Things We Learned: Navy no longer just a piece of Notre Dame’s past, but applicable to its present

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame will play Navy in Dublin in 2023. The 94-year-old series will continue for at least another 10 years after a contract extension last week. And Irish head coach Brian Kelly makes it clear, he wants it that way, despite the frustrations of preparing for the Midshipmen triple-option approach.

Given how well Notre Dame (8-1) handled Navy (2-7) on Saturday in its 34-6 victory, those frustrations are less than ever, though far from none.

While the Irish held the Midshipmen to their fewest yards of Kelly’s 11 meetings with them, the real frustrations came during the week. Notre Dame’s option preparation robbed it of any chances to run 7-on-7 drills, helping skill players maintain their timing. It did not dabble in any two-minute drills, using that time elsewhere and hoping it would not be needed over the weekend.

“We didn’t do a lot of the basic parameters of football that prepare you each and every week,” Kelly said Saturday night. “Things that you do naturally each and every week, we didn’t do them.

“Now we have to go switch. We didn’t run 7-on-7 for 10 days before we play Virginia. Those are real. Those are hard things.”

The Irish proved they can handle the triple-option, perhaps so decisively that it will no longer be a driving concern in years to come, particularly since this year’s defense is led by a new coordinator and was, on paper, coming off a rough showing the week before, all while working without its best player. If Notre Dame could shut down Navy this year, it should be able to in any year moving forward, one might think.

“It’s a snapshot because next week we’ve got a team that is one of the more prolific passing offenses in the country,” Kelly said. “Job well done. Checkmark on the old option.”

That checkmark made enjoying the pageantry around the game much easier for Kelly and the Irish, something Kelly was even more effusive in his praise of than usual, though that has always been the beginnings of any Navy discussion during this tenure.

“It’s all worth it when you get a chance to go hand-in-hand with the Naval Academy as they sing their Alma Mater,” Kelly said. “There’s nothing like that. Where else in sports does that happen, where you play it on the field, intense competition, and then our players are arm-in-arm with their players as their Alma Mater is being sung.

“It’s pretty special from that standpoint. The coach in me, it’s hard, but the special moments you get playing this game, it can’t be duplicated anywhere else.”

The reverence for that postgame moment is incongruent to the relative recency of the tradition, tracing back to only 2005, Charlie Weis’ first year at Notre Dame, but pushing through the difficulties of Navy’s offense traces back further than that. For a long time, unusual, unknown or unspoken Irish players have stepped forward to solve that problem.

This year, it was sophomore walk-on Chase Ketterer, a local product with a long-term goal of becoming a special teams starter. He spent the summer learning the intricacies of the triple-option quarterback’s role, so he could mimic it all week against Notre Dame’s defense. He learned it well enough, his success came at the defense’s expense.

“The scout team was taking pride if they ripped one on us,” junior linebacker/one-week safety Jack Kiser said. “They were hooting and hollering. The defense was like, ‘Alright, we’ve got to go. If they’re doing it on us, this can’t happen.’”

Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman chipped in to help Ketterer at points, furthering the in-practice highlight reels against his own defense.

Those weekday frustrations led to weekend successes, including for Ketterer.

When asked about Ketterer’s work during the week, Kiser first wanted to discuss that tackle.

“That was pretty sweet to see,” he said. “For him to put a long hard work week in and then get out there and make a tackle on the field is pretty special.”

Notre Dame’s in-house highlight package showed senior safety Houston Griffith lauding Ketterer on the sideline, not only deserved praise for the triple-option scout work but also an example of Griffith taking on a leadership role ever since he exited the transfer portal in January. (See the 2:30 mark.)

The frustrations of Navy can be matched by that moment and the postgame camaraderie. The series that will indeed reach 100 years is not merely a relic of past times, but also a piece of the present, something that can contribute to Irish growth even as Notre Dame chases its third Playoff appearance, be it this year or more likely next.

“This week was a very gritty week in practice, very tough, uncomfortable at times,” Kiser said. “We have to do that heading into next week, and it can only get better.”