A decade or two from now, when we all look back on these miserable couple years, the football aspect that may be hardest to believe will be that Notre Dame and Navy did not play in 2020. A game that was originally scheduled for Dublin and then moved to Annapolis came off the schedule entirely when the Irish sought out South Florida for a home game rather than invite the Midshipmen to South Bend.
There undoubtedly were further complications preventing that audible, which Notre Dame’s one-year ACC membership mandated be held in Indiana rather than in Maryland, as the former hosts an Atlantic Coast Conference school and the latter does not. (Words increasingly have little meaning, and in college football, geography has never much mattered.)
To some Irish fans’ (and defensive linemen’s) chagrin, Navy is back on the schedule in 2021 and will be for the foreseeable future. This year, though, it should hardly be viewed as the usual headache.
With conferences returning to play at varying intervals, Navy and BYU had the spotlight all to themselves in primetime on Labor Day, which did not work out well for the Midshipmen. In a well-intentioned effort to protect his players from COVID-19, head coach Ken Niumatalolo held all of preseason practice without any contact. No Navy player, quite literally, tackled another before facing the Cougars.
And it showed.
The 55-3 loss came before the country knew BYU would be very good in 2020, exacerbating the embarrassment.
The Midshipmen did no better in their next half, falling behind Tulsa 24-0. Then something happened at halftime, and Navy won 27-24.
That only staved off the year’s struggles. The Midshipmen finished the season 3-7, undone on both sides of the ball.
Navy gave up 6.7 yards per play in its first seven games, something of an improvement after allowing 8.2 per snap against BYU. Then the pandemic interrupted the Midshipmen season for a month, and afterward, they gave up only 4.1 yards per play in their final three games, though still losing all three of those by a combined score of 44-13.
Clearly, the offense was ineffective, to an unprecedented extent for Navy since adapting the triple-option approach in 2002. The Midshipmen rushed for a total of 1,776 yards, a program low in those 19 years, both by total (obviously) and by game average. For context, in a rare year that did not crack 4,000 rushing yards, Navy’s 2018 included a relatively dismal 3,594 yards, good for 276.5 yards per game, 100 yards better than 2020’s paltry work.
The struggle began at quarterback. In the nearly two decades of triple-option offenses, the Midshipmen quarterbacks always totaled at least 900 rushing yards. In 2020, they combined for 312 yards, with 109 of them coming from Xavier Arline in the season finale against Army, a 15-0 loss.
Even in a 3-7 season, Navy would have been near satisfied if it had beaten Army. Instead, the offseason began with the sourest of tastes.
WHAT NAVY LOST
Navy’s triple-option hinges on two pieces above all others, the quarterback and the fullback. It had no established quarterback to lose, but the two leading fullbacks could have been the key pieces to reestablishing an effective offense in 2021. Nelson Smith ran for 645 yards and eight touchdowns while Jamale Carothers added 358 yards and two more scores.
Unfortunately for the Midshipmen, the universal pandemic eligibility waiver had no effect at the military academies. After four years, those players have other duties to move onto, ones they cannot put off. Thus, Smith’s time on the field expired. (He is, however, currently on temporary assignment at the Naval Academy and is thus watching film with the current fullbacks.)
Carothers was dismissed from Navy in the spring due to an honor code offense, a situation that could lead to him needing to repay some of his scholarship to the Academy.
Such losses are how the Midshipmen return only 59 percent of their production, essentially equivalent to Notre Dame’s 55 percent and a far cry from the elevated national average of 76.6 percent.
Navy has a couple fullbacks returning, the ones studying with Smith, in seniors Isaac Ross and James Harris, but neither has made contributions enough to leave an impression. The Midshipmen backfield will be an unknown.
And its quarterback will be barely known. While Niumatalolo insists he will not name a starting quarterback before the season opener against Marshall on Sept. 4, lest the Thundering Herd have a better idea what type of offense Navy will rely upon, it will most likely be Arline (pictured at top). The then-freshman started three games last year, including the last two, finishing with 210 rushing yards.
There is a three-way battle to become starting quarterback for @NavyFB. @XavierArline24 and @LavataiTai are tied atop the depth chart, but @MaasaiMaynor is not far behind. https://t.co/GiJeLUfAD7 pic.twitter.com/eJzX01Vpo3
— Bill Wagner (@BWagner_CapGaz) August 13, 2021
Niumatalolo has compared Arline to former quarterback Malcolm Perry, a possibility that should enthuse Midshipmen fans, but his slight 5-foot-9 frame, all of 175 or 180 pounds, will make the grind of the position difficult to endure, although he was physical enough to warrant ACC scholarship offers as a lacrosse player.
If not Arline, Navy could turn to junior Massai Maynor, notable to Notre Dame fans as the quarterback who broke many of Brandon Wimbush’s records at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey.
Either way, the Midshipmen quarterback will face a tough ask running behind an offensive line returning only two starters with 19 total starts.
Navy returns seven of its eight leading tacklers, most notably linebacker Diego Fagot, who has racked up 172 tackles in the last two seasons with 11 tackles for loss in last year’s 10 games. Behind defensive tackle Donald Berniard, Fagot should be in position to add another 100 tackles, but that will not be enough to redeem a defense that gave up 30.3 points per game in 2020.
Niumatalolo has put in 13 years at Navy, 13 largely successful years. He is in no danger of losing his job, but a third struggle of a season in four years will add some weariness to his tenure.
And it will be a third struggle of a season. PointsBet sets the Midshipmen season win total over/under at 3.5, and most analytics see no chance Navy exceeds four wins this year.
But two of those games come in the first two weeks, and perhaps if Niumatalolo and Arline can get past both Marshall and Air Force before an idle week, they can build enough momentum to stumble into merely a middling season.
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NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
— Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season
— With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to rocket
— Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends
— Wisconsin looks to recapture the magic of Mertz’s debut throughout 2021
— Cincinnati’s Playoff hopes hinge on two trips to Indiana
— Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente need to bounce quick to avoid a big change
— Clay Helton remains on the perpetual hot seat at USC, despite offensive stars
— North Carolina & Sam Howell on the verge of national notice