This loss wasn’t supposed to happen.
The team came in high, riding a three game winning streak, showing some improvements and looking to continue developing a young new quarterback.
Most experts were picking the team to win. The experts said they were too big, too strong and too athletically gifted to lose to such an inferior and smaller opponent.
The experts said the team’s strengths would automatically slow down and limit the opponent and ultimately force a favorable outcome for the more talented school.
And then it happened…the "superior" team lost to Navy in truly embarrassing fashion.
No, I’m not talking about Notre Dame’s loss to the Midshipmen last Saturday, but currently undefeated and No. 6 ranked Missouri’s loss to the Naval Academy in last year’s Texas Bowl.
Moreover, the parallels between Missouri’s loss to Navy last season and Notre Dame’s recent loss to the Midshipmen are eerily similar.
Like Notre Dame, the Tigers came into their contest as 6.5 point favorites over Navy but found themselves in a world of hurt once they stepped onto the field.
Like Notre Dame, Missouri gave up 35 points and lost by three scores, leading to a whole multitude of questions about the program, its coaches and its players.
Missouri came into the game with the 12th best rushing defense in the nation and gave up 385 yards on the ground (18 more than Notre Dame) as well as 515 total yards (77 more than Notre Dame).
Is there something we can learn from Missouri’s defeat by Navy at the end of last season?
There are three major lesson points:
1.) Navy is a good team.
2.) Examine how Missouri and Notre Dame lost.
3.) This loss can be overcome
Navy is a Good Team
Some have called my recap of the loss to Navy and my subsequent defense of the Midshipmen as a quality team as mere "sugarcoating."
Allow me to be frank in response.
If we stopped looking at the name on the front of their jersey, stopped looking at them as "under-sized" and condescendingly far less talented, stopped judging them by their label as a service academy, and just looked at their performance on the field, it becomes obvious that Navy is a good team.
I’m not talking them up like they are a great team (if you’re not great, then you’re going to lose to bad teams once in a while, which Navy has done in the past), but they have proven enough on Saturdays that they should at least be respected as a legitimate opponent.
How many times do they have to play competitively against teams with far superior talent until we admit this? How many more BCS teams do they have to beat before we stop pretending like they are in the same class as bumbling MAC teams?
I say put this team in the Big East or Big 12 and I guarantee they make some noise. Maybe they won’t ever approach 10 win seasons, but they’re not going to be at the bottom of those leagues.
So if you’re willing to admit that Navy is a good team (or at least not terrible) then Notre Dame’s loss does not look as surprising.
Sure the physical dominance of Navy’s victory was disheartening, but there are better explanations and reasons as to why that happened besides the standard "Notre Dame lacked heart and emotion," or "Navy wanted it more."
Notre Dame came in with a new coaching staff, with six new starters on offense, without their top three receivers and a banged up starting running back. On top of that, the defensive game plan couldn’t have made it any more difficult for the team to succeed.
When you add all of those things up, is it really that surprising that this team would lose in convincing fashion to a quality rival?
A couple of bad turnovers and a crappy defensive game plan will lead to a three score loss for inexperienced and injured teams who really aren’t that great to begin with.
Look at it another way: Oklahoma destroyed Iowa State 52-0, but then the Cyclones beat Texas in Austin the very next week.
Texas was just in the national championship game last year, has more talent than Notre Dame and lost at home to a team I consider much worse than Navy.
There’s a difference between the Irish loss and the Longhorn loss this weekend, yet many of the Notre Dame fans are acting like the latter occurred.
And that’s mostly because those fans are unwilling to admit that Navy is a good team.
What Went Wrong for Missouri and Notre Dame?
Both teams had relatively inexperienced coordinators, especially Missouri who was working with first-time coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator Charlie Molnar has a decade of experience at his position, but this is his first season with the big boys, so to speak.
Further, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is in his second season as a defensive coordinator and his very young for his status in the college football world.
By all accounts, the Missouri coaching staff has gained a lot of experience, maturity and has learned how to improve their team since the embarrassing loss to Navy
We will see if the Notre Dame coaches learn from their loss as well.
Both schools had massive problems with Navy’s spread option, although for different reasons.
Missouri ran a base 4-3, lined up all three linebackers inside the tackle box and kept things vanilla for most of the game.
As a result, Navy took advantage and had a lot of success running outside on the pitch play and quarterback keepers around the tackles.
According to the Missouri blog Atomic Teeth, the Tigers game plan on defense was terrible and did not put the players in a position to succeed. Also, the players did not attack and instead tried to react, which led to confusion for defenders and big plays for Navy.
As Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said, "They're (Navy) really efficient in what they do. They run it well and they're going to keep doing it. We knew what they were going to do, but the thing is, they kind of take your instincts away from you."
In comparison, Notre Dame ran a base 3-4 with the outside linebackers up at the line of scrimmage and the inside linebackers five yards off the ball, almost begging Navy to run the ball up the middle.
