Pregame Six Pack: Another scare from Navy

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As Notre Dame and Navy meet for the 88th straight time, we reach a familiar time of year and a particularly scary Saturday for the Irish. As ghosts and goblins prepare to roam the streets in search of trick or treat, the Irish coaching staff receives its annual scare in the form of a triple-option offense and a football team with nothing to lose.

That Notre Dame still plays Navy on an annual basis is a story in its own right. While most college football fans see it as an easy win for a team using tradition as an excuse for a mark in the win column, the truth is a far more noble endeavor.

While the story is well-told within Notre Dame circles, Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister did a great job retelling it, reminding Irish fans that during World War II, the Naval Academy kept the university’s doors open.

From Prister:

Notre Dame was in desperate need of students as the war and its repercussions cut significantly into its enrollment. The Midshipmen School and the V-12 Program began at Notre Dame in 1943, and by mid-war, civilian undergrads totaled only about 250. The rest of the enrollment was dedicated to the training of naval officers.

So closely tied was the University to the Naval Academy that Notre Dame’s football roster in 1943 included the “military status” of each player. Approximately 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame from 1942-46. In 1947, an Air Force detachment was established on campus.

In 1946, Admiral Chester Nimitz – who had accepted O’Donnell’s plea in 1941 – was presented with an honorary degree from Notre Dame. In 1947, Rear Admiral Cary Jones presented Notre Dame President Rev. John J. Cavanaugh with a commemorative plaque honoring Notre Dame’s “efficiency, patriotism and cooperative spirit.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh – Notre Dame’s president from 1952-87, and a former Navy chaplain, by the way – was a strong proponent of the Notre Dame-Navy football series.

“The Notre Dame-Navy connection is very close,” said Hesburgh, now 97, in 2013. “We’re like a big family…They’re always going to be on our schedule.”

For over 40 years, Navy remaining on Notre Dame’s football schedule meant a victory, with the Irish setting an NCAA record with 43-straight victories over the Midshipmen. But since Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo took the Navy football program to new heights, the matchup has turned into a battle far more befitting of college football’s longest running intersectional rivalry.

As we get to this week’s Pregame Six Pack, here’s a tip of the cap to a tradition worth honoring, even if it comes with pitfalls and challenges that make the Midshipmen one of the most grueling games on the schedule.

 

On a Saturday where one key battle should tell the story, Navy’s propensity to turn the football over is a very big problem for the Midshipmen. 

So much attention has been paid to Everett Golson’s turnover issues these past four games. Brian Kelly has made it clear that this weekend, those poor decisions and mistakes need to be eradicated, especially if Notre Dame wants to win in a convincing fashion.

“Everett knows what the charge is there running the offense,” Kelly said Tuesday. “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.”

But entering Saturday’s matchup with Navy, the Midshipmen’s struggles holding onto the football loom even larger. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows that the margin for error on Saturday is razor thin. And he knows for his team to be able to stay close, they’ve got to win the turnover battle.

That’s been the key stat when Navy has hung with Notre Dame. And that’s been the key problem for a 4-4 Midshipmen team that can’t afford to give the football away.

Navy ranks 106th in the nation in turnover margin. At a woeful -5 in the give-and-takeaway battle, the Midshipmen have no chance to beat Notre Dame if they end up giving the Irish offense more opportunities than they already get, and short-circuit offensive drives that serve two strategic keys (running the clock and scoring points).

Brian VanGorder’s defense has forced 15 turnovers this season, already surpassing their regular season total from last year. And if the Irish defense manages to make Keenan Reynolds play a poor game from a ball security perspective, the Irish should win running away tomorrow.

 

Passing the football won’t be a big part of Navy’s game plan. But the ability to protect the quarterback will be crucial for both teams. 

In the past, we’ve seen the Irish attack Navy’s defense in multiple ways. In last year’s 38-34 victory, Tommy Rees only threw the ball 20 times (two of those passes were intercepted). In the Irish’s 2012 blowout victory, Golson only attempted 18 passes (and Andrew Hendrix threw five times in mop-up duty), with the Irish running the ball 46 times for 293 yards.

