And In That Corner … The No. 23 Navy Midshipmen, perpetually Notre Dame’s nuisance

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Some consider this weekend an annual three-hour headache. Some see it as a yearly historical homage. And some see it as the perennial challenge to Notre Dame’s greater hopes. That last view, in particular, holds merit this year as Navy enters this weekend ranked No. 23 and with plenty of motivation, even more than usual, to upset the Irish.

Notre Dame could have been forgiven for overlooking Navy in 2018. That is very much no longer the case. Ava Wallace of The Washington Post is here to explain what changed …

DF: A year ago, we talked about how unexpected Navy’s fall was. When they met the Irish, the Midshipmen were 2-5. I think now we can talk about the exact opposite, how unexpected this rise to 7-1 was. Much of it traces to quarterback Malcolm Perry, averaging 130.3 rushing yards per game with 16 rushing touchdowns. What Navy quarterbacks of recent history does Perry compare to? What has made him so aptly fit the triple-option?

AW: I’m glad you asked about Perry; his finally embracing a leadership role at Navy and studying the triple-option like crazy over the summer has paid off hugely for the Mids, as you said. To answer your first question — thanks to his incredible speed, the senior ranks fairly well against Navy’s most recent quarterback of note, Keenan Reynolds. Take a look at Navy’s record books and you’ll see Perry ranks third all-time for most 100-yard career rushing games with 16 (Reynolds is No. 1 with 22) and fourth all-time for career all-purpose yards with 4,345 (Reynolds is No. 3 with 4,606).

Perry is the best runner Ken Niumatalolo has ever had, and that obviously makes him a great option quarterback. But this year, Navy took care to fit how they run the option with what Perry is comfortable with — offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has said he put Perry in too many uncomfortable situations last year when they tried to be more of a power triple-option team, which isn’t great for a 5-foot-10* quarterback of slight build. Now, they let Perry dictate much more on the sidelines.  

Ava’s note: *I am 5-foot-10. Malcolm Perry is not.

This may seem reductive, but I do not know that I have that many other player-specific questions to ask. This looks to be the prototypical Ken Niumatalolo team, one that executes well and grinds its opponents into submission. I am surprised at how stingy the rush defense appears to be, giving up only 109.4 yards per game (No. 17 in the country) and 3.22 yards per carry (No. 18). Who or what has created that stalwart front? It is of note given Notre Dame’s extensive struggles running the ball this season.

Folks can thank Navy’s new defensive coordinator Brian Newberry from Kennesaw State for that defense. Niumatalolo cleaned house on the defensive side of his staff during the offseason in an effort to be more dynamic on defense; he wanted a coordinator that could both keep up with triple-option teams and put the big boys (Niumatalolo’s term) on their heels. He found it with Newberry, who not only brought a creative scheme to town but also injected some new, sorely needed energy into Navy’s defense. It is night and day from what that unit looked like last year.

Navy moved senior Malcolm Perry from slot back to quarterback this season, a move Irish head coach Brian Kelly has said he wishes the Midshipmen had not made. (Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I suppose in my first two questions, I have touched on the biggest differences between this year’s 7-1 record and last season’s 2-5, eventual 3-10. Perry has rejuvenated the offense and a defense that gave up 191.5 rushing yards per game (No. 90 in the country) has come close to halving that allowance. On a broad scale, what did Niumatalolo do to so quickly return to his standard?

Niumatalolo poured over every aspect of his program during the offseason. Sorting out the defense was his first priority but in the bigger picture, I think the thing that might have made the second-biggest defense is that even as he questioned every detail of his program, he still really trusted the culture he had built over more than a decade in Annapolis. Last year, the team wasn’t as close as they had been in previous seasons, so he prioritized team-building activities. Niumatalolo had players choose team captains later so they could really sus out who the right leaders were. He cut a handful of guys he determined to not be fully bought in.

Editor’s note: Need tickets to Saturday’s game? Click here

Every player I have talked to this year said that has made a huge change. There was a lot of finger-pointing going on last year while Navy was losing, and the players say they are closer than ever and all operating under the same mentality, and that matters.

This game would have much more hype if not for Navy’s 35-23 loss at Memphis in late September. I’ll be honest, I have no memory of that game and my ledger indicates I paid no attention to it. What did the Tigers do to score 35 against the Midshipmen that the Irish might be able to replicate? Only one other conventional Navy opponent has broken 17, and that was a helter-skelter game against Tulane.

Memphis did a great job of getting the jump on Navy in that game. Their biggest scores came off long runs – a 75-yard touchdown run and 99-yard kickoff return (ouch) among them – that Navy essentially processed as Memphis catching the Midshipmen off-guard in their new defense. Perry also got hurt in the second quarter and wasn’t quite himself after that.

I suppose, bluntly speaking, that loss to Memphis should not prove too costly for the Midshipmen. I don’t think we would have ever genuinely had them in Playoff conversations — Notre Dame is the only Power Five team on the schedule, though the AAC is very good at the top — and they are still in the mix to be the Group of Five representative in the Cotton Bowl. Do those possibilities creep up in conversation around Annapolis?

Navy is quite proud of its turnaround after last year, of course, but the Midshipmen were trying hard not to get ahead of themselves this week. Notre Dame and SMU are obviously huge tests, their biggest of the season aside from the service academy games, and I get the sense the Mids feel they haven’t proved all that much yet.  Honestly, they just want to beat Army.

On that Cotton Bowl front, let’s say Navy beats SMU next week and Memphis loses its season finale against Cincinnati. Then, the Midshipmen beat the Bearcats in the AAC title game. Navy would be in position for that Cotton Bowl berth when such things are supposed to be announced … but the Army game would still be a week away. I ask because you presumably know better than I do, would there be a holdup in the Cotton Bowl decision? Do we have no idea what that procedure is?

I believe there would be a holdup, because of this little ditty from the College Football Playoff’s official selection protocol: “If the committee believes the result of the ArmyNavy game could affect Army’s or Navy’s ranking and therefore its place in the playoff or its selection as the group of five representative, only the pairings that affect Army or Navy would be delayed until after the ArmyNavy game. In such case, the committee would convene by teleconference as soon as practicable after conclusion of the game and would announce its revised rankings that Saturday night.”

With all that in mind, I could argue the Midshipmen might overlook the Irish, as absurd of a thought as that is. You can go ahead and tell me I’m an idiot.

Idiot looks so harsh in print. How about nincompoop?

So, given Notre Dame is favored by 7, what do you expect this weekend?

I hate this part. 31-24? Sure.