IT’S ALMOST TIME FOR THE FIGHTING IRISH IN IRELAND, Y’ALL!!!
It’s felt like forever since the glorious time of college football Saturdays has been upon us, but somehow also seems crazy that the 2023 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season is about to begin.
Tons of things have happened since the Irish’s dramatic Gator Bowl victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks in late December, and now ND fans are gearing up to watch their squad debut their shiny new QB, Sam Hartman, in much the same way they debuted a brand new QB eleven years prior — with a matchup against the Navy Midshipmen across the pond in Dublin, Ireland.
Obviously Hartman is just a bit more experienced than Everett Golson was as a redshirt freshman in 2012, and that 2012 team — though obviously awesome in the front seven and solid in the running game on offense — was certainly not as deep as this 2023 one. Thus, considering the way that season played out, Irish fans are cautiously optimistic this season, knowing there’s plenty of potential with a proven quarterback, excellent running game, an experienced defense with top-tier talent at cornerback, and young guns anxious to make their mark all over the depth chart.
But we also know there’s a slew of talented opponents from late September to early November who could derail Marcus Freeman’s hopes of making the College Football Playoff in his second season as head coach, not to mention some position groups like wide receiver, offensive guard, and safety who really need to prove themselves in order for ND to make that leap.
All of that is just to say that this is about to be a very interesting season, considering it could go a lot of different ways. Before we get to Ohio State or USC or Clemson or anyone else, though, the Irish must take care of business in the homeland against new coach Brian Newberry’s Navy squad. The Middies were bad last season, going 4-8 and leading their school to make a change at head coach, but they still managed to nearly pull off a massive comeback against ND in mid-November before the Irish eked out a 3-point win.
So, with a new coach and plenty of 2022 contributors remaining, what does this 2023 version of Navy look like as ND’s first opponent, and how will the Irish match up?
I’ll never pretend to be an expert on Navy football, and so I’ve once again reached out to Mitchell Northam, a Navy fan and former editor of Against All Enemies who’s now a digital producer at North Carolina Public Radio while also covering sports and pop culture for USA Today’s For The Win. Additionally, he published a book last year called High School Basketball on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: A Shore Hoops History.
I asked Mitchell a handful of my own questions along with SEVERAL fan-submitted questions by our loyal OFD Twitter followers, and Mitchell was kind enough to put up with all our ridiculousness and provide thoughtful insights for us all to munch on as we whet our appetites waiting for the first football feast of the season on Saturday.
So, instead of me rambling on any longer, let’s dive into the Q&A to see what all we NEED to know about the Naval Academy, y’all!
1. How do Navy fans feel about the move away from Ken Niumatalolo in favor of Brian Newberry? What will the new coach bring to the table and will there be anything major that he’ll do differently running the program?
Mitchell Northam: I think it was a really tough thing for Navy fans to grapple with. Niumatalolo was the greatest coach Navy has ever had in football, and that’s not hyperbole. The Mids went to 11 bowl games under his watch, won or tied for a share of the AAC West three times, and went 17-12 combined against Air Force and Army (and his teams beat Notre Dame three times!). He’s also someone widely liked and respected in Annapolis and by the college football coaching world at-large. Yes, things got rough in the final few years of Niumatalolo’s tenure, but most of the reasons why were out of his control. I wrote a bit about that here.
After Navy fans got over their frustration about how the Niumatalolo firing was handled by AD Chet Gladchuk, a lot of folks — myself included — were rooting for Brian Newberry to get the job. He’s brought some different energy to the program, but it’s not a complete rebuild. He’s a fresh face at the top, but not totally unfamiliar to how things work at an Academy.
He’ll focus on the defense — which was pretty solid last year under his direction, finishing sixth against the run and 30th in total defense — and let new OC Grant Chestnut run the offense. That side of the ball might have a few new wrinkles, but Navy is still going lean heavily on the triple option as its offensive identity. I don’t think fans will notice any major changes under his direction — at least nothing drastic right away.
2. Assuming Navy will continue to run that darn triple option offense, who are the names to know in terms of Midshipmen ball carriers whom Irish defenders will be trying to corral on Saturday?
Mitchell Northam: Oh yea — while Army is moving away from a traditional triple, Navy is still embracing it. Fullback Daba Fofana is back as the workhorse. He led the team in yards (769), carries (186) and rushing scores (6) last season. The starting slotbacks are two guys who haven’t seen a ton of playing time in Brandon Chatman and Amin Hassan.
Navy does return an experienced receiver in Jayden Umbarger, who caught 16 passes for 265 yards and two scores last year. Because he’s a veteran, he may get some more looks than a typical wideout in the triple system. And don’t be surprised to see Navy use Xavier Arline at multiple positions.
How different are their 2 qb’s?— Go Irish! Go Pack Go! (@mholly10141966) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: Great question. Unfortunately, I don’t know a ton about Blake Horvath. He’s a sophomore and didn’t play a single snap last season. But, because of Tai Lavatai’s knee injury that kept him out of spring ball, Horvath got a lot of reps this offseason. Based on what I’ve heard and read, it seems like the coaching staff likes Horvath’s ability and decision-making as a passer.
Of course, Lavatai has much more experience than he does and is a bit more impressive as a runner — in 18 games for Navy over his career, Lavatai has 680 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, and 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air.
3. Newberry’s defense has been the sole relative bright spot for Navy during the last few years — how much experienced talent are the Midshipmen bringing back on that side of the ball in 2023, and whom do you think will cause problems for the Irish offense?
