Ishaq Williams hunts down Trey Miller in last year's game between Navy and Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Notre Dame (-15.5) at Navy
Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland
Kickoff: 9:00 AM ET
Series: 72-12-1 Notre Dame
Last Meeting: 56-14 Notre Dame
The Notre Dame football season begins this Saturday with a special treat of a matchup against Navy on the Emerald Isle. For the first time since 1996, these two teams will make preparations to battle each other in the capital city of Dublin, Ireland.
Two years ago the Midshipmen put a nice licking on the Irish, but Notre Dame returned the favor last year with one of Navy's worst losses in series history.
Here's the One Foot Down preview of the 2012 Fighting Irish season opener.
That was Navy's stat line last year against Notre Dame, second worst of their season. The Middies almost ran for 200 yards (196 to be exact) but they struggled running the ball for most of last year's game in South Bend. In the first half, Navy put together 6 drives with rushing totals of 32, 8, 5, 18, 0, and 10 yards. A mere 73 yards on 24 carries is not going to get it done in a triple option offense.
This was the average last year for Notre Dame against Navy, second best of the season for the Irish. Only the 8.62 average in the Air Force game was better. In other words, if the offense doesn't turn the ball over, Notre Dame's size and playmaking ability should eat any service academy defense alive. Also, just because we could all use a nice lesson in humility, the Irish have averaged over 7.0 yards-per-play in the last two games against Michigan, and still lost both contests.
That's Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo's career record against Notre Dame, good for a tie as the second best winning percentage in school history against the Irish. Many think Niumatalolo has lived off the success built by previous head coach Paul Johnson, but he is known to really compete hard against Notre Dame. A possible third win could put a lot of Niumatalolo's doubters to sleep.
That's how many places have hosted Notre Dame vs. Navy college football games, a figure that surely leads the nation as the most diverse rivalry. This series has been played in Baltimore, Chicago, South Bend, Cleveland, Philadelphia, East Rutherford, Dublin, Landover, and Orlando. What's the next destination---San Diego?
Notre Dame has scored at least 20 points in every game against Navy since 1984, with the exception of the 2010 loss which saw the Irish score just 17 points. In the series' 85 games stretching back to 1927, the Irish have scored 20 or more points 57 times (67%), with 21 of the games scoring under 20 points came in the lower scoring pre-1960 days. Navy has scored 20 or more points just 20 times (23.5%) in the series, although they have achieved it 4 out of the past 5 years, and 7 out of the past 10 years. The Irish are 55-2 in the series when scoring at least 20 points.
4 Players to Watch
QB Trey Miller
Miller filled in for a short period of time for the injured Kriss Proctor last year, and even started against Notre Dame. However, his amount of experience was basically limited only to the Irish game and Miller didn't look comfortable in Navy's offense at the time. If the Middies are going to be able to move the ball, he'll have to drastically improve his decision making and ability to make plays with his feet.
Football Outsiders' 2011 S&P Navy Rankings
The issue with Miller is that he isn't a great runner like Proctor and Dobbs were before him, but he's supposed to be the best passer of the recent Navy quarterbacks, so much so that Navy has been thinking about throwing the ball twice as much as they are accustomed to.
Although the bread and butter for the offense will be earned on the ground, even Navy can't afford to become one dimensional. In the 3 wins over Notre Dame since 2007, Navy is a combined 10 of 14 for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns. Last year, Miller struggled throwing the ball completing just 5 of 13 passes for 33 yards.
SB John Howell
Howell didn't touch the ball much last year but when he did he was super productive scoring 5 touchdowns on 340 rushing yards at a clip of 9.71 yards per carry. Against Notre Dame, he only rushed twice, but put up a healthy 22 yards, and against Navy's stiffer competition (South Carolina and Southern Miss) Howell totaled 98 yards on just 11 carries, to go along with 2 touchdowns.
With Navy breaking in a new fullback, the coaching staff is bound to get Howell the ball a lot more this year. Look for him to get the ball on the edge and make a few plays in the open field.
Gee Gee Greene rumbles last year vs. South Carolina. Credit: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Along with Howell, Gee Gee Greene forms a dynamic slot back duo for Navy. Outside of the fullback and quarterback position, Greene has been the Middies most productive offensive player since 2010. With over a 7.0 yards per carry average the past two seasons, Greene has been very productive and is even featured often in the passing game out of the backfield.
With 1,246 rushing yards, 455 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns in his career, Greene will be the most talked about Midshipman playmaker, and he's clearly Navy's best combo runner/receiver.
LB Brye French
Navy runs a 3-4 defense and relies on their linebackers to swarm to the ball and make plays, much like Notre Dame. The Middies would've had a nice collection of linebackers returning in 2012, but upcoming senior Matt Brewer, the team's 4th leading tackler in 2011, is suspended for the season due to violation of school rules.
That leave French and the team's leading returning tackler in Matt Warrick as the front seven's lone returning starters. French doesn't rack up the tackles like Warrick, but he is more disruptive coming off 6 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2011---good for second best on the team in both categories.
The Game is on Another Continent
For the first time in series history, the Irish will face Navy to start the season. In fact, this is the first game between these two programs that will take place in the month of September. If that isn't odd enough, the game has to be played over 3,000+ miles from the metro New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore areas---where the matchup certainly would be played as Navy is the home team.
Of course both teams have to prepare for the long trip, but you never know how a particular team is going to react to being outside its comfort zone. Will the travel affect the Irish players more negatively? Will Notre Dame be less focused as the more popular fan favorite and three score favorite?
