With just two games to play this season, the 8-2 and 8th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team enters this weekend looking to bounce back from a humiliating and devastating 41-8 loss to Miami a week ago.
To do so, the Irish will play host to the 6-3 Navy Midshipmen, adding to the nation’s longest continuous intersectional rivalry in college football, as this will be the 91st consecutive time these two teams have played.
Navy has beaten the Irish just 13 times in the history of the series, but has managed to win 4 of the last 10, including a 28-27 victory over ND last season.
So, how do the two teams match up, and who will ultimately emerge victorious? Let’s find out.
Navy Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
In case you have absolutely no experience watching college football, I’d like to inform you that Navy runs a triple option offense. This, of course, means they run almost all of the time, similar to Army and Georgia Tech and a couple other teams in the FBS.
This Navy team, despite the 3-game losing streak it’s just recovered from in a 43-40 win over SMU, has been fantastic all season on offense, leading the nation in rushing and managing to be 33rd in scoring despite the complete lack of passing in its offense (128th in the country in passing).
The key position to watch in this offense has always been the quarterback, and this year is no exception to that rule. However, who will start and see the most time at QB tomorrow is still a bit up in the air, as Navy’s top two QBs have both been dealing with injury issues, and both have also been fantastic this season.
Zach Abey was the original starter for the Midshipmen, and he’s accumulated 1,202 yards and 13 TD while running at a 5-yards-per-carry clip. His long run of the year was a 75-yarder, so he is certainly capable of breaking off a big play.
Furthermore, if Navy were to try to pass at all, he is clearly the best option, having thrown for 717 yards on 60 attempts (42% completion rate), 6 TD, and 6 INT on the year while the other two QBs have completed just 10 of 20 passes for 171 yards this season.
When Abey went down earlier this year, though, Malcolm Perry was moved from RB/WR and put under center. Perry has been fantastic and explosive on the year, and has 736 yards and 7 TD on 9 yards per carry. His long run on the year is a 92-YARDER, and his stat line against SMU last week looked like something from a video game: 282 yards, 4 TD.
So, with those two options at least somewhat available, it should be interesting to see who Ken Niumatalolo decides to go with tomorrow (or if he chooses to play both). Either way, though, the Midshipmen will trot out a talented running QB that has proven he can lead the best rushing offense in the country.
Other key backs to watch out for tomorrow include Chris High (478 yards, 2 TD), Anthony Gargiulo (225 yards, 2 TD), Darryl Bonner (143 yards, 1 TD), Josh Brown (139 yards, 2 TD), and Joshua Walker (91 yards, 2 TD). All of those guys average at least 4 yards per carry, and the latter two average 12.6 and 7.6 yards per carry, respectively. This Navy squad can pick up chunks of yardage on the ground in a hurry, as Irish fans are likely well aware.
So, the big key for this game will absolutely be the Notre Dame linebackers. Rover Drue Tranquill (62 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF) was born to play against the triple option offense, and has shown in past games against the likes of Georgia Tech and Navy and Army that he is very competent in doing so.
Te’von Coney (82 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 sacks), Greer Martini (53 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 FF), and Nyles Morgan (71 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack) will all need to play fast, aggressive, and physical, making sure to make good reads and decisions on who to go after and making sure they are sure-tackling option destroyers tomorrow.
The defensive line will need to have a big day as well, as guys like Jerry Tillery (40 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks) and Jonathan Bonner and Jay Hayes (24 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) will be counted on to blow things up inside, while Daelin Hayes (26 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks) and Julian Okwara (3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and Khalid Kareem (5.5 TFL, 3 sacks) will need to show good preparation and discipline in taking care of their assignments on the edge as the option comes their way.
Navy won’t throw more than a handful of times on Saturday, and so the key for the Notre Dame secondary — especially corners Julian Love (41 tackles), Shaun Crawford (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF), Troy Pride Jr., and Nick Watkins (24 tackles) — is going to be shedding WR blocks.
They’ll need to be sure to always watch a guy like explosive WR Tyler Carmona, who leads the team in receiving with 12 receptions for 333 yards and 4 TD (including a 79-yarder), but overall they will be tasked with maintaining the edge on the boundaries of the field and making tackles in open space.
Safeties Nick Coleman (35 tackles) and Jalen Elliott (30 tackles) will be tasked with providing great run support from the back end of the defense, and serving as the last defense between Navy’s explosive QBs and a huge TD run that could give Navy more momentum than anyone on the Notre Dame side would be comfortable with.
