WHO? No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) vs. No. 23 Navy (7-1).
WHAT? The Irish and Midshipmen have not met with both ranked since 1978. More precisely, Navy has not been ranked for this matchup since then. By no means was that expected this year, with the Midshipmen coming off a 3-10 struggle last season. In fact, this space’s preseason predictions expected only Virginia to visit Notre Dame as a ranked opponent.
WHEN? 2:30 ET. Kickoff should be the usual 12 minutes later, with a flyover in the interim.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind. Temperatures should be in the mid-30s for the 70,000+ in attendance. Why such a vague number, rather than the capacity of 77,622? Notre Dame does not expect a sellout, snapping a streak of 273 Irish home games dating back to 1973.
While it may have been the second-longest such streak in NCAA history, it was hardly a genuine run for quite some time. Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick acknowledged some of those borderline-forced sales from recent years.
“Group sales were a big part of keeping the streak going, too,” Swarbrick told the South Bend Tribune. “We’d go to somebody who was ‘a friend of Notre Dame’ and say, ‘Gee, can you help us with this game? Can you buy 50 tickets and distribute them to your employees?’”
WHY? Why did the sellout streak end? A combination of reasons, including three home games in November, all against lackluster opponents. Even if this is the highest Navy has been ranked when facing the Irish in 41 years, it is not an opponent many fans will schedule their travel around.
Add to that the factors leading to dwindling attendance across the country — higher-quality televisions, booming ticket prices, sheer inconvenience, general economic concerns — and the only surprise is that the sellout streak did not end earlier. It probably would have if the Stadium renovations a few years ago had not removed a few thousand seats and moved the Notre Dame band into the stands, taking up a couple hundred more.
BUT BACK TO FOOTBALL, WHY? To quote Irish head coach Brian Kelly on what stands out about this annual meeting:
“Just the respect part of it in terms of who we’re going against, leaders of our country, Naval Academy, coaching staff, players. That, to me, is what’s great about this game. The history and tradition behind it and why this game is being played today.”
BY HOW MUCH? The Irish opened as 11-point favorites six days ago, but that number slowly ticked down to a touchdown, where it stood as Friday turned to Saturday. That shift was more a reflection of how good the Midshipmen have looked this season than it was a criticism of the Irish. Specifically, Navy’s defense might have a chance at keeping Notre Dame in check.
That has long been the make-or-break aspect in this series. While the Irish sometimes struggle defending the triple-option, they are rarely gashed by it. Garbage time propelled the Midshipmen to 39 points in 2014; they genuinely ripped through Bob Diaco’s defense in 2010; and triple overtime inflated the totals in 2007. Otherwise, Navy has scored 30 or more points on Notre Dame only twice in the last 56 years, in a competitive game in 2013 and in an Irish blowout in 1990. (The Midshipmen won 35-14 in 1963, ranked No. 4 at the time, the last Naval victory against Notre Dame for 43 years.)
Keeping Navy below 30 points so frequently meant the Irish just needed to get some points on the board. Not so many as to constitute an offensive explosion, but enough to exert control of the game. That will be tougher Saturday than in years’ past.
Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo pulled Brian Newberry up from Kennesaw State to take over as Navy’s defensive coordinator this year, and the results have been undeniably successful. While total stats can be deflated against the Midshipmen because of the time drained by the triple-option, averages and rates put a strong defense in perspective.
Navy gives up 3.22 yards per rush, No. 18 in the country, and it is No. 19 in passing efficiency defense. Midshipmen opponents have scored on only 72.7 percent of their red-zone possessions, No. 17 in the country, and convert only 32.5 percent of their third downs, No. 23.
“From a transformational standpoint, their defense is so much better at everything that they do from coverage to getting after the quarterback,” Kelly said Monday. “… Part of it is scheme, part of it is they got some good players with some experience. I like their safeties; they can play anywhere in the country, both of them.”
Yet, a combined point total over/under of 55 suggests Notre Dame should score 31. It still has skill players far more talented than Navy’s best defenders, even those safeties, junior Evan Fochtman and sophomore Kevin Brennan.
The Irish will need those playmakers to open this up and force the Midshipmen away from the triple-option. Senior receiver Chase Claypool will need to continue to make highlight catches; junior tight end Cole Kmet will need to continue to exploit mismatches; and fifth-year receiver Chris Finke will need to continue his recent surge.
Otherwise, the Midshipmen red-zone and third-down discipline may bog down the Irish offense until the afternoon becomes a stressful endeavor. Just a few chunk plays should do the trick. The two times Navy has given up more than 30 points this season, the opposition had 11 possessions.
Notre Dame 31, Navy 21.
(8-1 in pick; 4-5 against the spread, 4-5 point total.)
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— A rarity, Notre Dame might not be doomed by season-ending injuries
— Kmet, Eichenberg declare plans to return to Notre Dame for final seasons in 2020
— Pick your preferred Big 12 bowl opponent
— And In That Corner … The No. 23 Navy Midshipmen
— Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s long-ago lessons still apply to No. 23 Navy
— God, Country, Notre Dame: Gilman has evolved into a central leader for Notre Dame, drawing from his experiences in Hawaii, Naval Academy
— If you want Navy off the schedule, get over yourself
— Sellout streak at Notre Dame Stadium ends at 273 games
— Flyover details
— Recruiting analysis: Breakdown of Notre Dame’s three cornerback commits
— Pat Connaughton making most of chance with Bucks