Well, you guys, we’ve reached the final quarter of this 2019 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season, and your #16 Irish are set to host a couple final home games at Notre Dame Stadium before shipping off to Palo Alto for the season finale against the Stanford Cardinal.
This weekend, ND gets what will definitely be its final ranked opponent of the regular season, as the #23, 7-1 Navy Midshipmen storm into South Bend looking to upset Notre Dame for the 3rd time in Brian Kelly’s tenure as head coach, having previously beaten the Irish in 2010 and 2016.
The Naval Academy enters this game with a very sound, surprisingly strong team by any real metric you want to look at, and so it certainly won’t be a cake walk for a Notre Dame team trying to get to 10 wins for the third season in a row.
To understand what the Irish are truly up against this Saturday, I spoke to Austin Lanteigne of Against All Enemies, and he weighed in on this surprisingly great season, Ken Niumatalolo, Malcolm Perry, a revamped Navy defense, Bill the Goat as the GOAT goat, last-minute Thanksgiving shopping with Midshipmen, and much more.
Let’s dive into the details!
1. The Midshipmen have had a fantastic start to the season, sitting at 7-1 and ranked 23rd in the CFP rankings and 21st in the AP poll. Was this kind of success expected — especially considering the bad season in 2018 — and how do you think the rest of Navy’s season plays out?
Austin Lanteigne: Oh man, I don’t think anyone outside of that Navy locker room could truthfully say this level of success was “expected.” I was probably a little more on the optimistic side of things, mainly because of Coach Ken’s track record and I figured he could turn it around. I would be lying to you if I said I thought Navy would be sitting at 7-1 as a top-25 team and in the mix for the AAC title game heading into week 12, though.
Realistically, I think most fans would have been pleased with a six-win season as long as two of those wins were against Army and Air Force. The winner of the AAC is in the driver’s seat for the G5 NY6 bid, but Navy’s loss to Memphis means the Midshipmen no longer control their own destiny. I think Navy defeats Army and gets to battle it out against a respectable P5 program in either the Military or Liberty Bowl. A 10-win season is feasible but is going to be a challenge with Notre Dame, SMU, Houston, and Army to close out the regular season.
2. Ken Niumatalolo is now 94-59 in his 11.75 years at Navy. How do Midshipmen fans feel about him, and do you think, considering his early success, he will coach at the Naval Academy until he retires?
Austin Lanteigne: Considering this is Coach Ken’s 12th-year as the Head Coach and his 22nd-year on staff as part of the Naval Academy football program, Navy fans love this guy. He is obviously a successful coach who knows his environment at Navy very well.
He recently made the tough decision to bring in a new defensive coordinator (Brian Newberry) and that is proving to be a home-run hire. The thing about Coach Ken is that he is truly a man that focuses on the athletes and their families. He wants to serve them and help them grow into men of character and I think as long as he feels he is accomplishing that he will stay at Navy.
Other opportunities will undoubtedly come up (as they have via BYU, Arizona, and others) but I think it would have to be a situation where he felt like he could make a greater impact on peoples’ lives elsewhere and he sees that as a tall task due to the impact he can make on future military leaders.
3. It seems like Malcolm Perry has been quarterbacking the Midshipmen for forever, and he’s having another unbelievable season. What makes him so good within this triple option offense, and how can the Irish defense hope to contain a talented veteran like him on Saturday?
Austin Lanteigne: Malcolm is, simply put, a playmaker. He has made improvements under center in both his decision-making and his ability to throw the ball, which has contributed to increased success in 2019. Everyone knew he had the speed and agility to make big plays with the ball in his hands but that athleticism as a runner combined with the improvements in other aspects of his game have been paramount to his success.
In terms of containing him, I have no idea. You just don’t want Navy to have a chance to put a game-winning drive together late. Malcolm will put the team on his back when it matters most and this season he has shown he can get it done. Even if you can slow him down, you have some powerful and speedy backs that can make you pay.
4. Obviously in this kind of offense, there are numerous backs who are able to do damage on the ground. Who are the non-Malcolm Perry names to know at the skill positions, and who do you think is most likely of that group to turn in some big plays this weekend? Also, how do you expect the offensive line to perform against the Irish defensive front?
Austin Lanteigne: Right on cue! Malcolm leads the team with 16 rushing TDs and it’s the fullback group that follows close behind in regards to total touchdowns. Junior Nelson Smith started the season atop the depth chart and has 513 yards and seven TDs on 104 carries, but he now sits number two at the position behind sophomore Jamale Carothers.
Carothers started the year on the JV squad and has only played in the last five games, but has shown why he is the top-fullback entering this week. Carothers has 362 yards on 36 carries and has accounted for nine touchdowns in those games. Yes, he is essentially averaging a first down with each running attempt.
CJ Williams and Tazh Maloy get most of the carries as the slots and Mychal Cooper (6’5”) is a tall receiver who can go up and get the ball when called upon.
The offensive line may be the most improved offensive unit on the team compared to 2018. Center Ford Higgins leads that group and has two other experienced seniors on the left side in Kendel Wright (LT) and David Forney (G). They have size, speed, and good blocking schemes that I think will help get the ground game going on Saturday. I think, in that regard, they can match up well with Notre Dame’s defensive front. Notre Dame could have some success getting to Perry in obvious passing situations (cliche, I know).
5. Tell me about the Navy defense — what are its strengths, its weaknesses, and who are the X-factors ND needs to watch out for?
