Navy Ready to Battle Irishposted by John Vannie
Now that Dayne Crist’s knee injury sustained last week has been diagnosed as a torn ACL, Notre Dame’s main focus other than winning this game is to protect Jimmy Clausen from further damage. Clausen’s health is critical to the team’s ability to achieve its remaining goals this season, and the roster is painfully thin at quarterback. Meanwhile, the Irish will have starters Michael Floyd and James Aldridge available for Navy while guard Trevor Robinson and tailback Armando Allen will likely be held out.
Notre Dame should be able to rely on a power running game as opposed to Clausen’s right arm, and the Wildcat portion of the offense will also be used liberally. The Irish defense held the Midshipmen well below its rushing average last year in a 27-21 win, and will be expected to do the same this year. Navy has not developed much proficiency in the passing game, averaging only eight throws for 72 yards and a 50% completion rate.
Most fans remember last year’s game for the consecutive successful onside kicks executed by the Midshipmen in the final two minutes. This changed a comfortable 27-7 victory into a near disaster for the Irish, who also committed five turnovers and failed on a fourth down conversion that jump started Navy’s late rally. On the heels of an overtime loss to the Midshipmen in 2007 that broke Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak, the Irish really need a strong performance to reestablish dominance in the series.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NAVY’S DEFENSE
The Midshipmen will employ a similar defensive strategy that worked quite well last year, which is to defuse Notre Dame’s quick strike capability. They will try to force the Irish to throw short passes and execute consistently in the running game. This is also the plan that nearly worked for Boston College two weeks ago, although Navy does not appear capable of stopping this year’s Irish ground game without moving its safeties close to the line of scrimmage. Ultimately, passing lanes should be open for Golden Tate, who did not catch a single pass in last year’s game, and Kyle Rudolph, who caught only one for eight yards.
Despite the advantage of size and talent, fans should not expect Notre Dame to roll up 600 yards on the Midshipmen as they did last week against Washington State. Navy’s defense allowed only 369 and 363 to Pittsburgh and Ohio State, respectively, and played competitively throughout. Points will not come in bunches for the Irish, and will be earned the hard way. Another noteworthy statistic is that the Midshipmen have allowed a third down conversion rate of only 29%, which compares favorably to 39% for their Irish counterparts.
Floyd’s return to the lineup will be closely watched by Irish fans and undoubtedly by the Pittsburgh coaching staff next week in the film room. Although Floyd is not expected to be a significant part of the game plan, his mere presence will boost Notre Dame’s firepower by spreading Navy’s defensive resources more equally across the field.
The best pass defender for the Midshipmen is rover Wyatt Middleton while cover corner Blake Carter has excellent skills. Navy’s front seven is configured in a 3-4 alignment, which the Irish will see for the first and last time this season. Linebacker Ross Pospisil is the team’s best overall defender, and he has a knack for making plays behind in an opponent’s backfield. The overall unit is disciplined and tough despite its lack of size, and coach Ken Niumatalolo substitutes freely to keep the troops fresh.
NAVY’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Dobbs leads an option attack that is truly balanced. Fullback Vince Murray runs well inside and slot man Marcus Curry is the outside speed threat with an 8.5 yard average. Dobbs has recorded 16 rushing touchdowns despite missing almost two full games, but has thrown for only three. Curry and Mario Washington are the most dangerous receivers, but neither has more than eight receptions this season.
Notre Dame’s defensive linemen will not face any 300 pounders on Navy’s front wall. Ends Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal and emerging pass rush specialist Steven Filer should be able to bring pressure, but their biggest challenge will be to hold containment in the option game. Nose tackle Ian Williams should dominate inside, while linebackers Brian Smith and Manti Te’o need to stay in their gaps.
The Irish safeties figure to make a lot of tackles in this game, and neither Sergio Brown nor Jamoris Slaughter has demonstrated consistently good performance to date. Kyle McCarthy is solid against the run and figures to be a stalwart in this contest. Navy is sure to pull out a few trick plays and mix in more passes than their 2009 norm, so Notre Dame’s secondary must not fall asleep.
Preparation and the discipline to play assignment football should be enough for the Irish to prevail, but one short week of practice is rarely enough time to become competent against a fast paced option attack. The Midshipmen may take advantage of this early until Notre Dame gets used to the pace.
Surprisingly, the Irish did not dominate lowly Washington State in the return game last week, but Navy will provide another opportunity for them to break a punt or kickoff return and control field position. Once again, Notre Dame should not punt very often if at all, but freshman Ben Turk or veteran Eric Maust must start to show improvement. Navy will not score many points in this game if it has to drive 70+ yards, but they are more likely than the Irish by 73% to 56% to score a touchdown in the red zone.
Nick Tausch has been an outstanding field goal kicker for the Irish with a current streak of 14 straight. A missed extra point last week did not affect the outcome, but it served as a valuable lesson to take nothing for granted. Joe Buckley has been a very reliable kicker for Navy in the last month, while punter Kyle Delahooke gets above average distance although most of his punts are returned by the opposition.
Discipline is the key for Notre Dame. Offensively, unnecessary penalties have hurt the Irish this season, and a repeat of these same mistakes is the only way they can be stopped. On defense, physical superiority must be accompanied by sharp focus to avoid getting caught out of position. The team needs to take another step forward after last week’s success and dominate in all phases of the game. Navy played well against Ohio State in its season opener, but they should not pose a threat in the second half of this game.
Let’s take a look at a few questions that will determine the margin of victory:
Will Notre Dame be able to sustain drives by avoiding penalties and methodically moving downfield?
Can the Irish safeties keep Navy from making long scoring plays?
Will Dobbs be forced to put the ball in the air 20 times or more?
Can the Irish special teams keep Navy from starting drives in good field position?
Will Notre Dame exceed 200 yards rushing?
Can the Irish do better than a 29% conversion rate on third down?
Will Michael Floyd’s presence allow Tate and Rudolph to take advantage of single coverage?
Can the Irish offensive line keep Clausen from hitting the turf?
Will Notre Dame secure the outcome in strong fashion or will they have to hold on once again?
Notre Dame can find itself in a real battle if they are emotionally unprepared for Navy’s legendary intensity. Clausen’s leadership and Floyd’s return will help, but the key will be the offensive line’s ability to impose its will on the smaller Midshipmen. The defense, particularly the secondary, must not regress by tackling poorly and blowing assignments in coverage. It would be encouraging to see some life from the special teams, but I’ve almost given up hope.
Dobbs is another quality athlete in a long line of elusive Navy option quarterbacks, but the Irish linebackers are athletic enough to keep him in check.
NOTRE DAME 34 NAVY 10