in front of a likely pro-Notre Dame crowd in Dublin.

How the Irish will lose:

The recipe for disaster is fairly well known after last season. An offense that turns the ball over at inopportune times. A defense that gives up yards by the bunch against option opponents. And a secondary that’s had little experience, and will likely be susceptible against the one or two deep shots Navy takes down field.

Navy will do everything it can to limit Notre Dame’s possessions and milk the clock as it moves the ball down the field. With an entire preseason to add some wrinkles to its attack, Navy should try to catch the Irish defense unprepared. If the offense can’t get out of the gates quickly and Navy hangs around into the second half, this might be a nightmarish start to the season and an awfully long trip home to South Bend.

Gut Feeling:

Even with a first time starter at quarterback, there shouldn’t be much to worry about for the Irish. Notre Dame’s strength on both lines should make it difficult for Navy. The skill players the Irish have should overwhelm the Midshipmen’s defense. And after splitting the first two rounds, Brian Kelly and company should take another game from Niumatalolo and his undermanned squad. It’s a good first opponent for the Irish, who get some extra time to prep for the option, while also easing Golson (or Hendrix) into the mix.