For a stretch in September and then momentarily again in mid-October, this looked like the kind of season in which Notre Dame struggles with Navy (12 ET; ABC). Aside from the program’s nadir in the stretch of 2007 to 2010, a time encompassing the losingest season in Irish history and a coaching change, bad days facing the Midshipmen have been more rare than fanbase angst would have one think.
Exclude those three losses in four years, and Navy has won just one other game against Notre Dame since 1963, during the 2016 Irish faceplant. Going back six years before the first moon landing, four times as many people have walked on the moon than have completed a pass for the Midshipmen in a win against Notre Dame.
Maybe that is a forced comparison, but its point is valid: Navy does not give the Irish as many problems as is often assumed, and that should not change this season, not since No. 20 Notre Dame (6-3) righted its 2022 ship in recent weeks. After losing to Stanford, the Irish looked to be on the type of path that includes misery against the Midshipmen (3-6).
Instead, they can now again focus on the fundamentals of easing past Navy rather than the stresses of a tight game against the triple-option.
Such is the cushion provided by Notre Dame’s cohesive offensive line and trio of running backs.
“No one on the field is as good as us, we’re the best,” sophomore running back Audric Estimé said this week of the backfield’s mentality. “We got to show that we’re the best. … That comes from the offensive line, trusting and knowing that they’re going to do their job makes me play faster and more free.”
Navy’s defensive line two-deep averages 262.6 pounds, per its roster listing, a full 53 pounds lighter than the Irish offensive line. Most seasons, Notre Dame might run the risk of not leaning into that strength, but junior quarterback Drew Pyne has completed 18 passes in the last two games. The Irish will run the ball Saturday, an effective approach that will lessen the potential variance against the Midshipmen.
At which point, Navy will need to run its triple-option effectively and repeatedly. Unfortunately for the Midshipmen, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman has not forgotten what it feels like to be on the other side of the ball when Navy finds a rhythm.
“We gave up 569 rushing yards vs. Navy in 2017 when I was at Cincinnati,” Freeman said Thursday. “That will be a number I’ll never forget. It was a long day.
“What I didn’t have that day was answers. That’s a helpless feeling.”
That was Freeman’s first time facing Navy as a defensive coordinator. Since then, his defenses have held the Midshipmen in check.
That first foray has tripped up a few Irish defensive coordinators. Bob Diaco was left without a contingency plan when Alexander Tiech ran through Notre Dame in 2010. Giving up nearly six yards per rush in 2016 did not help Mike Elston’s hopes of becoming the permanent Irish defensive coordinator after Brian VanGorder was fired earlier that season.
Current defensive coordinator Al Golden should have no such worry, and not just because Freeman is looking over his shoulder. Golden spent a decade as the head coach at Temple and Miami, facing Navy and Georgia Tech in each of those seasons. When Freeman may have initially thought he’d have to oversee more of the defense this week, he was quickly surprised early in the week by Golden having some unique ideas already prepped.
“Experience is important here,” Golden said. “Anything where they have a built-up blueprint of what they need to do versus certain blocks, versus certain schemes is definitely paramount going against these guys. So, I think the biggest thing for our guys is assignment football when you play a team like this, just to be disciplined. And the more guys that you can have that have experience and play with poise and can communicate, the better off you’ll be.”
Notre Dame may lean on its veteran linebackers — look for a return to a primary role for senior Jack Kiser, if nothing else — less a worry nowadays that Navy can no longer cut block outside the tackle box. The onus on the second-level defenders is no longer to shirk unorthodox blocks, but solely to stay disciplined in defending the triple-option.
“We find secondaries being way more aggressive running downhill because they know they’re not going to get cut,” Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Probably the one spot that has stood out to me is the backside linebacker. If you look at most games, the backside backer makes a lot of tackles because, as he scrapes to the ball, he’s not worried about getting cut.”
With safety Brandon Joseph “doubtful” thanks to a sprained ankle, the Irish do not need to accelerate the Northwestern transfer’s learning curve. They instead can turn to players who have been facing this triple-option for years; Xavier Watts first broke out against Navy last year, and fifth-year safety DJ Brown would relish the chance to star in his home region, a Washington, D.C. native with some high-school experience playing in Baltimore.
“It’s all about discipline, staying locked in on your assignment,” Brown said. “Once you start seeing too much, then it can trick you. They have a bunch of window-dressing to get your eyes to go somewhere else, but for the younger guys, it’s about eye discipline and staying locked in on what you have to do.”
Veterans like Kiser and Brown will help cover for the young freshmen cornerbacks Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey. Navy is no longer able to rely on its talent gap-mitigating cut blocks on the perimeter. And Notre Dame has found a reliable groove after stumbling through the first half of the season.
This should thus fit in line with nearly every other Irish-Midshipmen matchup. Notre Dame has won nine of the last 10 meetings by an average of more than 22 points. This series has not been the hassle Irish fans make it out to be.
Instead, even a new addition to South Bend like Golden recognizes what it really is.
“It’s a great honor to play them, and there’s so much history in the game.”