Charlie Weis sometimes chose to attack Navy’s defense differently. While he stuck with running the football in 2008, down 21-7 in 2009, Weis had Jimmy Clausen throw almost exclusively against Buddy Green’s defense, completing 37 of 51 throws for 451 yards against the Midshipmen, with the Irish losing because they only managed to score only twice on their six red zone attempts.

That background is the long way to get to the pass rushing disparity in this football game. In years past, Navy has done an excellent job of scheming their way into being disruptive in the Irish pass game. But while the ghost of Ram Vela might still haunt Irish fans, the Navy pass rush has really struggled this season, managing only three sacks on the season. That’s good for a tie for dead last in all of college football.

On the flip side of the ball, while the numbers haven’t necessarily shown it, the Irish have been much better this season manufacturing pressure on quarterbacks. While they’ve only netted 13 sacks, that’s a big problem for the Midshipmen, because their offensive line is giving up sacks at an astonishing rate.

The Midshipmen have given up 15 sacks this season, good for a respectable 57th in the country. But Navy’s only attempted 86 passes this season. While Navy’s game plan might only include a half-dozen passing attempts on Saturday, getting Reynolds enough time to get the throw off is critical.

Consider this another place where the Irish could turn this game ugly quickly, especially if they get out to a big lead.

 

Let’s take a long trip down Memory Lane to see how Brian VanGorder plans on defending the option. 

We’ve already talked about the decade that’s come and gone since Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator has taken on the option.  But Saturday presents an interesting matchup when VanGorder will take on Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper as the Irish defense goes up against Navy’s triple option.

Jarron Jones already let slip the plan for Isaac Rochell to slide inside. That should be no surprise considering the Irish haven’t attempted to defend the option with a three-man front since the debacle in the Meadowlands in Navy’s lopsided 35-17 victory. Brian Kelly also pointed out that fifth-year senior Justin Utupo will see plenty of action, showcasing a great (albeit undersized) motor when pressed into duty last season.

In addition to a wonderful breakdown that looked at the changes the Irish made in their defensive schemes against Navy after the humiliating 2010 loss, our friends at OneFootDown went into the Way Back machine and dug out some footage of VanGorder’s Georgia defense taking on the option game of Georgia Southern.

VanGorder ran a base defense that looked an awful lot like a 5-2, rolling up two outside linebackers with a three-man front. And while the decade — not to mention Kelly’s four seasons of experience facing Navy — and the Irish personnel will likely mean a four-man front for the Irish, VanGorder’s scheme looks fairly similar to the one the Irish played out over the past few seasons.

Here’s the conclusion OFD reached after breaking down a lot of really old television footage.

To be honest, this video looked a lot like Notre Dame’s game against the Midshipmen. The three plays I covered in this post are almost exactly the same as three of the plays I covered in my Navy Review post.

This style of defense is “bend but don’t break” taken to an extreme. The offense can get 4-6 yards whenever it wants, and the defense has to count on a missed block or a penalty to stall the drive. One or two stops is all the defense really needs, since the offense can score at will. If the offense can’t get into the endzone or turns the ball over, then the defense has go back on the field and hope for another mistake.

What does this mean for Notre Dame’s game against Navy this season? Who knows. VanGorder didn’t exactly shut down Georgia Southern’s option attack, but Georgia blew them out thanks to some turnovers and big special teams plays.

Niumatalolo said his staff spent some time digging up film to see how VanGorder has defended the option in the past. I highly doubt they got much benefit out of a YouTube video that opens with score to a Michael Bay movie then switches to some awful alt-rock.

But if we’re looking for clues, this might be the best one available.

 

Let’s see if the Notre Dame ground game continues its ascent. 

It feels longer than two weeks ago, but last we saw Notre Dame’s offensive line, it was moving the line of scrimmage against Florida State’s defensive front. With Tarean Folston taking control of the running back battle with the Irish’s first 100-yard game of the season, keep an eye on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line on Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s starting five face a unique challenge against Navy’s defensive front, tasked with blocking faster and smaller defenders. That means the Irish offensive line is able to bully the Midshipmen, but only if they’re able to get their hands on them, forcing the Irish linemen to play with excellent technique first and foremost before moving the point of attack, something that’s been a challenge this season.

