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Pregame Six Pack: Momentum before the Midshipmen

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Coming off an overdue win, Notre Dame looks to ride their momentum into Jacksonville. That’s where the Navy Midshipmen await. For the 90 straight years that the Mids have been on the schedule, they’ve never been a tougher out than they are now, with Ken Niumatalolo taking his program to new heights.

Most expected a rebuilding year for Navy. But with an upset win over Houston and the Mids sitting atop their division in the American, it’s a new challenge for an Irish team that’s not looking forward to 2017, but rather hoping to see real improvements in the season’s final month.

“We’re measuring progress by how we play in the month of November,” Brian Kelly said Thursday, before the team took off for Florida. “We were 1-3 in September, we were 2-2 in the month of October, we need to see a really good November.

“If there’s any looking ahead, which I’m not really doing that, but when you look at the big picture this is an important month for us to show some progress with a young football team.”

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Here are six storylines I’ll be watching during the early kickoff from Everbank Field.

 

With Daniel Cage out from a concussion, Jarron Jones faces his next big challenge. 

We watched Jarron Jones have the most impactful game behind the line of scrimmage of any Notre Dame defender since 1997. And after obliterating Miami center Nick Linder, he’s got a new task ahead—blowing up the interior of the Midshipmen’s offensive line.

Jones will have many challenges on hand. And as Joe Schmidt mentioned in my column yesterday, a big one might be the mental battle that comes with facing an offensive line that’ll (legally) be cut-blocking.

Unlike usual seasons where Navy’s offensive line gives up a major size differential to the Irish, Midshipman center Maurice Morris will actually go pound-for-pound, the senior listed at 327 pounds. But Morris is also the lowest-graded player on the Navy offensive line (as measured by PFF) giving Jones a huge advantage in the trenches if he can effectively blow up the point of attack and disrupt the fullback dive.

“If he’s explosive and he gets off the ball, there’s really no worries about how to play this game up front,” Kelly said. “You just need to be explosive. We’re not going to get into a read-react thing with him. He’s a big fella, and he makes all his plays being explosive. So the best way not to get cut is to blow your guy up. That’s kind of what we’re talking to Jarron about, and he kind of likes that right now.”

 

Keep your eye on third downs, with conversions likely being the story of the game. 

As you crunch numbers and look at the statistical breakdown of this matchup, one stat sticks out more than others—third down conversion rate. Navy is one of the country’s very best. Notre Dame is on the other side of that equation.

The Irish sit at 98th in the country, converting at only 36 percent. Navy is fifth in the nation, converting 51 percent of the time. So while we’ve already put the focus on the turnover margin and red zone conversions, Navy play-by-play announcer Pete Medhurst pointed to this matchup—on both sides of the ball—as the one to watch.

“Navy must convert on third down,” Medhurst told me this week. “They absolutely have to win third down on both sides of the ball. If you convert third downs you keep Notre Dame off the field offensively.”

With the option allowing a full menu of play calling even if the Mids get behind the chains, keep your eye on this battle—it’ll likely be key in determining the game.

 

Accidental starting quarterback Will Worth adds a new dimension to Navy offense with a strong passing game. 

Replacing perhaps the best Navy quarterback since Roger Staubach is no simple challenge. Especially if you weren’t expected to contribute this season. But Will Worth has been up to the challenge. And after filling in for starter Tago Smith after a torn ACL in the season opener, Worth has actually expanded the Midshipmen’s offensive playbook with his throwing ability.

“They keep rolling offensively. They lose their starting quarterback. Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off,” Kelly said. “You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there’s going to be a dropoff, but the production has been unbelievable.”

Worth leads the Mids with 13 rushing touchdowns on 161 attempts, nearly 100 more than the fullback Chris High, who has 65 carries. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just three interceptions. And as opponents sell out to stop the option, Navy’s countered by throwing against man-to-man coverage, something they’ll see plenty of this weekend, a match-up to watch with senior receiver Jamir Tillman a physically imposing, 6-foot-4 target.

 

Getting Greer Martini back is a huge win for the Irish defense. 

While Daniel Cage didn’t travel this weekend, the Irish will get Greer Martini back for the weekend. And he’s a huge piece of the puzzle for Notre Dame’s defense, an option specialist last season who racked up some very nice numbers the past few years against this offense.

Martini started against Navy and Georgia Tech last season, two of his four starts. He had eight tackles against the Yellow Jackets, while matching his career-high of nine against Navy a few weeks later—the same number he put up in 2014. That two-game output nearly matched his stat line for the rest of the season.

Racking up tackles wasn’t the only thing Martini did last season. His PFF grade confirms the statistical output he had, one of the team’s best mistake-free option defenders last season. Martini played a team-high 76 snaps against Georgia Tech, graded only below Jaylon Smith last year, while grading out as the team’s best linebacker against Navy.

So while there’s no Smith to chase down runners and no Schmidt to see things from the middle, Martini will be back and playing a very big role.

 

Even if all the focus is on stopping the option, Notre Dame’s offense has plenty of pressure on it. 

The focus will always be on stopping the triple-option. But if the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to be effective offensively. So the fits and starts we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer and the inconsistent Irish offense need to be ironed out this weekend. Because Navy’s offense and their ability to possess the ball will mean limited opportunities for the Irish offense.

“You understand that you have to be patient in what you’re doing, understand that your possessions are going to be limited. If they are, you can’t go out there expecting to score a thousand touchdowns,” Kizer said. “But with that you also have to understand when you do touch the ball, your ultimate goal needs to be a touchdown no matter how it comes.”

It’ll likely come by running the football. Kelly has done a nice job running to win, carrying the ball 40, 39, 36, and 46 times in the last four matchups against the Midshipmen. And even if the Irish ground game has failed to hit its stride this year with the offensive line still trying to find its footing, expect the Irish to marry the ground game with tempo, something we saw (too briefly) against Miami.

“As a high-tempo offense that we are, we find our success when we’re up and rolling. So we got to make sure when we’re back out there, we’re doing the exact same things we have been doing to be successful,” Kizer said. “Our offense is spread, it is fast. It may not seem like that when I’m up there checking a play a thousand times. The emphasis is to be fast. So if we have the opportunity to just call and haul, we’re going to do so.”

 

More than ever, a special teams mistake would be catastrophic. 

Let’s be very clear. This is not the week for special teams to determine the football game. Because if we’ve seen anything this season, it’s that the Irish special teams have found terrible times to impact a ballgame.

So Scott Booker’s unit better bring their A-game. There’s no room for a muffed punt. There’s no room for getting caught on a surprise onside kick. And with possessions limited and holding serve essential, keeping things vanilla in the game’s third segment might just be the best way to guarantee success.

Chris Finke is now competing with C.J. Sanders as the team’s primary punt returner. Finke delivered a nice return when the game was on the line against Miami, but if he’s back there, it won’t necessarily be to make plays, but rather to not make bad ones. So if that’s fair catching punts—or making sure they’re simply caught in the air and not bounced off a teammate’s unsuspecting leg—that’s a move that’s a necessity.

Because you have to expect Navy to try and make a big special teams play. The Irish have seen breakdowns with punt blocks, kickoff returns and everything in between, so  the Midshipmen will try and steal a possession if the game offers that opportunity.