Austin Lanteigne: In order to understand Navy’s defense you must first understand where it was just 12 months ago. In 2018, Navy’s scoring defense finished 103rd in the country, allowing an average of 33.5 points per game. In 2019, Navy’s scoring defense is currently 15th in the country, allowing just 18.1 points per game.
This remarkable improvement is accredited to Brian Newberry’s aggressive defensive nature that has forced more three-and-outs and QB hurries than I can ever remember as a Navy fan. The front seven has been very impressive slowing down the opposing running game, allowing just 109-yards per game — which is good enough for 17th in the country. You will certainly hear the names Jacob Springer (sacks and TFL leader), Diego Fagot (tackles leader), and Nizaire Cromartie (second in sacks and TFL) as they attempt to get into the backfield.
The secondary probably had the most to prove as the season got underway, but fans keep witnessing their improvement each week. I wouldn’t call them a weakness at all, especially this late in the season, but they will certainly be challenged against Notre Dame.
If anything, the biggest challenge for the defense this year is that Newberry didn’t recruit any of these kids for his system. They are likely to miss an assignment or give up a big play from time-to-time. Navy will need to ensure those mistakes don’t cost the Midshipmen seven points each time. If they can limit the big plays, it could be an interesting afternoon.
6. Who on this Notre Dame team scares you the most and/or is someone the Midshipmen might not be able to stop in this game, and why?
Austin Lanteigne: Probably not the answer you were expecting to hear, but the first name that comes to mind is Alohi Gilman. Most of you probably know he transferred to South Bend from Annapolis so, if anything, he knows these guys and is familiar with the Navy system. He has had success against the Mids before and I am sure he will have a nose to the ball on Saturday.
The match-up that worries me the most would have to be the Notre Dame receivers against the Navy secondary. With five players contributing three or more touchdowns this season I am sure Ian Book will find a match-up he likes on just about every play. If the Irish are moving the ball at will by throwing it downfield, it could be a long afternoon for the Mids.
Same could be said for the running game as well, obviously. I know that is kind of a cop-out answer but we all know Notre Dame is supposed to have the better athletes on paper, so yeah, a lot of those athletes (Book, Jones, Claypool, etc.) make me worried.
7. Notre Dame has a sophomore RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Midshipmen roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
Austin Lanteigne: Navy has a sophomore quarterback named Tyger Goslin. That one is pretty solid. I am also a fan of freshman linebacker Tama Tuitele, but nothing can top former Navy safety Wave Ryder. That school and name combination is unbeatable.
8. Dance-off between Brian Kelly and Ken Niumatalolo — what song(s) does each coach dance to, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Austin Lanteigne: Well, Brett McMurphy recently published the favorite band for each FBS coach and Brian Kelly reportedly said it was Bruce Springsteen. So, I imagine he is going to be jamming out to “Dancing in the Dark” or “Born in the USA.” More dance opportunity with “Dancing in the Dark”, so let’s go with that.
That same Stadium survey reported that Coach Ken is a big Earth, Wind, and Fire fan. Good luck to Brian trying to win a battle against Kenny singing and dancing to “September.” It just isn’t possible considering the anticipated crowd involvement. Ken wins hands down.*
*Pat Rick Note: If those are the two songs chosen, then Austin couldn’t be more right. “September” is one of the best songs to get people dancing, EVER. BK never stood a chance rolling out there with Springsteen against Earth, Wind, and Fire.
9. Is the Navy goat, Bill the Goat, the GOAT goat of all goats? What do you love most about him?
Austin Lanteigne: We have two Bill the Goats this season, Bill XXXVI and Bill XXXVII (this was actually as of 2016 so we may be beyond this now...), but the GOAT of all goats is probably Bill XVI who suffered from an unfortunate accidental poisoning death from weed killer in 1968. RIP XVI.
What do I love most about Bill? His obvious immortality.
10. You forgot to do your Thanksgiving shopping and it’s the morning of the big family gathering you are hosting. You can choose 5 Navy players to go to the store and quickly obtain everything you need, bring it back, and help you with the cooking/setup. Whom do you trust with this task and why?
Austin Lanteigne: I am going for a mix of size (history of good eatin’), folks who know southern cooking, and those who can provide a little island flair.
I will go with Mike Flowers and Luke Coleman as they are each over 315 pounds and hail from Tennessee. They obviously know good southern food. I expect Keoni-Kordell Makekau to provide the island connections and hope he can make some kalua pork or chicken long rice. You also said quickly, so he provides some much needed speed in the group. I will round it out with TJ Salu because of his lively personality and Justin Smith because he is from my hometown and went to a “rival” high school. That would lead to a fun conversation throughout the cooking process.
11. Prediction time: give me the final score for Navy at ND, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Austin Lanteigne: Let’s say it is an offensive showdown where both teams move the ball at will. Notre Dame takes the lead with less than one-minute to go in the fourth, but Malcom Perry gets the team in field goal range with seven seconds left. The calm BJ Nichols splits the uprights from 43 yards for a, ehh, I will go with a 46-44 win for Navy. I mean, that was the score the last time I made it to a game in South Bend...
I wanna give a massive shout-out to Austin for his fantastic answers, truly preparing us for a potentially very good football game this weekend.
Be sure to check out the Against All Enemies site for any and all Navy coverage heading into the game, and make sure to follow Austin and the site’s Twitter accounts for any late-breaking news regarding the game.
That’s it for this piece, folks — see you on Friday in my preview!