Possible New Wrinkles to the Navy Offense
There can be no doubt that Notre Dame gains an immense advantage by starting the season against the Middies. The coaching staff has had all offseason to prepare a gameplan, and the team has twice as long to prep for Navy than they otherwise would during the middle of the season.
However, this is not merely a one-way street because Navy has had an entire offseason to prepare for Notre Dame and try and exploit their weaknesses too.
The reports out of Navy spring and fall practice say that the coaching staff is comfortable with quarterback Trey Miller's passing abilities and that the offense has been taking some snaps from shotgun. Most coaches would say you need to practice the triple option until you've perfected it, so this might actually work against Navy, but it might be a different wrinkle that throws off the Irish defense and brings some big plays for the Middies.
It's the Triple Option, Duh!
No one likes playing against the triple option, not Notre Dame, South Carolina, or Ohio State---each of whom have lost or nearly lost to Navy in recent years. Even with new NCAA rules decreasing the frequency of cut blocks, the Middies are still going to come at your legs and fight like hell for 4 quarters.
2 Sides of the Line
Simply put, Notre Dame has a major advantage up front on both sides of the ball.
With the demotion of senior tackle Andrew Barker, the Middies return just one starter on the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, zero full-time starters return, only one player (DE Wes Henderson) has much experience, and the defense has to replace perhaps its best lineman in years in Jabaree Tuani (52 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13.0 tackles for loss in 2011).
There's always going to be talk about Notre Dame's size advantage, but with 7 linemen on both sides of the ball returning with significant playing time last year, the Irish are overwhelmingly more experienced and should control the line of scrimmage.
Navy has small and inexperienced linemen---a dangerous combination for a military academy.
Irish fans are gun shy with Navy and for good reason with 3 losses over the past 5 games. Seeing the Midshipmen up close every season gives one a deep appreciation for their determination and general annoyance (for lack of a better term) to fight well above their weight class.
This has led to a lot of conversations in recent months giving Navy more credit than perhaps they're due. Despite losing by 18 points and being out-gained by just 75 yards two years ago, many will say the Irish were "destroyed" by Navy. Despite winning by 42 points and out-gaining the Middies by 213 yards last year, the Irish merely "handled" Navy.
So it goes. I guess that's to be expected when Notre Dame is clearly so much more talented.
Are they sleeping on EG? Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Notre Dame isn't without its own problems and concerns, but Navy has experienced one rocky and volatile past 15 months or so. The Middies missed a bowl game last year for the first time in nearly a decade, Brye French and Bo Snelson were stripped of their captaincy for off-the-field transgressions earlier this year, three players---including two starters---failed conditioning tests earlier in the summer and were sent home by coach Niumatalolo (they returned only last week), and starting receiver Matt Aiken was injured early in fall practice and will miss this game in Ireland.
All signs point to Navy struggling again in 2012: They return just 10 starters (9 who will play against ND with the injury to Aiken), they're inexperienced on both lines, their productive fullback has graduated, the new quarterback looked very shaky last year versus Notre Dame and is still inexperienced in his own right, and there's been a concerning lack of discipline during the offseason.
That is approaching "Notre Dame has to completely fall apart in every aspect of the game for Navy to win" territory.
A lot of talk centers around stopping Navy's offense, but it's just as important that Notre Dame's offense flex its muscles, be efficient, and score touchdowns like it did last year. Look at the last 3 Navy wins in this series:
2007- Easily the worst Notre Dame offense in school history. 2 turnover on downs, a missed field goal, and one lost fumble. 375 total yards.
2009- Two turnover on downs with one deep in Navy territory, as well as 2 turnovers near the Navy goal line, and 2 missed field goals. 512 total yards.
2010- Injuries to several offensive weapons, as well as a turnover-on-downs at the Navy goal line on the game's first drive, one more turnover on downs, and two ugly interceptions. 363 total yards.
That's 2 poor offensive efforts and one in which literally everything that could go wrong, did. If Notre Dame is healthy, stays aggressive, and gets the ball to their playmakers, then they beat Navy.
The Middies do not match up well against efficient spread offenses (they gave up 119 points and 1,026 yards to ND and Southern Miss last year) as opposed to teams that try to beat them at their own game through power running, chewing up the clock, and generally getting conservative---see South Carolina last year who fed RB Marcus Lattimore 37 times, only had 7 offensive series, turned it over once, failed two 4th down conversions, and nearly lost to Navy despite gaining 16 more total yards than Notre Dame against the Middies.
The way to beat Navy is to get the ball, score early, and score often. Notre Dame did this last year and the game was over before some fans settled into their seats.
There may be a lot of consternation and angst about starting Everett Golson in his first career game in a far away land, but this should not be a game that the new quarterback struggles with.
He's got a line that will protect him, and an opponent that couldn't even sniff the quarterback last year with more experienced players and one of their most successful defensive linemen in school history. Golson has plenty of playmakers to get the ball to, plus his mobility and arm will surely give Navy trouble. Turning the ball over could be an issue, but not likely for this game.
There just isn't much evidence that this should be a close game, and I expect a gameplan similar to what we saw last year from the Irish: Win the battle up front on defense and stop the fullback; alternate power running with quick passes to playmakers in space with the occasional deep pass on offense to keep Navy spread out.
The game should be a little closer than last year (mostly because I expect ND to be a little more conservative on offense), but I don't have much faith that Navy will be able to stand up to Notre Dame's line play, nor be able to slow down the Irish spread offense. Cierre Wood's suspension stings a little, but Riddick and Atkinson should still be productive and rip off their fair share of nice runs.
Notre Dame wins, and covers the spread by a comfortable margin.
Notre Dame 41