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Game Preview: Notre Dame vs. Navy

One Foot Down previews the clash in Jacksonville between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Navy Midshipmen

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Just as we all suspected in the preseason, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter their match-up with the Navy Midshipmen in early November with a substantially worse record.

ND comes in at 3-5, narrowly holding off a furious Miami comeback last weekend and then riding Justin Yoon’s field goal with about 30 seconds remaining to win 30-27 in South Bend. The Irish hope to take the positive mojo, however fleeting it may be considering the 20-point lead they squandered during that win, and put together their first back-to-back victories of the year, which isn’t sad at all when you think about it.

Navy, meanwhile, boasts a 5-2 record that includes a victory over then-undefeated Houston. The Midshipmen, however, fell to South Florida last week in a high-scoring affair, 52-45, and are looking to get back on track toward competing for the AAC championship and earning a potential rematch with the Bulls.

So with the two teams flip-flopped a bit in terms of typical standing entering this game, how do they match up? Let’s get into it.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Navy Defense

The Notre Dame offense came hot out of the gate against Miami, jumping to a 20-0 lead and appearing to be on the verge of another blowout of the Hurricanes a la 2012 at Soldier Field. Alas, the offense stalled, going the next 34 minutes and 38 seconds without scoring, finally breaking the drought on Josh Adams’ 41-yard run to tie it at 27, less than a minute of game time after Miami had taken the lead on a muffed punt fumble recovery touchdown.

So, in looking at this offense, which looks so prolific at times and so incredibly and woefully pathetic at others, it’s hard to predict how they will fare in any given game.

In this one, though, the Irish offensive players have a great opportunity in front of them. Navy’s defense stands 91st in total defense and 75th in scoring, and is equally porous against the pass (89th) and the run (83rd).

Considering that and the Irish offensive line’s size advantage over the Midshipmen defensive front, Notre Dame should be able to get a strong push and run the ball at-will on Saturday, with “should” being the operative word in that sentence.

The offensive line that was so vaunted in the preseason has not been great on the ground, as ND ranks 94th in the country in rushing (averaging 149.8 ypg). Hopefully their bulk and strength compared to the Navy defensive linemen will be an extra advantage that enables them to create lanes for Adams, Tarean Folston, and Dexter Williams, but Notre Dame fans will be rightfully skeptical that that will happen.

The Midshipmen working to prevent that include a group of tough linebackers who rack up the tackles each game, including Micah Thomas (team-high 49 tackles), Josiah Powell (35 tackles, 3.5 TFL), DJ Palmore (32 tackles, 8 TFL), and Hudson Sullivan (28 tackles, 1 awesome last name).

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Navy defensive linemen who are hoping to wreak havoc at the point of attack and allow for those linebackers to freely attack Adams and co. include Amos Mason, Jarvis Polu, Patrick Forrestal, and Tyler Sayles. Mason and Polu, especially, will look to continue to get penetration, as they’ve combined for 8.5 tackles for loss so far this year.

So, as most ND games go these days, QB DeShone Kizer and the ND passing attack will need to make some plays to keep the defense honest and open things up for the running backs. Kizer looked to be back in solid form against Miami, completing 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards, 2 TD, and no interceptions. The big stat to look at, though, was that he averaged just 6.9 yards per completion, indicating that the Irish are really playing small ball and not taking many shots downfield.

A player to watch in that regard on Saturday, though, is freshman Kevin Stepherson, who was able to turn an intermediate pass against Miami into a 53-yard gain, and who has shown great speed and an ability to get behind the defense in games earlier this year.

Stepherson could be especially dangerous over the top if Equanimeous St. Brown (37 catches, 683 yards, 7 TD) continues to make plays all over the field, and if Torii Hunter Jr. (30 catches, 417 yards, and CJ Sanders work the shorter routes and continue to be reliable targets for Kizer.

Navy’s pass defense has not been stellar this year, and against ND’s 35th-ranked pass offense, their 89th-ranked pass defense might have some issues. The Midshipmen secondary is led by safeties Sean Williams (40 tackles, 2 pass break-ups), Alohi Gilman (35 tackles, 4 pass break-ups), and Daiquan Thomasson (24 tackles, 1 INT, 3 pass break-ups), and cornerbacks Tyris Wooten (29 tackles, 4 pass break-ups) and Elijah Merchant (19 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 3 forced fumbles).

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Midshipmen pass rush will need to put some pressure on Kizer and force some bad throws for Navy to slow down the Irish passing attack, and so Mason, Polu, and Sayles (5 sacks combined), along with linebacker-blitzer-extraordinaire DJ Palmore (5 sacks), will try to get Kizer out of his comfort zone and create situations for the DBs to make some plays and hopefully force a turnover or two or three.

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the Navy defense is not strong, and the ND offense, although inconsistent, stands to have a very good day against them, especially through the air.

Navy Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The triple option has always given Notre Dame fits, although the Irish have had some success recently in slowing it down. The 2015 Georgia Tech game was fantastically played on defense until the very end, as players like Jaylon Smith and Drue Tranquill were monsters in blowing up Navy plays.