Which they did with ease.
In our discussion on how to stop the option, we believed the defensive ends would be crashing into the B gap and taking out the fullback on every play. Instead, the defensive ends tied themselves up with the Navy tackles all day, leaving the middle linebackers (who were being blocked endlessly by Midshipmen linemen releasing downfield) to stop the fullback up the middle.
Replay, the first long run for Navy on third one during their first possession and you’ll see DE Kapron Lewis-Moore unblocked, prance right by the fullback with the ball and try to cover QB Ricky Dobbs. Both Irish middle linebackers were easily blocked as the fullback ran for a huge gain.
Even though Notre Dame ran a different defense than Missouri, the inability to put players in a position to succeed and to make adjustments was the critical problems shared by both schools. This also goes to show you how frustrating and lethal Navy’s offense can be.
Were the problems from lack of effort?
Atomic Teeth weighed in for Missouri after their loss asking, "Were the Tiger players over-confident going in? Did they loaf their way through an uninspired beatdown in a bowl they felt too good for? I don’t think so. First, you don’t lose to Baylor and get cocky. Ever. Second, a lack of effort did not seem to be the problem. There was a lack of direction and a lack of brains, but there was hustle."
I thought Notre Dame could have played with a little more emotion (aren’t we saying his nearly every game?), but the problems for the Irish against Navy were schematic as much as anything.
I don’t think the Irish loss was a case of Notre Dame being pushed around as much as it was Navy running a dangerous offense against a dreadful defensive game plan. There were definitely opportunities where Irish defenders had a chance to make a play and failed, but Navy probably couldn’t have drawn up a better defensive scheme to attack than what Notre Dame employed.
Offensive Schemes and Young Quarterbacks
Missouri and Notre Dame faced a lot of the same problems on offense, especially since both schools run very similar spread offenses.
Both teams had young quarterbacks.
Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert was in his first year of starting and his strengths and weaknesses throughout 2009 were very comparable to Dayne Crist.
Both are big quarterbacks with strong arms and a ton of promise, but both went through periods where they would stop being effective quarterbacks and continually make bad decisions. The same complaints that Missouri fans were yelling about Gabbert are almost the same complaints we are seeing from Irish fans about Crist.
Each signal caller threw two interceptions against Navy and seemed to get worse as they game wore on.
So far in 2010 Gabbert has become one of the better quarterbacks in the nation. We’ll see if Crist can take that next step the rest of this season or into his second year of starting.
Furthermore, both offenses had trouble dealing with the defensive schemes Navy threw at them (mostly due to ineffective QB play) and both teams stubbornly refused to run the ball, even though the Tigers and Irish were pretty successful when they did so.
Navy was also able to put pressure on both Crist and Gabbert without using a lot of blitzing, leading to a number of sacks and quarterback hurries in each game. Also, Navy dropped seven or eight defenders back to limit the passing games of Missouri and Notre Dame, and it worked.
The good thing is that Missouri has rebounded from the loss, Gabbert has matured and improved as a quarterback, while the Tigers offense is productive and one of the big reasons they are now undefeated.
The Defeat can be Overcome
We have to look no further than the Missouri Tigers to see that a big loss to Navy can be overcome.
It was just one game.
Notre Dame is a program that is 20-25 over the past three-plus years and got roughed up by a top 40 team.
Just look around at the other college football fans who aren’t really that astonished at the outcome from this loss to Navy for Notre Dame.
The Irish had one week to prepare for the tricky triple option (Ohio State had an entire off-season and almost lost, Missouri had an entire month and was beaten worse than Notre Dame), had some significant injuries and lined up with some seriously poor schemes on defense.
I fail to see how this signals that Brian Kelly is a bad coach or that that all hope in the future is lost. What’s more, some are acting like Notre Dame has been playing like they did against Navy for the entire season, which is definitely not true.
This loss to Navy was a stink bomb and it was ugly, but otherwise there have been some improvements defensively that should not be forgotten.
Now, if Notre Dame goes into the tank the rest of the way then there might be some problems, but this loss to Navy could be just an aberration on the way to a successful ending of the 2010 season and beyond.
We really don’t know what it means, but I do know that it was just one game.
Missouri got thumped by Navy in one game as well, but made the necessary adjustments, matured at some positions and are ready to crash the BCS party this year.
This doesn’t mean that Notre Dame is going to reel off a bunch of wins through the rest of this season or in 2011, but the Tigers have proved that a loss to Navy, even a loss in which you’re dominated by the Midshipmen, is not necessarily a bellwether for where your program is headed.
Just exactly how Notre Dame responds to this loss to finish the season will likely be the more important gauge for where this program is at and where it is going in the future. Let’s hope the Fighting Irish can learn something from Missouri and shake off a bad loss to the United States Naval Academy.