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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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Notre Dame (-14) at Navy

FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland

Kickoff: 8:00 PM ET

Television: CBS

Series: 74-12-1 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview of this weekend's game against the Midshipmen.

5 Factoids

  • (No) Sacks

Navy hasn't been known to have a disruptive defense (11 sacks in 13 games last year) but in 2014 things have been ridiculously bad getting after the quarterback. Through 8 games the Middies have registered just 3 sacks which is tied with New Mexico State for the fewest in the country. 2 of those 3 sacks came against FCS Virginia Military Institute.

  • All of the Carries

To say that quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been carrying the Navy offense wouldn't quite do him justice. Over his last 10 games in the lineup he has carried the ball 250 times for an average of 25 touches per game. In 2014, Reynolds is the only quarterback in the top 30 among the national leaders in rushes per game. He currently sits at 6th nationally with 24.5 carries per game.

  • Disciplined with Turnovers

Normally the story line with a military academy is that they are smart with the ball and don't kill themselves with turnovers. Well, Navy has lost the ball 13 times this season (same amount as the Irish) but they haven't been able to force many turnovers on defense which is the problem. They've only recovered 2 fumbles and their 8 total turnovers gained is tied for 108th nationally. The Midshipmen have not finished a game this year with a positive turnover differential and their -5 total for the season is tied for 106th nationally.

  • Converting Third Down

When Navy has won games this year they've been very productive moving the chains on third down. In 4 victories they've converted 27 of 43 (62.7%) attempts and are 14th nationally in overall third down attempts. In their 4 losses Navy has converted 19 of 53 (35.8%) third down attempts.

  • Limiting Big Plays

Former Irish DC Bob Diaco was known to keep the ball in front of his defense and limit big plays so much so that it became perhaps the most defining characteristic of his units in South Bend. This season Notre Dame still has that in their DNA giving up only 29 plays of 20+ yards (tied-34th nationally) and just 9 plays of 30+ yards (tied-13th nationally). Navy is also very much a defense that makes you string together long scoring drives. They've only surrendered 21 plays of 20+ yards (tied-6th nationally) and 11 plays of 30+ yards (tied-27th nationally) this season.

4 Players to Watch

  • QB Keenan Reynolds

The 5-11, 195 pound athlete from Tennessee has missed 2 games this season with a shoulder and knee injury but looks to be 100% percent after carrying the ball an absurd 39 times last week against San Jose State. Reynolds' 3 rushing scores last week moved him past Ricky Dobbs for the most in Navy history and he's now sitting at 24th overall in NCAA FBS history with 52 career rushing scores. By years end, Reynolds may stand alone in 6th place and would need roughly 15 more scores as a senior to break Montee Ball's all-time record.

  • FB Noah Copeland

The Middies have been utilizing a two-headed monster at fullback with the senior Copeland and junior Chris Swain. Back in 2012, Copeland was second on the team in rushing with 738 yards and 5 scores but missed several games last year with leg/foot injuries which cut his production in half. Right now, he's back as the second-leading rusher and is averaging an impressive 8.72 yards per carry with 602 yards. Copeland is teaming up with Swain to produce 1,057 rushing yards a 7.7 per carry from the fullback position.

  • WR Jamir Tillman

Tillman is a sophomore out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and has really blossomed since spring practice earlier this year. After catching just 2 passes as a freshman the long 6-4 wideout is Navy's leading receiver with 16 receptions and 303 yards. Those stats account for 39% of the team catches and 41% of the team receiving yardage in 2014.

  • LB Chris Johnson

Johnson plays outside linebacker in the Striker (or Star) role and at 6-1, 207 is like another safety on the field for the Midshipmen. He is one of the few disruptive players on the Navy defense totaling 136 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 5 pass break ups, and 3 interceptions since the beginning of 2013.

3 Concerns

  • The Clean Game from Navy

You know why Notre Dame averaged 9.04 yards per play on offense last year against Navy and still barely won the game? The Middies didn't turn the ball over at all and only punted twice during the entire game. It was almost literally the perfectly drawn up gameplan for Navy as they kept the ball for nearly 38 minutes and strung together 8 drives of at least 7 plays. For the Irish--who have only punted 4 times in 4 games against Navy during the Kelly era--picking up just one turnover from the Midshipmen is usually a big momentum swing in this game.

  • Doing Just Okay on Offense

We always focus on the defense defending the Navy option and for good reason. However, it's just as important for Notre Dame's offense to do its part and dominate the Middies. I'll just paste in my thoughts from the summer preview:

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.

