HEY YOUUUU GUUUUYYYSSSSS!!!
It’s crazy to think that we’re already 5 days removed from the absolute BEATDOWN that our Notre Dame Fighting Irish — now ranked #20 in both the CFP and AP rankings this week — put on the then-undefeated and 4th-ranked Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on an absolutely magical evening.
Here’s a little refresher if your memory is hazy or if you just wanna feel like you could run through a wall on a Thursday...
Anyway, as hard as it is, it’s time for all of Irish Nation to turn the page and look forward to the last three games on the schedule, starting with this Saturday’s match-up against the Navy Midshipmen at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
The Midshipmen are not having an ideal season so far in 2022, but you KNOW they’re all anxious to play a potential spoiler to the ND team’s and fanbase’s great vibes and confidence following last weekend.
So, in order to better understand this Navy team and if they could pose any trap-game issues for Marcus Freeman’s 6-3 squad, I reached out to Mitchell Northam, Digital Producer at North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC and former Editor In Chief of the now defunct Against All Enemies site here at SB Nation (he’s also a published author — please see here).
Mitchell answered a bunch of really insightful questions we posed to him, including asking about the future of the Navy program under coach Ken Niumatalolo, how good the Navy rushing defense really is, and what his favorite type of boat might be.
There’s a treasure trove of good info below, so let’s not wait any longer — time to dive into it!
1. Ken Niumtalolo had a pretty damn great stretch of seasons from 2008 to 2019 with only a couple duds mixed in, but his Navy program is just 10-21 since the start of the 2020 season. What’s gone wrong recently and do you expect him to get it turned around soon?
Mitchell Northam: I think there are a number of reasons why Navy hasn’t been at its best in recent years. I’ll briefly touch on all them here:
- The Mids got extremely lucky this past decade with two super talented quarterbacks, Kenan Reynolds and Malcolm Perry. Those two were often the best athletes on the field in any given game during their time at Navy, and they elevated the whole team. Not only has Navy been unable to find the next Reynolds or Perry, they’ve been unable to find the next Ricky Dobbs – a quarterback who is consistently competent at running the option and poses a constant threat to defenses. Notre Dame fans should remember Dobbs leading Navy to wins over the Irish in 2009 and 2010, scoring a combined six touchdowns in those games.
- The transfer portal has hurt Navy. Players can leave the Academy after their sophomore seasons without penalty — and that’s always been the case — but those thinking about bolting may have been more inclined to do so recently, considering they no longer have to sit out for a whole season at wherever their new stop is. And while other teams in the American reload each offseason with Power 5 transfers, Navy simply can’t accept transfers.
- I also think that Navy’s triple-option attack has been somewhat neutered a bit by the new cut-blocking rules. When Niumatalolo took over more than a decade ago, there really were no restrictions, and the Mids’ offensive linemen could wreak havoc on defenses while opening up running lanes. In the past few years, the NCAA has gradually implemented restrictions on cut blocking – a key component of what makes the triple option effective. And this year, the NCAA banned cut blocking outside of the tackle box. A lot of folks say cut blocking is dirty, and if you’re of a team Navy plays on a regular basis, you probably hate it. But it is absolutely one of the crucial ingredients in making the triple-option effective.
- Last thing: I do think that playing in the American Athletic Conference has worn Navy down a bit. Simply put, the majority of players in this league are bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled than the players Navy lands in recruiting. Sometimes, those discrepancies can be minimized with scheme — and players executing that scheme at a high level — but, as previously stated, that gets harder when you don’t have a transcendent quarterback and when the NCAA is actively working to make your scheme less effective.
Do I expect Niumatalolo to fix it? I’m not sure. Assuming Navy loses one of its last three games, the Mids will finish with a losing record for the third straight season — something that hasn’t happened in two decades when Charlie Weatherbie was the head coach.
It’s convenient to say that the solution is to simply recruit better players, but that’s easier said than done, right? It would also be simple to say that Navy should leave the American and play a softer schedule largely made up of MAC and FCS teams like Army, but there hasn’t been any indication that the leadership in Navy is willing to pull the plug.
