Things To Learn: In Notre Dame vs Navy, little ever changes, even after a year off

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It doesn’t change. As much as Notre Dame fans gripe about playing Navy (3:30 ET; NBC) every year because they fret about the toll of facing the triple-option offense, their real complaint might be that the Midshipmen approach is more consistent than cloud cover above a Midwestern winter.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly may actually be appreciative of the lack of change in Annapolis.

“This is my 11th time, so you can probably go back to your old notes and maybe get a lot of the same quotes,” he said. “It doesn’t really change.

“It’s about being efficient on offense and getting off the field defensively.”

So little of No. 10 Notre Dame’s performance against Navy (2-6) can be applied to any future thoughts. More than any other week, the Irish (7-1) focus solely on getting the win and moving on. To do so, the recipe has not changed. Be efficient on offense and get off the field on defense.

Whereas other opponents necessitate wrinkles — just accept that USC receiver Drake London and North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell will find their production, for example, and try to mitigate the damage — nothing changes against the Midshipmen.

While Navy is only middling on third down, when you add in fourth-down conversions, it continues drives 48.9 percent of the time after it reaches third down. That is far worse than its service-academy counterparts, but it is a nuisance for opponents all the same.

“They’re possessing the football, they’re getting first downs, they’re using up all their fourth downs,” Kelly said. “The game closes on you, and by the time you look up, there’s four minutes to go in the half and you’ve had three or four possessions.”

Fortunately for Kelly and Notre Dame, first-year Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is familiar with Navy’s approach. Kelly did not even ask Freeman how he would defend the triple-option during the interview process. He could just look at the film of Cincinnati’s 42-0 win against the Midshipmen in 2018.

Freeman knows Navy. Kelly knows Navy. And even Notre Dame’s roster knows Navy, for the most part, despite not facing the Midshipmen last year.

“They’re quite aware of the challenges that Navy presented without having to add to the list,” Kelly said when asked if the year off from the series could lead to defensive lapses, though also adding, “This is probably certainly a week where you want somebody that has seen it before.”

There will be defensive lapses, though. It is inevitable against the Midshipmen, part of the consistency coming from Annapolis. The repetitive offense needs only one play to get a chunk.

“More than anything else, it’s the system itself that you’re going against and how important it is to be so fundamentally sound and you’ve got to win one-on-one matchups,” Kelly said. “You’re playing an offense that you don’t see the rest of the year. We didn’t see it last week and we won’t see it next week. So you have to shift gears, you’re not doing things in your practice schedule that you normally do, so it’s really getting out of a comfort zone more than anything else. That’s difficult because you’re so used to getting into routines, and so Navy gets you out of that routine.”

Get out of that routine by much, and a 2010 situation develops, but it should be noted, aside from Kelly’s first year and the 2016 debacle, Notre Dame has handled its business against the Midshipmen during his tenure, going 8-2 to date. Only two of those wins were even one-possession games.

The Irish have averaged 44.25 points in those eight wins under Kelly, breaking 50 three times. Notre Dame is not trying to run up the score against an overmatched service academy, certainly not in a series that Kelly will not discuss without prefacing with comments about mutual respect. Rather, the needed offensive efficiency can lead to lopsided scores, necessity being the mother of much success.

A month ago, it would have been hard to envision the Irish finding such efficiency this week.

“You don’t want to put yourself behind the chains,” Kelly said. “You want to make sure that you’re putting yourself in good position. But, you don’t want five- or six-minute drives either, because that shortens the game and that kind of plays into their hands as well.”

Kelly knows all this from a decade of experience. Irish fans know it all from nearly a century of the same. Even Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows the dynamics of this game do not change.

“You have to hope they make some mistakes,” Niumatalolo said this week. “And you have to get some luck. That’s just the truth. We have to play as well as we can play, and they have to help us a little bit.”

The return of Notre Dame and Navy is an important one, a key piece of Irish history, but if being completely honest, with a head coach who has faced this opponent as much as any other, with a defensive coordinator pulled from the conference that houses the Midshipmen, very little can be learned this weekend.

Well, very little aside from where the 2023 season will begin.