  • Looking Past a Rival

The bye week helps matters and gives the Irish an extra few days off to prepare for the options and quirks of Navy's offense. However, this game is sandwiched in between Florida State and Arizona State and is kind of a let down spot. Notre Dame should be pissed off after what happened in Tallahassee but don't forget this is Navy's Super Bowl (arguably more so than any other Irish opponent) and they're likely to come out fired up and with plenty of surprises for Notre Dame.

2 Sides of the Line

Navy has brought a veteran line into this season. Senior Bradyn Heap (6-3, 281) has started every game at left tackle the past two years except for their game against VMI a couple weeks ago when he moved to center. Sophomore Blake Copeland (6-4, 258) made his first start in Heap's absence. Junior E.K. Binns (6-3, 282) started 10 games at left guard last year and has held down the position for all of 2014.

Senior Tanner Fleming (6-3, 267) will be making his 30th start this Saturday but has missed a start a couple games ago with an ankle injury. Senior Jake Zuzek (6-2, 290) is in his 3rd year as starter at right guard and is making his 35th straight start this weekend. The Middies had three players make starts at right tackle last year and have turned to junior Joey Gaston (6-5, 281) after he started the last 3 games of 2013.

Senior Paul Quessenberry (6-2, 251) and junior Bernard Sarra (6-1, 303) are back as starters at defensive end and nose guard, respectively. Junior Will Anthony (6-1, 246) made one start last year and is rounding out the 3-man front at defensive end in 2014. These three have made every start this season and eat up the bulk of the minutes for Navy. They are not very explosive combining for 79 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks.

1 Prediction

Navy is always a tricky team to figure out and this year is no different. Going into the season I thought they had the opportunity to win 10 games which would likely have meant upsetting one of Ohio State, Rutgers, or Notre Dame. They have their shot against the Irish this weekend but they've already dropped the other two Power 5 matchups.

So the Middies sit at 4-4 and they must have lost both games that Reynolds missed with injury, right? No! They beat Texas State and VMI with their star QB on the bench.

In typical Navy fashion they've been competitive in their losses. They led for most of the 2nd quarter and for part of the 3rd quarter against Ohio State before the Buckeyes ran away with a 17-point win. They stayed relatively close to Rutgers before losing by a touchdown. They were starting a 2-minute drill game-winning drive against Western Kentucky before a pick six sealed the Hilltoppers' 9-point win. Lastly, their 9-point loss to Air Force saw Navy lose a fumble in AFA territory as well as a pick deep in Falcon territory--plus AFA tacked on a late touchdown following a failed onside kick by Navy.

What's more, even in those 4 losses Navy was just -1.82 YPP against Ohio State, -0.03 YPP against Rutgers, -0.06 YPP against Air Force, and had a positive 0.71 YPP against Western Kentucky. There have been some uncharacteristic mistakes and turnovers but this offense is still quite good on a per-play basis.

It's interesting because Navy is shockingly consistent with their below average defense. They are 75th in scoring defense, 76th in rushing defense, 75th in passing defense, and 75th in yards per play defense. Even their S&P defense is in below average territory (65th) although their FEI defense is much worse at 95th nationally.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 10

STAT IRISH MIDDIES
S&P 24 45
S&P Offense 22 30
S&P Defense 28 65
F/+ 19 55
FEI 19 66
GE 17 55

If you look at the advanced stats you'll see Navy isn't a massive underdog and the line from Vegas backs that up. However, remember the Irish only opened as 3-point favorites during the summer so this spread has shot up significantly once the experts have seen each team play this season.

Offensively, the Irish have had no problems since 2011 in a post-Dayne Crist era against Navy.  They've totaled 144 points and never fewer than 7.1 yards per play in each of the last three meetings, including a Kelly-era high 9.04 YPP last year. I don't usually like to play the 'no excuses' card but Notre Dame's offense should be able to explode if they bring their A-game.

I'm a little worried about VanGorder's first performance against Navy not just because it's his debut in the rivalry but also because this Midshipman offense has the ability to be very potent. They're bringing one of the best quarterbacks in school history, a veteran line, and a pair of experienced fullbacks. I expect Navy to get theirs on offense for a good portion of this game.

As always, expect Navy to pull out all the stops and tricks to try and win this game. The Irish offense should have enough success so that we're not sweating in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame 52

Navy 28