Mitchell Northam: Indeed. This was one of the reasons why fans either wanted Niumatalolo to stay or Newberry to be his replacement — to keep this unit together. Navy is starting five seniors and six juniors on defense this year. Typically, when the Mids have an older and more experienced defense, it’s a sign of good things to come.
Jacob Busic is definitely someone to pay attention to at defensive end, where he has started 24 straight games. He had six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season.
4. How do Navy supporters view the longstanding series with ND? Do they want it to continue no matter how conference realignment shakes out, or are Midshipmen fans sick of the Irish and/or content with their service academy rivalries and AAC competition?
Mitchell Northam: I think most Navy fans respect the rivalry with Notre Dame — even though the record is way lopsided — and want it to continue.
Notre Dame is often the toughest opponent on Navy’s schedule and fans often see it as a measuring stick game, and one that obviously carries a lot of meaning and tradition. And I think playing it at a neutral site is always a cool and interesting wrinkle for players and fans alike.
Where is Notre Dame seen as a rival for Navy?— NDFanatics (@FanaticsNd) August 17, 2023
Obviously Army is No. 1, Air Force No .2, than Notre Dame? Or are they simply not seen in that light.
Mitchell Northam: Yea, you could easily argue Notre Dame is No. 3. Back in the day, it might’ve been Delaware. Maryland basically refuses to play the Mids (they’ve played just twice since 1966, both one-score wins for the Terps) and most of the AAC opponents still feel too new to have real rivalries with, though it feels like something can be built with East Carolina or Tulane. So, yes, I’d say the Irish are comfortably third.
ND leads Navy all time 79-13-1. Is it fair to say that ND does not respect the troops? Follow up, from '64 to '07 ND won every game against Navy, 43 straight. That includes the Vietnam war. Did Parseghian want the US Navy to fail in Vietnam and the Cold War in general?— Tyler Butler Sr. (@tylerbutler95) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: I would hope not, considering he was a Navy man himself who joined up after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But uh, no, he was not very kind to the Mids during his reign as the Irish head coach.
5. There’s apparently an August festival in Ireland called “Puck Fair” that involves a wild goat being caught and made king for 3 days in the village of Killorglin.
If Bill the Goat were chosen to be this year’s Goat King, what kind of monarch would he be, and what kinds of policies would he enact while king?
Policy One: Ireland must increase its defenses and surround the island’s borders with cannons.
Policy Two: It is illegal for the U.S. Naval Academy to lose a sporting contest on Irish soil.
Policy Three: He will be known as William the Goat; no longer Bill.
Should Navy start every drive with a 25-yard penalty for violating Irish sovereignty?— Ryan Kennedy (@RyanKWrites) August 16, 2023
Mitchell Northam: This is the next rule the NCAA is going to implement to try and kill the triple option.
Why doesn't the Navy simply blockade Ireland to prevent Notre Dame from making it to the game?— Jimmy Keena (@JimmyKeena) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: I’m not against this idea.
Why isn't this game being played on an aircraft carrier?— John Macke (@JohnPMacke) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: Yes. Let’s do this. Disregard the logistics and consequences.
7. FAN QUESTION:
Given their expertise in the field, which boat-tailgating fanbase do the Navy folks believe would win in a battle at sea? The Vol Navy at Tennessee, or the Sailgaters at Washington?— Harry Joe (@Joseph_Socks) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: I’m not sure if Pitt fans actually participate in sailgating, but the Panthers play in a stadium that is close to a body of water. And so, in any hypothetical fight, I’m taking the Yinzers.
Please rank the following words for boat: Clipper, Schooner, Catamaran— Pat C (@iamthetweeter) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: Schooner, Catamaran, (WIDE GAP) Clipper
What's more important: friendships or battleships?— Chicago Bar Boy (@hiztory_boi) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: Battleships provide security for friendships. So, the latter.
9. FAN QUESTION:
What effect would repealing the Third Amendment have on Navy recruitment? Free airbnbs wherever you want to stay could be an attractive perk.— Harry Joe (@Joseph_Socks) August 17, 2023
Mitchell Northam: Oh, this would be a massive advantage. The night before a given game, the Mids could just seize their opponents’ homes.
Head coach’s mansion? Get out. Quarterback’s dorm room? Get out. The school president’s house? Get out. This is great. Someone call the Supreme Court to open up the books.*
*Pat Rick Note: one of my favorite Twitter personalities, Jim Amendments III, would never stand for this.
10. Alright, let’s get down to it — who wins this game, what is the final score, and elaborate on how that happens.
Mitchell Northam: Notre Dame wins, but Navy covers the spread and puts up a solid fight. I think Navy’s defense will impress for the majority of the game, but ultimately the Mids will show that they have some things to work on offensively. Irish win in Ireland, 24-10.
Alrighty folks, I’d like to send an absolutely gargantuan thank you to Mitchell for yet again providing us with excellent information and analysis on what to expect in this season opener — he’s truly a gentleman and a scholar, as I’m sure you’d agree.
I encourage all of you to give Mitchell a follow on Twitter, considering he’s an excellent follow for a number of topics including Navy football, but also much more. Also, be sure to check out more of his work at WUNC (here’s their Twitter as well) and For The Win (Twitter).
Otherwise, enjoy pretending to work for the next two days and pretending to do anything productive on Saturday morning as we all just anxiously await the opening kickoff — GO IRISH, BEAT NAVY!!!