Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: Navy Midshipmen

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The annual series rolls on.

NAVY MIDSHIPMEN

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2013 Record: 9-4

F/+ Rank: 58

Wins: Indiana, Deleware, Air Force, Pittsburgh, Hawaii, South Alabama, San Jose State, Army, Middle Tennessee State

Losses: Western Kentucky, Duke, Toledo, Notre Dame

~~~

Season Recap

A win over Indiana to open the season seemed to portend great things but Navy really struggled into October. The offense disappeared in a loss to Western Kentucky, they were blown out by Duke, and lost by a point to Toledo. However, the Middies fought like heck and nearly toppled Notre Dame before finishing the season on a 5-game winning streak for their first 9-win season since 2010.

Series: 74-12-1 Notre Dame

Since the NCAA-record winning streak was snapped in 2007 the Irish only lead the series 4-3 but they have won the last 3 games in a row by scoring 144 points. Navy's 34 points scored last year was the 4th most ever for them in this series.

Coach Resume: Ken Niumatalolo (49-30, 7th Year)

The native of Hawaii has won at least 8 games in 5 of his 6 seasons in Annapolis, although he has lost at least 4 games in every season as well. He is only the fourth coach in school history to defeat Notre Dame twice. He's the only Navy coach to beat the Irish in back-to-back seasons. With 7 wins this upcoming fall Niumatalolo will have the most wins by any Midshipman head coach in program history.

Linemen Situation: Very Strong

Graham Vickers entered 2013 as a returning starter at right tackle but a knee injury after 3 games made him miss the rest of the season. He's gone now and junior Brandon Greene (7 starts) and junior Joey Gaston (3 starts) both return with experience on the edge. The rest of the line all returns as well. Senior left tackle Brayden Heap and senior right guard Jake Zuzek both started every game last year. Additionally, junior E.K. Binns made 10 starts at left guard and senior Tanner Fleming made 12 starts at center.

Navy doesn't rely on their defensive line to make a bunch of plays but they are losing nose guard Travis Bridges (4 starts, 24 tackles) and defensive end Evan Palelei (13 starts, 24 tackles, 2 TFL). Not terrible losses as 4 out of the top 6 tacklers along the line are coming back including senior defensive end Paul Quessenberry (12 starts, 25 tackles, 3 TFL), and junior nose guard Bernard Sarra (9 starts, 24 tackles).

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Rising junior Keenan Reynolds has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in Navy history and is well on his way to that goal. He took over the starting job mid-way through the the 2012 season and has scored 41 rushing touchdowns in his career, including an outstanding 31 scores last year. Navy isn't shy to lean on him with the run game as Reynolds has 20 carries in 13 out of his last 21 games. In total, he's rushed for 1,995 yards already through two seasons. He's also no slouch in the pass game, either. Only 4 interceptions on 236 passing attempts to go with 1,955 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Finding New Middle Linebackers

Navy is a team that relies heavily on its linebackers to be instinctive, make plays, and rack up a lot of tackles. Case in point both middle linebackers in D.J. Sargenti and Cody Peterson have graduated and combined for 252 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss last year. Enough said.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Returning Rushing

Navy rushed for 4,230 yards last year and is returning 8 out of their top 10 rushers, including their top two. A couple of experienced slotbacks in Darius Staten (10 starts, 412 yards) and Marcus Thomas (6 starts, 263 yards) are the only major losses. With such a reliance on the quarterback running and all fullbacks coming back the Middies are loaded for another big rushing season.

Offensive Scheme: Flexbone Triple Option

The Middies offense has been covered numerous times by our OFD film crew. You can read Burgs' review of last year's game RIGHT HERE.

Special Teams: 2/4

Senior Shawn Lynch was the punt returner last year and is gone. Marcus Thomas was also the primary kick returner and will  need to be replaced as well. Punter Pablo Beltran will be back for his senior season and placekicker Nick Sloan is also back after hitting 11 of 14 attempts last year.

Famous Alum: Albert Abraham Michelson

The physicist was born in present-day Poland and moved to the United State as a small child. He was awarded a special appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy by President Grant and would later become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in science.

Random Stat: 74

That is the total punt return yardage for Navy last year. We out-gained a team in punt returns! Take away the 28 yards against FCS Delaware and you're looking at meager 46 yards for the season.

Summary

I'm convinced this will be a fairly close game. Again. The good news is that the Irish have a bye before playing Navy so let's hope there aren't any significant injuries following the Stanford-North Carolina-Florida State lineup prior to this game. Burgs also covered new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's attempts at stopping the option and his review was mixed. Perhaps a more aggressive defense will play better against that pesky flexbone but it's natural to feel some skepticsm before BVG lines up his defense against the Middies.

I see no reason why the Navy offense won't be very good. Star quarterback coming into his third season as starter, an experienced line, and a roster brimming with fullbacks just dying to gain 4 yards every time they touch the ball.

I'm a broken record on this subject, I know. The best way to beat Navy is to score points on offense. The Irish are 37-1 all-time against the Middies when scoring at least 30 points. Technically, Notre Dame is unbeaten since that lone loss in 2007 happened after the Irish scored only 28 points in regulation. Try to get a comfortable lead, force Navy to get a little too aggressive, win the turnover battle, and get the heck out of there with a win.

We can't possibly be more injured and banged up (/knocks on wood) than we were last year and I do believe VanGorder scheme will be more productive against the academies but we'll wait and see about that. As the offense shouldn't have trouble putting up points this should lead to a win but I wouldn't bet on anything more than a couple touchdowns.

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