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Notre Dame Football: Navy Midshipmen Preview

Pat Rick gives a quick preview of this matchup between ranked, historic foes

NCAA Football: Navy vs Notre Dame Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Well, friends, we are officially in the fourth quarter of the 2019 college football season.

What a quality video!

Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish are currently 16th in the College Football Playoff rankings, and host the #21 Navy Midshipmen tomorrow in easily the last decent game of the regular season for ND.

The Midshipmen, after going a putrid 3-10 in 2018, have been a ridiculously pleasant surprise, starting 7-1 and sitting 24th overall in SP+ (22nd offense, 45th defense, 18th special teams).

Now, they’ll face easily their toughest opponent, as the Irish are 22nd in SP+ overall (35th offense, 23rd defense, 48th special teams) and hot off an absolute dismantling of the Duke Blue Devils.

So, what can we expect to see tomorrow as the two annual rivals clash at Notre Dame Stadium? Let’s explore that a bit.

Navy Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

As is often the case with Ken Niumatalolo’s triple option team, the Midshipmen will be bringing the #1 overall rushing offense, and the #5 offense in terms of yards per carry, to South Bend this weekend.

That unit is led by QB Malcolm Perry, who has seemingly been tearing it up at QB for the Middies for forever, and is once again having a fantastic season running that offense. Perry has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season, picking up 1,042 yards in 8 games while running for 6.6 yards per carry and a mind-boggling 16 touchdowns. Add in 722 yards and 5 TD through the air, and Perry is obviously the most important and productive person in the Navy offense.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Navy Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

He’s not the only guy who can do damage in the triple option system, though, as the Midshipmen have numerous backs who know how to take advantage of the unique running lanes their scheme provides.

Fullback Nelson Smith has run for 505 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging about 5 yards per carry this season, and Jamale Carothers has stormed on of late to pick up 355 yards and 8 scores while gashing defenses for a disrespectful average of 9.9 yards per rush.

Add in a few receivers who have been dangerous on the ground as well — Tazh Maloy, CJ Williams, and Keoni-Kordell Makekau (553 yards, 7.3 yards per carry, 3 rushing TD combined) — and the Midshipmen offense is as prolific as ever running the football. Hell, they have 6 players with over 100 yards rushing, and all with a yards-per-carry average of at least 5 — that’s pretty damn good, you guys.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With that said, the Irish have defensive coordinator Clark Lea and plenty of athletes on defense that, if coached correctly, should be pretty decent at shutting down the triple option.

Lea and the system he runs, luckily, have easily been the best at stopping the Navy triple option since Brian Kelly took over as head coach.

The key group for continuing that trend is certainly going to be the Irish linebackers, as Asmar Bilal (56 tackles, 7 TFL), Drew White (55 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks), and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (51 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 FF) all have the athleticism and decisiveness to make big plays in disrupting and corralling runners in the triple option. The most important thing will be whether or not they stay disciplined and take care of their responsibilities on each play. Bo Bauer may see some time as well, considering he’s proven to be pretty strong in defending the run.

Also critical will be the Notre Dame defensive line. If defensive tackles like Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (18 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 5 QBH), Kurt Hinish (13 tackle,s 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks), and Jayson Ademilola (21 tackles, 3 TFL) are able to get a good push and hold the point of attack, it will go a long way in allowing the linebackers to roam free, fill gaps, and get to ball carriers.

Also important, of course, will be the ability of the defensive ends like Khalid Kareem (31 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 7 TFL, 8 QBH), Jamir Jones (17 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 TFL, 2 FF), and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (19 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR TD, 4 QBH) to stay at home and contain Malcolm Perry. Without Julian Okwara (18 tackles, 4 sacks, 7 TFL, 7 QBH, 2 FF) and Daelin Hayes — both out for the year — the performances of those guys become even more crucial, considering the missing athleticism and speed that could have made up for some mistakes.

