With last night’s announcement had all eyes on the first announcement of the College Football Playoff rankings, the immediate concern is Navy. While we can spend the next five weeks worrying about the view from 30,000 feet, credit Brian Kelly for understanding that the Midshipmen present the most clear and present danger.
That’s because Navy seems to be hitting its stride. With quarterback Keenan Reynolds looking like the guy who pushed Notre Dame to its limit last season, the Midshipmen may be just 4-4 entering Saturday night’s game, but they’re coming off their best performance of the season, a 41-31 victory over San Jose State.
So while the victory might not do much in the court of public opinion (or in the mind of the selection committee), Kelly mentioned a group of experts who don’t want to see Navy on their schedule.
“I can tell you among the coaches throughout the country, if we were just polling coaches, they would tell you nobody wants to play Navy,” Kelly said. “But sometimes when you talk about the average fan, they hear about an academy, and they don’t think in terms of how difficult of an opponent it is.”
To get us ready for this year’s edition of the Midshipmen, Gene Wang of the Washington Post joins us. Covering Navy football among the many beats under his umbrella at the Post, Gene was kind enough to spend a few minutes getting us prepared for the longest running intersectional rivalry in college football.
Can you call the start of this season a disappointment? After playing Ohio State tough, the Midshipmen just haven’t won the games that you’d expect, losing to Western Kentucky and Air Force (and really Rutgers, too). Is there one thing you can put your finger on?
The first half of the season definitely was a disappointment for the Midshipmen, especially given they need help from Army to keep the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after losing to Air Force. Uncharacteristic turnovers have been the main culprit for the slow start, including six lost fumbles and two interceptions by QB Keenan Reynolds.
Getting to Keenan Reynolds, how badly have injuries wrecked his season? After running for over 1,300 yards and passing for over 1,000, I was expecting him to be a dark horse Heisman candidate. After wreaking havoc against Notre Dame in 2013, is Reynolds healthy for Saturday?
Injuries have contributed in large part to Reynolds’ sloppy beginning. He hurt his knee in Week 2 against Temple and landed hard on his right [throwing] shoulder late in the fourth quarter against Air Force. Reynolds has sat out two games, with backup Tago Smith directing victories both times, but he says he’s essentially 100 percent now.
Looking at the numbers Noah Copeland and Chris Swain have put up, the fullback dive — something that Notre Dame fans certainly know plenty about — looks prolific and incredibly dangerous. How is it that this duo is averaging basically 8 yards a carry?
Defenses have been so locked in on shutting down Reynolds that fullbacks have been able to take advantage. Copeland is the home-run threat at the position while Swain is the battering ram. They are an ideal complement to one another, and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is comfortable with either carrying the ball at important times.
Defensively, the Midshipmen are hanging in there. Against the most powerful Brian Kelly offense that Navy has faced, how do you expect Buddy Green’s defense to hold up?
Throughout his career Buddy Green has been a master at getting the most out of an undersized defense with the philosophy of preventing the big play and stiffening in the red zone. Occasionally Navy will surrender a long completion over the top, but for the most part, opponents have to work methodically to reach the end zone.
Ken Niumatalolo has done some really impressive things at Navy, including giving Notre Dame all he can handle while he piles up Commander-In-Chief Trophys in his seven-plus seasons as head coach. Covering him, is he happy at Navy? Do you get the feeling he’s looking for another challenge? Or does the conference shakeup give him a renewed set of goals?
Ken Niumatalolo is a great fit for Navy and has no immediate plans to coach anywhere other than in Annapolis. He is a wizard at implementing the triple option, which is an offense ideally suited for the type of player who comes to a service academy. Plus Niumatalolo rarely has to deal with the knucklehead factor at other power five schools where football success often comes before academics.
Every year, Notre Dame fans watch a Midshipman or two pop up and put together a really impressive game against a team with bigger, stronger and faster athletes. Give us one player on offense and one on defense that might be flying under the radar and could play big next Saturday.
Slot back DeBrandon Sanders was battling various ailments this season but has been getting healthy in recent weeks. With Navy’s fullbacks having a great deal of success this season, don’t be surprised to see Sanders get opportunities on the perimeter for a change of pace. Defensively, rush end Paul Quessenberry was able to excel against Ohio State, and Navy will need more of the same to keep Everett Golson off-balance.
For more this week, you can follow Gene on Twitter @Gene_Wang or read more from him at the Washington Post.