If Navy were in the SEC or Big Ten, a lot of folks would be clamoring for Niumatalolo to be fired, but Annapolis is a special and different place. Niumatalolo has built up a lot of goodwill — among the fan base, national and local media, and decision makers at the Academy — and is extremely well-respected and well-liked by a whole lot of people. As usual, the Army game will be key. If Navy wins that, a lot of folks will be able to easily forget the woes of the past season. If the Mids lose, those problems could bubble over.
2. Navy’s offense hasn’t looked fantastic so far this year, but they’ve had a couple games where they put up some points. Who are the names to know on that side of the ball, and what do they do particularly well/badly?
Mitchell Northam: Daba Fofana has really had a breakout year at fullback. He leads Navy in rushing with 502 yards and five touchdowns on 140 carries. Vincent Terrell II has had a solid season as an offensive weapon, totaling 380 yards of total offense.
Expect Xavier Arline to get the majority of snaps at quarterback with starter Tai Lavatai out. Arline is speedy and a decent option operator, but is limited as a passer. He rushed for 87 yards against Cincy last week.
3. Talk to me about this Navy defense — who are the key players and how do you see them holding up against an ND offense that struggles to pass but just ran roughshod all over Clemson?
Mitchell Northam: John Marshall has stood out at striker — a hybrid LB/DB position — on Navy’s defense. The senior flies around and makes a lot of plays. He leads the Mids in tackles for loss with 13, but also leads them in pass breakups with seven.
He has a forced fumble, five sacks and 72 total tackles on the year. Offenses have to account for Marshall’s whereabouts.
4. Who on the ND side, if anyone, are you most afraid of heading into this game? Is there anyone on the Navy side you think Irish fans should be afraid of?
Mitchell Northam: I think I would be worried about the Irish’s rushing attack, but Navy has been pretty awesome at stopping the run this season, allowing just 88 yards per-game, which is seventh-best in the nation.
5. FAN QUESTION:
What Navy players are out for the ND game?— Cheryl Russo (@CherylR01091480) November 6, 2022
Mitchell Northam: So, quarterback Tai Lavatai is out for the year with a knee injury he suffered against Temple. Daniel Davies has been handling kicks since Bijan Nichols suffered a leg injury in the preseason. Center David Hixon started the first six games this season, but has missed the last three with an injury. Bandit Taylor Robinson struggled with an injury for most of the season, but did play last week against Cincinnati.
6. FAN QUESTION:
What’s your favorite boat and why?— Ryan Kennedy (@RyanKWrites) November 6, 2022
Mitchell Northam: My dad – who served 20 years in the Navy – was stationed on the USS Wasp when I was a kid, so I’ll go with that.
7. FAN QUESTION:
Channel Tree would like to submit: "Which US Navy battleship best describes the state of your program in 2022?"— Sam Weyen (@SweyenFlu) November 6, 2022
Mitchell Northam: Not a battleship, but the 2022 Mids are the USS Nevada – powerful, but they haven’t shown it yet.
8. FAN QUESTION:
If ND and Navy agree to no forward passes in this game, who has the advantage?— Bohemian Separatist (@BohemianSepara1) November 6, 2022
Mitchell Northam: Most years I would say Navy, but man, Notre Dame’s rushing attack was really impressive against Clemson.
9. FAN QUESTION:
Hi Pat. First time long time.— Tyler Butler Sr. (@tylerbutler95) November 7, 2022
Why doesnt Navy play In The Navy by The Village People at their games? Would seem like a no brainer to the general populace, plus it's so catchy. I'm humming it right now
Mitchell Northam: I’ll pass your recommendation on to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and see what he can do.
10. Alright, time to get down to it: what’s your prediction for this game? Who wins, what’s the final score, and give your reasoning why.
Mitchell Northam: I think this game is going to be a rock fight with less than 20 total passes between the two teams. And I think the Irish have all the momentum after that Clemson victory.
It pains me, but I’ll take Notre Dame, 17-10.
Alrighty folks, I want to give a massive thank you to Mitchell for providing us with some excellent info on what to expect come Saturday as the Irish look to avoid the prototypical letdown game and keep their good times rollin’.
I encourage all of you to give Mitchell a follow on Twitter, as he’s an excellent follow for a number of topics including Navy football but also much more. If you’re tryna check out more of his work at WUNC, here’s their Twitter as well.
That’s it for this week — per usual, GO IRISH, BEAT NAVY!!!