But after a breakthrough performance last year against the Midshipmen, let’s keep an eye on the distribution among the running backs Saturday night, especially if Kelly chooses to ride the running game. Kelly talked about Folston’s game against Florida State and how it’s earned him a move up, but not necessarily away from a committee-based approach.

“Standing here right now based upon his performance the last few weeks, he’s probably moved himself at the top of the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean that all the carries would necessarily slant his way,” Kelly explained.  “We’re still going to play all three backs…  I’ve said this a lot of times, we’re evolving.  As a carrier of the football, [Folston’s] earned more carries, but I think we clearly know the importance of all three backs and how they all meet the fit in terms of what we’re doing.”

In 2012, Cam McDaniel put himself on the radar with big games running the football as the Irish needed to burn clock with a lead, with his performance in the garbage time of a 40-point win over Navy getting things started. If the Irish get out front, riding McDaniel, or perhaps Greg Bryant, could be the springboard that either back could use to get momentum heading into the home stretch.

 

After facing some very good Navy quarterbacks, Keenan Reynolds presents a challenge unlike the others. 

There’s a very good reason Keenan Reynolds has already moved his way into the Navy football record books. The option quarterback might be the best to face the Irish in a very long time, even as injuries have wreaked havoc on his junior season.

Coming off a breakout game against San Jose State, Niumatalolo’s gamble to give Reynolds a few weeks off to get healthy comes at a perfect time for the Midshipmen, and not so much for the Irish.

After successfully moving Navy’s offense last season in a really impressive performance against Notre Dame, Reynolds will be asked to put on his superman cape once more, doing so behind an offensive line that’s struggled and after battling back from knee and throwing shoulder woes.

Asked what makes Reynolds so difficult to defend, Kelly praised Navy’s quarterback for his ability to be a creator as a ball carrier as well as being a deadly option triggerman.

“He’s not somebody that is interested in his own stats,” Kelly explained. “When you look at an option quarterback, if you give him the fullback, the fullback is going to get the football.  I think it starts with an unselfish quarterback, whose understanding of the system is superseding any of his individual stats and accolades.  That is number one.

“Number two, he is an outstanding depth athlete, and his ability to throw the football.  He’s not one-dimensional where you’d say, we’re just going to line up extra guys on the line of scrimmage because we know we can’t throw the football.  He’s an accomplished thrower of the football.  He can spin it on you and he can hurt you.  So I think that’s the second piece of that.

“And then the third is that he’s extremely elusive.  He’s put together pretty well.  He’s bigger than [former Navy quarterback Ricky] Dobbs, and because of that he seems to always fall forward for four or five yards.  When you look up there, it’s 2nd and 4, and he does a great job of obviously managing the down and distance.  I think those three things really stand out to me.”

While injuries and struggles up front derailed Reynolds from a dark horse Heisman candidacy before it could start, just one game after playing against Jameis Winston, the Irish have their hands full with another dynamic quarterback.

 

Start fast and Notre Dame could end this game early. Start slow? Buckle up for a long, grueling night. 

If setting the tone against Florida State was important, it may be even more important on Saturday night. Because a quick start could determine whether or not the Irish play a game like the ones in 2011 and 2012 or the slugfest that went down last season.

If you’re looking for a down-and-dirty way to tell how this football game goes, just look at the first two possessions for both teams. In 2011 and 2012, the Irish started quick and Navy didn’t. The result? Blowout victories.

In 2013, the Irish offense was just okay to start, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, but settling for a field goal on their second. That kept Navy in the game, especially after they matched touchdowns to open the game, and then played a far more efficient second quarter, with the Irish turning the ball over twice.

A look back to 2009 gives you almost the perfect look inside a Navy upset. The Irish’s first drive ended after three plays, with Robby Paris fumbling after a short completion. Navy converted two fourth downs on a touchdown drive. Notre Dame’s second drive ended on a Nick Tausch missed field goal. Navy went 74 yards in seven plays to go up 14-0. Adding insult to injury, the Irish got nothing when they went for it on 4th-and-Goal from the 3, with Clausen missed Duval Kamara in the end zone.

If history tells us anything, we’ll know fairly early how difficult this game will be for Notre Dame. And it’ll be determined by the Irish’s ability to execute from the start.