For a man that’s had more success against Notre Dame than any of his predecessors over the past two generations, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo certainly doesn’t think he’s figured out the Irish. In fact, for his Midshipmen team to win, Niumatalolo acknowledges that it takes more than just his team playing near-perfect football. He needs Notre Dame’s help as well.
We played about as good as we can play and we still lost,” Niumatalolo told the Capital Gazette, when talking about last season’s 38-34 finish. “To even have a chance, we have to play perfect and they have to help us a little bit.”
The Irish did their part last year, with two second-quarter interceptions keeping points off the board and Navy in the game. So did the Midshipmen, with quarterback Keenan Reynolds managing the offense, moving the chains and playing clean football throughout.
Navy’s 27 first downs, buoyed by converting 10 of 16 third downs, were the most the Midshipmen have ever had in the 88-game series history. That not only allowed Navy to move the football and score points, it kept the Irish offense off of the field.
On Tuesday, Brian Kelly talked about how limited possessions dictate the terms for him offensively. Even putting up over 500 yards, the Irish needed to be clutch down the stretch, scoring a key touchdown after Tarean Folston took over and stopping Navy on a 4th down with just over a minute to go to ice the game.
That puts the pressure on Everett Golson to clean up some of the mistakes that he’s made the past four weeks.
“You can’t have turnovers. You can’t give them extra possessions. We have to score points. there is no question about that,” Kelly said. “So from an offensive standpoint, Everett knows what the charge is there running the offense. He’s got to be accurate. He’s got to be clean in terms of taking care of the football, and we’ve got to be on top of things offensively. If we’re not, it’s going to be a dogfight.”
Kelly anticipates that the Irish will only get eight or nine possessions on Saturday night. That gives Notre Dame the chance to score 63 points if they play perfectly according to the head coach, and forces the coaching staff to slightly change their mindset when taking on a Navy defense that’s undersized and likely overmatched.
“I try to figure it out, each possession you just have to score,” Kelly explained. “If that takes a little bit longer, you’re still going to get your possessions, the way the game plays out. It’s not rushing. It’s the difference between being quick and being in a hurry.”
On the flip side of the ball, Niumatalolo faces a new challenge with Brian VanGorder getting his first chance at stopping the Navy triple-option. While Kelly revealed that he and VanGorder discussed the option during the hiring process, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had to spend part of the week trying to figure out how VanGorder plans to defend the Midshipmen after getting used to Bob Diaco.
“Coach VanGorder has been around the block and I really respect the defensive coordinator, so they’re going to know what they’re doing,” Niumatalolo said this week. “You try to do as best you can on homework to see what his background is, see if they’ve played option teams…But we’ve been doing this a long time. You get to the game, you try and figure out what they’re doing and you go from there. We have some ideas, try and compare some stuff, but you really don’t know.”
Even without Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix up front and three key starting linebackers, the Irish front seven will be a challenge for a Navy offensive line that’s battled injuries and required a pep talk early this week from their head coach. That likely underscores the fact that Niumatalolo knows that while good personnel graduated, the Irish’s defense is the best unit they’ve faced this year and has been difficult to run against.
While VanGorder’s been known to bring exotic pressures to try and confuse quarterbacks on passing downs, he’ll likely have a different recipe for stopping Keenan Reynolds. Now healthy after a breakout game against San Jose State, Reynolds just went into the Navy record books as the school’s all-time touchdown leader, breaking loose for 251 yards on 39 carries last week. Niumatalolo knows his quarterback play — both before and after the snap — will be one of the deciding factors Saturday night.
“Fortunately we’ve got a quarterback that’s seen pretty much everything and hopefully he’ll get us into the right play,” Niumatalolo said.
After openly discussing the cut blocks that took out Sheldon Day, Kona Schwenke and Ishaq Williams last season, Kelly put that to rest earlier this week with his “crybabies” comments. Plus he’s got a two-deep up front that isn’t down to afterthoughts like Tyler Stockton, though his secondary isn’t far away.
Any worry that the Irish would be looking past this game and on to Arizona State was likely ended when Notre Dame got little respect in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. With decisive wins now likely needed throughout November for a legitimate chance to make the playoff, the Irish should use Saturday night as a primetime opportunity to showcase an offense that’s finding its rhythm and a defense that’s going strength versus strength.
That’s likely what has Niumatalolo acknowledging the long odds. He’s won on them before. And hoping his team, now on a two-game winning streak and with a healthy quarterback, catches fire.
“During the bye week I got to see them on TV against Florida State and they should have won that game. They could very well be undefeated right now,” Niumatalolo said.
“Like I say, we have to shoot 75 percent from the 3-point line and they’ve got to miss a few layups in order for us to have a chance.”