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

Hell, against a nearly pure run offense like the triple option, the run support of the secondary is as important as ever, too. Corners Troy Pride Jr. (33 tackles, 2 INT), TaRiq Bracy (23 tackles, 5 PD, 1 FF, 2 FR), Donte Vaughn (12 tackles, 4 PD), and Shaun Crawford (17 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT) HAVE to keep contain on the outside and help turn runners inward, and safeties Alohi Gilman (52 tackles, 2 FF, 1 INT), Jalen Elliott (35 tackles, 2 INT, 2 PD), and Kyle Hamilton (30 tackles, 3 INT, 1 TD, 3 PD) will need to be aggressive and smart in terms of when they lock in on runners and rocket up the field to make big stops before Perry and co. can get into the second level of the defense.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

If and when Navy chooses to throw the ball the few times it will, look for Midshipmen receivers like Mychal Cooper (9 rec, 241 yds, 1 TD) and Ryan Mitchell (4 rec, 130 yds) to be a couple of the most likely targets, and if the corners and safeties get sucked in too much thinking it’s a run, watch out for a big play or two from the Navy passing offense.

However, as we can all imagine, Navy won’t be slinging it too much, so for the most part the key for this defense will be executing on individual responsibilities to ensure ball carriers don’t get the ball out in space for big gains that move the chains, drain clock, and ultimately lead to points.

Offensive Midshipman to Watch

QB Malcolm Perry

This offense goes as Perry goes. Sure, if Perry is replaced by someone else, the unit still probably produces pretty well, but Perry is a SPECIAL athlete who could really do some damage and make Irish defenders miss in open space. If he is able to run wild tomorrow, the Irish could very well lose this game.

NCAA Football: Navy at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Irish to Watch

LB Asmar Bilal

The senior leads the team in tackles and will need to be all over the field tomorrow making plays to ensure the Irish comfortably win this game. He’s got some speed and athleticism, but more importantly he needs to be the veteran leader on the field for this linebacking unit, acting as Clark Lea’s eyes and ears and mouthpiece with the rest of the defense. If he has a solid game and executes on the fundamentals, Navy will struggle to run the ball super efficiently, for sure.

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

Halftime Funtime

Best Names in the Game

  1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
  2. Navy DT Timber Berzins
  3. Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
  4. Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
  5. Navy QB Tyger Goslin
  6. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
  7. Navy CB Caleb Clear
  8. Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
  9. Navy WR Keoni-Kordell Makekau
  10. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
  11. Navy G Nick Dell’Acqua
  12. Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
  13. Navy DL Alefosio Saipaia
  14. Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
  15. Navy DE Quinzy Salu
  16. Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
  17. Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
  18. Navy LB Nizaire Cromartie
  19. Navy LB Austin Talbert-Loving
  20. Navy LB Tama Tuitele
  21. Navy S Noruwa Obanor
  22. Navy WR Tyreek King-El
  23. Navy DT J’arius Warren
  24. Navy CB Ebissa Sambo
  25. Navy WR Carlinos Acie

So unfortunate it did not qualify: Navy LB Diego Fagot

Notre Dame Offense vs. Navy Defense

Let’s start this section by understanding how far Navy’s defense has come in just one season. Austin Lanteigne summed it up very well in my Q&A with Against All Enemies on Wednesday:

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.

So, clearly the Midshipmen defense is much better than last year, and you could even argue that overall and even compared to some of the better teams in the country, they are VERY good. Along with the view above, Navy is 20th in the country in sacks, 26th in tackles for loss, 17th in total rushing defense and yards allowed per rush, 35th in pass yards allowed, and 29th in yards allowed per passing attempt. This isn’t your dad’s Navy defense, folks.

The group is led by LB Diego Fagot, who has accumulated 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, and 4 QBH in 2019. Joining him in key linebacker spots include Jacob Springer (41 tackles, 7 sacks, 6 QBH, 3 FF), Paul Carothers (31 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 TFL), and Nizaire Cromartie (23 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, 7.5 TFL, 3 QBH).

NCAA Football: Air Force at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

That crew will be tasked with slowing down/shutting down the rushing attack employed by ND, as guys like Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong will attempt to get things moving again after a pretty unproductive couple of games recently. Jones especially needs to heal up a bit and find a way to contribute, as he was the main source of rushing offense until the past few games, and the Irish could certainly use more of his 585 yards, 6.2 ypc, 4 TD performance to-date.

Furthermore, look for guys like Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, and Ian Book to contribute some big plays on the ground — especially Book, who had a fantastic game last weekend running the football and who has 390 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns associated with his 4.9-yards-per-carry average.

