And In That Corner … Navy and its triple-option return as Notre Dame’s longest-standing annual opponent

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Certainties in life are tough to come by. Notre Dame playing Navy (3:30 ET; NBC) was one for 93 years before the pandemic forced a one-year hiatus.

This weekly series may come across as such a certainty, but “And In That Corner …” hinges entirely on opposing beat writers’ finding the time to answer some questions, something that should not be assumed of anyone working in college football in the fall.

But this certainty persists, now reaching 77 straight games, last not running before the 2015 matchup against Temple. That credit goes to those writers, this week namely to Kareem Copeland of The Washington Post, even if he skipped offering a prediction at the end, something that should probably be expected more often than it is.

DF: When it comes to Navy (2-6), I don’t have to figure out too much. Then again, neither does No. 10 Notre Dame (7-1). Playing this game every year — pandemic aside — makes it so the Irish and their fans have an idea of what’s coming.

For most of the season, that what’s coming has been a lackluster triple-option offense. In recent weeks, some improvement was noticeable if watching the games closely, but it was still producing only 3.06 yards per rush in three losses to SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati. The offense was no longer at an option-era worst, as it was in week two against Air Force, but it was struggling all the same. What held Navy back in that October stretch as it chased its second win of the year?

KC: There were a variety of reasons why the offense struggled so mightily. First was uneven play at the quarterback position. Tai Lavatai got hurt in the first game of the season and Xavier Arline was ineffective. Both are sophomores and still early in their growth within the system. The operation improved once Lavatai returned as a bigger, more physical quarterback that has made better decisions in the triple-option.

The line play improved and fullback dive began to set the tone and keep the team out of third-and-long. The Midshipmen just don’t have the talent to overcome self-inflicted mistakes and there was a ton of them early in the season. Navy wants to control the clock and not get behind the chains. When that doesn’t happen, the Mids are in trouble.

This has been a rough year for the Midshipmen. Maybe some anticipated a struggling start after going 3-7 last year, but no one foresaw the chaos that unfolded after opening the season 0-2 and putting together the worst offensive showing since the triple-option arrived at Navy in 2002, let alone doing so against a service academy rival in Air Force. We all know Midshipmen athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired offensive coordinator Ivin Jaspar before head coach Ken Niumatalolo insisted Jaspar come back on staff as the quarterbacks coach.

I honestly do not know what I want to ask to all that. How have those emotions responded? Has some stability been found after all that? Something to the effect of those intangibles feels applicable.

The offensive players really like Jasper and there were some folks upset with the way that played out. This is someone that’s been at the Academy for 22 years. He’s still highly involved in the offense, just without the title. Jasper should be credited for the progression of Lavatai, even if it took some games to get there.

Niumatalolo has led the Midshipmen for 15 years now. Suggesting someone look for a new job when he is 5-13 across the last two seasons may be unusual, but given those clear tensions in September, do you think there is a reasonable chance Niumatalolo tries to head elsewhere this winter?

I’d be shocked if Niumatalolo isn’t back next season. He’s literally two seasons away from Malcolm Perry having the best rushing season from a quarterback in NCAA history and going 11-2. Last season should be thrown away as the pandemic completely changed how Niumatalolo approached the season. The team didn’t even tackle or block during training camp. The defense is playing well and he’s working with a pair of young quarterbacks.

This should not be Niumatalolo’s final season at Navy.

Let’s tie that big picture back to Notre Dame. For the first time in 94 years, the Irish and Navy did not meet last year. How was that received around Annapolis? Many Notre Dame fans were glad for it, but everyone associated with the University is diligent in sticking with the party line of mutual respect.

I don’t think missing the game last year was “received” in any kind of way. The pandemic affected everything and everyone seemed to take it as an anomaly. But this is a valued game and rivalry for the university.