Overall, I think tomorrow will be a mixed bag for the Fighting Irish. The Navy triple option seems to always give the defense some fits, and this Navy offense is a very strong one. However, guys like Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played quite a few triple option offenses in their day, and along with the preparation from defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who saw the Georgia Tech offense every year at Wake Forest, I think the ND defense will bounce back in a big way and mostly shut down a not-completely-healthy Navy offense tomorrow.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Navy Defense
On the other side of the ball, QB Brandon Wimbush and the Notre Dame offense are trying to pick up the pieces after an embarrassingly poor whole-unit performance last week against Miami.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long seemed to completely abandon the physical, straightforward, between-the-tackles running game that had been obliterating all opponents, instead choosing to run slow-developing running plays that often took Josh Adams to the outside against a Hurricanes defense that thrives on the outside with speed and athleticism.
Wimbush was asked to sling the ball around early on, and he made a couple very bad passes that were picked off (as did backup Ian Book, who threw a pick-six to end his first drive in relief).
I do not think the Irish will have any of the same issues tomorrow, however. Navy’s defense is 77th in the country in total defense, 90th in scoring defense, and 64th in rushing defense. This ND offense will not be facing the big, athletic, fast defensive front seven that Miami had, and Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey should have no issues steamrolling the smaller and lighter Navy defensive linemen.
So, I think Josh Adams will finally be able to build on what started as such an unbelievable season during the first 8 games, adding to the already fantastic totals he’s posted this season (1,231 yds, 8 ypc, 9 TD).
Similarly, I think Tony Jones Jr., Deon McIntosh, and Dexter Williams (well, if he’s healthy/if the coaching staff decides to actually play the most explosive back on the roster more than a few snaps in garbage time of a blowout loss) will have similar success, and the Irish offense will run the ball for over 300 yards. Wimbush, too, will have a few long scampers on the day, as Navy’s defense will struggle to contain him while also worrying about the other backs and the receivers running downfield on passing plays.
This isn’t to say the Navy defense doesn’t have some very good players. DB Sean Williams is a stud, having collected 63 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 4 passes broken up, and a forced fumble on the year. He’s joined back there by Elijah Merchant (35 tackles, 3 PBU), Jarid Ryan (31 tackles, 3 PBU), and Tyris Wooten (26 tackles, 8 PBU, 1 FF), who will be very important in coverage against guys like Chase Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown, etc.
Linebackers Micah Thomas (60 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 3 INT) and DJ Palmore (50 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF) are fantastic athletes who will disrupt the Irish offense at least a few times throughout the game. They’re joined by Jerry Thompson (29 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF), Hudson Sullivan (excellent last name), and Brandon Jones (24 tackles, 2 TFL).
The Navy defensive line may not have the heft to battle the Quenton Nelsons and the Mike McGlincheys out there for the entire game, but as we have seen in the past, these guys will be going low and using speed to wreak as much havoc as possible. Leading that charge will be Tyler Sayles, who has 36 tackles and 4 TFL on the season. Other names to know on the defensive front include Jarvis Polu, Nizaire Cromartie, Jackson Pittman, and Josh Webb, who has 3 sacks on the year and could be in Brandon Wimbush’s grill whenever the Irish do decide to throw the ball on Saturday.
The Navy defense is 91st in the country in pass defense, so although I expect the Irish to mostly dominate this game on the ground in a reversion to what was working this season, I think Wimbush will be able to make some throws and gain some confidence back, hooking up with guys like Claypool and Kevin Stepherson as they get behind the defense with their speed.
Overall, I expect the 22nd overall offense in the country who is 6th in rushing and 15th in scoring to get back to the basics and run the ball all over an out-matched Navy defense, picking up lots of yards and lots of points.
Not too much to see here, per usual, but one thing to note: Navy’s kicker, Bennett Moehring, is just 6/10 on field goals this season. He’s somehow managed to have 3 of his 4 misses come from 20-29 yards away, so it’s safe to say he isn’t the most reliable scoring option for the Midshipmen. Expect to see a lot of 4th down attempts, you guys!!!!
On the Notre Dame side, I just wanted to point out Justin Yoon’s perfect (knock on wood) 49-for-49 stat line on extra points. This, obviously, is directly attributable to the Irish’s Mortell Holder of the Year Semifinalist, Monty VG.
No one deserves this award more than him, folks. Please be sure to show him your support on Twitter, especially on his senior day. He deserves the best send-off we could possibly give him.
I’ve done my explaining above. ND gets back to what works on offense, Navy’s QBs are not completely healthy and also haven’t faced a defense like the Irish’s yet this year, and Notre Dame rolls to a victory that sees Ian Book get some early 4th quarter PT, and then sees senior Mortell Award Semi-finalist Montgomery VanGorder run this offense the way it was meant to be run in the final minutes of the victory.