Important for Navy will also be the play of their defensive line, which will have a clear and obvious disadvantage going up against ND’s mammoth offensive front. DT J’arius Warren (24 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 TL, 1 FF), DL Jackson Pittman (20 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FR), and DE Jackson Perkins (17 tackles, 1 INT, 2.5 TFL) will all play crucial roles in trying to get a push up front and containing ND players’ paths of escape.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Navy Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on how effective the Naval Academy’s waves of running plays are, the Irish could end up playing catch-up with little room for error, considering the limited time of possession they’re afforded. That situation would call for Ian Book to put the team on his back a bit through the air, as he’s already thrown for 2,009 yards, 58% completion, 21 TD, and just 6 INT this season.

He’ll certainly be looking, first and foremost, for his go-to receiver, senior Chase Claypool, who continues to come up big week after week after week. Claypool has 42 catches for 651 yards and 5 touchdowns this year, and is joined by TE Cole Kmet (29 rec, 327 yds, 5 TD) as huge mismatches for anyone on any defense, let alone Navy’s.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Toss in Chris Finke (25 rec, 282 yds, 3 TD), Javon McKinley (11 rec, 268 yds, 4 TD), Tommy Tremble (11 rec, 145 yds, 3 TD), and the potential speedy combo of Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy (16 rec, 236 yds, 3 TD combined), and it will be tough for the Midshipmen secondary to keep up.

Safety Kevin Brennan is certainly one of the Midshipmen’s go-to-guys in containing receivers, as he’s piled up 52 tackles, 2 PD, and 1 INT this year while being one of the true leaders of the defense. Add in Evan Fochtman (34 tackles, 5 PD, 1 INT) and Elan Nash (25 tackles, 2 PD) at the safety positions and Michael McMorris (28 tackles, 8 PD, 1 INT) and Cameron Kinley (23 tackles, 1 sack, 4 PD, 2.5 TFL) on the outside and it’s clear Navy has a solid defensive unit who’s veteran enough to put the clamp down a bit on the ND passing offense.

NCAA Football: Temple at Navy Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Plus, Navy has a number of pass rushers on their roster who can do some damage, so look out for guys like Jacob Springer, Paul Carothers, and Nizaire Cromartie to be bringing the heat and try to force Book into making mistakes and abandoning the pocket. With Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey likely out for the entire year, the pressure could be especially bad on the right side of the line, so hopefully ND has a game plan to solidify that side and provide Book the time in the pocket he requires.

Overall, it should be fun to watch this matchup to understand how well-protected and comfortable Ian Book is versus a much improved and more aggressive defensive scheme, and if the Irish can impose their will on a smaller opponent, or if the aggression and coaching of Navy will make up some of that talent gap and keep things close.

Defensive Midshipman to Watch

LB Nizaire Cromartie

The guy just seems like a savvy veteran who knows where to be on any given play, while also having the energy and aggression to make more than just routine plays in the backfield. If he and the rest of the front seven have a big day and force Ian Book to do a lot of passing and scrambling, things may just break the Navy way.

NCAA Football: Navy vs Notre Dame Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Irish to Watch

RB Tony Jones Jr.

The ND running game — especially coming from the running backs — hasn’t been the same of late. The Irish, considering their size and talent advantage, need to dominate in the trenches and open up running lanes for TJJ, who will hopefully have a great day on the ground and be the driving force behind an ND offense that churns out long, draining drives focused on the run all day.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

Not much to see here — PK Bijan Nichols is 42/43 from extra points and 5/7 on field goal attempts, and according to ESPN, is also the team’s punter? Meanwhile, ND’s kicker Jonathan Doerer is a perfect 37/37 on extra points and 7/9 from field goal range.

Overall, these are two programs that have excelled of late in special teams ratings/efficiency, so don’t expect tons of big plays, considering how clean both teams typically are in execution in this aspect of the game.

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Notre Dame 24, Navy 20

Navy always makes me nervous, especially with their ability to control the ball and slowly but surely grind through defenses for points. I think the Irish have enough speed and veterans on defense to defend the triple option pretty well, but Malcolm Perry and co. are too good at what they do to be completely shut down. Meanwhile, Ian Book and co. got back on track a bit against Duke, so I expect them to score enough to win, but also struggle a bit against the most aggressive and havoc-wreaking Midshipmen defense in years. Irish win a close one to improve to 8-2.