And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

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Every year since 1927 Notre Dame and Navy have played football. While the Irish have won 73 of those games, the rivarly is known less for its one-sided nature than for its mutual respect.

And that’s before Navy made things competitive.

For a long time, Notre Dame was Navy’s shot at Mt. Everest. Even though Notre Dame won this game annually for 43 straight years, the Midshipmen geared up for their shot at one of college football’s powers.

That Navy finally toppled the Irish in 2007, one of Notre Dame’s worst teams in program history, matters not to any fan of the Midshipmen. It opened the gates of belief, and the Midshipmen nearly pulled off a last minute upset in 2008, before winning incredibly in ’09 and decisively in ’10, Brian Kelly’s first year in the program.

Since that run of three out of four, last done in 1963, and before that in 1936, the Irish have taken back the power, winning by 40+ points each of the past two seasons. But it’s clear that Kelly and his staff understand what Ken Niumatalolo has built in Annapolis.

To get us up to speed on all things Navy, Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette answered some questions for me. Bill took time out of his already busy schedule to slide in my questions after already working with a handful of other Notre Dame-based publications, so for that I’m eternally grateful.

I asked, Bill answered. Let’s get to it.

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Q: At 4-3, this team may not be the best of the Niumatalolo era, but it might not be that far behind. Impressive wins versus Indiana and Pitt, a tough loss against Toledo. How dangerous is this team compared to the ones that beat Notre Dame three out of four?

Navy continues to recruit better talent in terms of size, speed and strength. Joining a legitimate conference has helped the staff get better players. So talent-wise, I think Navy is as good or better than it’s ever been.

Obviously, chemistry and intangibles are hard to measure so until this team wins 10 games like some of those in the past it cannot lay claim to being the best during this current unprecedented run of success. I think that period in which Navy won three of four was more about the state of Notre Dame’s program than Navy’s.

Clearly, Brian Kelly has the Fighting Irish program back to an elite level and that means a loss to Navy would be the huge upset it would have been during the historic 43-game winning streak in the series.

Q: Notre Dame fans got a look at quarterback Keenan Reynolds in his debut last season. He’s played a lot of football since. Can you assess the progress he’s made?

Keenan Reynolds is well on the way to becoming the finest quarterback of the triple-option era. That is because he possesses all three attributes you look for. He has a strong, accurate arm, is an effective – even dangerous – runner and does a superb job of reading defenses. Past Navy quarterbacks may have possessed one or two of those traits. Ricky Dobbs was a fine passer and a strong, powerful runner, but struggled to make the reads necessary to run the triple-option. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was one of the best at reading defenses and ran well, but could not throw worth a darn. Reynolds does everything well and is also a leader and a winner.

Q: The Midshipmen defense has made some steady progress. It’s sitting right in the middle of the pack statistically at 60th in total defense. Are we seeing something different out of the group? Has the personnel gotten better?

Navy’s defense has really been up and down this season. At times, the unit has looked quite good. At others, it has been terrible. Navy played solid defense against Delaware, Western Kentucky and Pitt. The Midshipmen were completely shredded by Indiana, Duke and Toledo. In the Toledo game, the defense was solid for one half then awful for another. I don’t know that Navy’s defense is any different than it’s ever been.

Perhaps the overall personnel is better than years past, but the key is how well the Mids play the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy espoused by defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Navy’s goal is to not give up big plays, rally multiple defenders to the ball, get ball-handlers on the ground and force the offense to snap the ball over and over in hopes it will commit a penalty, turnover or some other sort of mistake that kills the drive.

Q: We’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about “Rivals.” Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick has made a commitment to keeping Navy on the schedule, a product of one of the longest running rivalries in college football. Outside of Air Force and obviously Army, is this the next biggest game for Navy? Has the intensity worn off from the boiling point this game was at during Navy’s 3 out of 4 run? Things got pretty intense there for a bit, at least from Notre Dame’s perspective.

I actually think there is a lot of mutual respect between the two schools and the two football programs. Playing Notre Dame annually helps Navy with recruiting and generally raises the profile of the program. Junior safety Parrish Gaines told me this week that it’s “Army, Air Force and Notre Dame” in that order in terms of big games for Navy.

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(I limited Bill’s questions to four because of his other commitments to ND Blogs. So check out his work at the Capital Gazette and give him a follow on Twitter @BWagner_CapGaz