This year, the ND defense has gone from absolutely terrible to bad to potentially mediocre over the course of 8 games. Every week since Greg Hudson took over as defensive coordinator, the Irish have appeared to look at least a bit more capable in terms of tackling, making plays, not getting burnt, etc. Part of this has certainly been an influx of young talent as players like Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride, and Asmar Bilal get time.

NCAA Football: Miami at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

However, part of it has certainly been making the defensive scheme a bit simpler (and also not playing very many strong offenses the past few games, but let’s try to be positive here!). Against a high-tempo Syracuse offense, they allowed 489 yards. In a hurricane (so take this one with a huge grain of salt), they allowed just 198 yards to NC State. Stanford put up 296 in the next game, and then last week Miami managed just ten more than that, racking up 306.

What I’m getting at here, is not that the Irish defense has been really good. Because that’s simply not a logical conclusion. However, they have improved and made themselves look like a mediocre defense that won’t lose the team too many games, as they now rank 54th in total defense and 66th in scoring defense. It’s nowhere near where they should be as an ND defense, but it’s better than before!

Saturday, they’ll face the 5th-best rushing offense in the country, as Navy QB Will Worth (618 yards, 13 TD) leads the triple option attack. Worth isn’t explosive like former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds (Worth is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this year), but he is efficient, tough, and has plenty of big-chunk yardage runners to give the ball to in this game.

NCAA Football: Navy at South Florida Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The Midshipmen boast 4 backs with yards-per-carry averages of 6.8 or higher, with 3 of those 4 averaging at least 8 yards per rush. Fullback Chris High (6.8 ypc) is the big bruiser of the group, and he sits second on the team with 445 yards rushing. Dishan Romine (268 yards, 8.9 ypc), Toneo Gulley (251 yards, 8.7 ypc, 2 TD), and Darryl Bonner (106 yards, 8.2 ypc) round out that group of yards-per-carry beasts, along with Shawn White, who has added 129 yards and 3 TD on the year himself.

There’s some real talent and speed in that group, and the Irish need to focus on staying at home so as to not allow any game-breaking runs out of the option.

The Notre Dame defense will be employing a lot of bodies to stop such a relentless rushing attack, and it will certainly start with the linebackers and safeties as the guys relied on to take care of the QB and backs and make tackles.

Nyles Morgan (65 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 TFL), Te’von Coney (45 tackles, 1.5 TFL), and James Onwualu (41 tackles, 1 sack, 6.5 TFL, 2 FF) will be crucial in staying disciplined in their assignments and wrapping up ball carriers, and linebacker Greer Martini has been cleared to play this week after recent injuries that have kept him out, and his experience and physicality will be important in helping stifle the Midshipmen.

The safeties will be critical as well, and Drue Tranquill especially, as the star of the defensive effort that largely shut down Georgia Tech’s triple option last season, will need to play an aggressive, tough game and clean up any and all tackles as he attacks the line of scrimmage. Brian Kelly has said that numerous other safeties will also play, including sophomore Nicco Fertitta and freshman Jalen Elliott, along with Tranquill and freshman Devin Studstill, to keep guys fresh and making plays.

NCAA Football: Miami at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

If DL Jarron Jones can put together another strong day of pushing offensive linemen into the backfield as he has the past few weeks (with last week’s 6 TFL, 2 sack game against Miami being an absolutely dominant performance), and if others like DL Isaac Rochell and Jerry Tillery and CBs Cole Luke, Love, Vaughn, and Pride can stay at home and wrap up ball carriers when necessary, the Irish could stand a chance of really preventing a lot of Navy’s success on the ground.

If they can force Will Worth to throw, Navy could really struggle to move the ball. Worth is a much better passer than typical Navy QBs, as he’s thrown for 987 yards, 6 TD, and 3 INT on 59.8% passing so far this year, finding success with receivers like Jamir Tillman (23 catches, 362 yards, 1 TD). Nevertheless, Navy runs the ball almost all of the time, so for the Irish to force the Midshipmen out of their game, even just a bit, would go a long way in forcing punts and winning this game.

Prediction

Notre Dame has more talent and size and speed than Navy almost across the board. That’s always the case and this season is no different.

However, ND has always had problems slowing down Navy’s potent rushing attack, and the Midshipmen are running the ball very well this season and looking for a turnaround game after a tough loss to fellow AAC-championship contender South Florida.

I expect the Notre Dame offense to play a very good game, moving the ball downfield with a combination of short/intermediate passes and some well-placed Adams and Folston carries. Eventually, Navy will need to focus on the short game, leaving the Irish space to send Stepherson and St. Brown over the top for big gains that could potentially break the game open.

The Notre Dame defense will not be perfect against the triple option, and there is no Jaylon Smith out there to clean things up. Nonetheless, the young talent and speed of ND’s unit will make some plays in Hudson’s defense and get enough stops for ND to win one comfortably, but not necessarily convincingly.

Notre Dame 37, Navy 27