The Navy Midshipmen are now 23-3 in their last 26 service-academy games following their 33-11 romp over the Air Force Falcons on Saturday in Annapolis. That’s a pretty impressive statistic… and yet it’s not the most amazing thing the Midshipmen have done against Air Force over the past 11 to 13 years.
One specific thing the Midshipmen were able to do in their 22-point pasting of their guests from Colorado Springs is that they went 3 for 3 on fourth downs. This means that Navy, in its last 11 games against Air Force, is 20 of 20 on fourth downs – that comes straight from Navy’s sports information office.
20 for 20 on fourth down? That defies belief and any easy description.
It is therefore the perfect lead-in to this Saturday’s game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. If Navy wants to pull off a special upset, it will have to do some remarkable things on both sides of the ball. Fourth downs are a very good place to start and – when you think about it – a good place to finish as well.
A couple of factors weigh heavily against the idea that Navy, a two-touchdown underdog, can win in South Bend. First, Notre Dame – though injured at a number of spots on offense – has a defense and (particularly) a linebacker corps which are a lot healthier than last year, when Navy’s offense was able to ring up very big numbers against coach Brian Kelly’s team. Navy can’t expect to glide through Notre Dame’s offense the way it did last year in Maryland. The playing field is likely to be tilted more to the Irish’s brute strength at the line of scrimmage.
A second reason victory is going to be very hard to attain in the state of Indiana is that Notre Dame saw a Paul Johnson offense a few weeks ago, when Georgia Tech paid a visit to South Bend. That level of film study will, in itself, prepare Notre Dame for what it’s about to see. The fact that Notre Dame clobbered Georgia Tech and smothered the triple option for three and a half quarters (before two very late touchdowns when the outcome had already been decided) shows that the Irish’s physicality up front will be hard for Navy to deal with. Georgia Tech’s running backs might have been new when compared to last year’s veteran group, but the Yellow Jackets returned four starters along their offensive line this year, and they were blown up by the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame’s combination of power and film study stands in the way of Navy’s ability to score.
These dynamics are imposing, and they are sure to make their way into Navy’s discussions as Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper figure out how to get a good performance from their offense this week. What does it all mean? Many things, but in particular, Notre Dame’s natural advantage in terms of heft at the line of scrimmage means that Navy is very likely to need four downs to keep the chains moving on multiple drives.
Time of possession is an increasingly less relevant statistic in college football these days, with the advent of quick-strike offenses at places such as Oregon, Baylor, and other teams which simply don’t have to have the ball in their hands to dominate opponents. However, in Navy-Notre Dame, it’s going to be at least half the battle for the Midshipmen. As the late Yogi Berra might say, “90 percent of this game will be half-based on Navy’s fourth-down conversion rate.”
Navy’s path to victory in this game is to approach a 38-, 39-, or 40-minute figure in time of possession. Notre Dame’s offense has been able to mow down Navy’s defense the last few years, so Navy has to focus on winning the game not just by scoring, but by keeping the Irish offense off the field. (A surprise onside kick is therefore something which should be considered if the Irish line up in a way which provides a gap or weakness that can be exploited.)
This means that fourth-down conversions will need to be made – and asked for – on several occasions. What was a 3 for 3 figure against Air Force might need to become a 5 for 6 total in South Bend. If the Midshipmen can reach or exceed that target while (obviously) turning those fourth-down conversions into points (it would be a waste if a fourth-down conversion at the 45-yard line turns into a punt moments later on fourth and 22), this becomes a game Navy can realistically win.
Navy has done so many good things this season, on both sides of the ball. Coordinator Dale Pehrson’s defense has answered the call with Buddy Green unable to coach inside the stadium. Everything about this season has come together so marvelously for the Mids. If all these good vibes and positive forces can be accompanied by a max-out performance on fourth downs, who knows how high this Navy team will be able to fly after it soared past Air Force in week five?
We can’t wait to find out.