Swezey: Notre Dame-Navy a chess match

There is a saying at Notre Dame: To judge how good its coaches are, look to how their teams perform against the service academies, not Michigan and Southern California. Gerry Faust had a better record against USC (3-2) and Michigan (1-2) than he did against Air Force (1-4).

For many people, the final nail on Holtz's coffin was the overtime loss to Air Force in 1996 (he was gone by the end of the year).

Bob Davie did not lose to a service academy team, but he sure came close--to Navy in 1997 and 1999 and he needed overtime to beat Air Force in 2000. Willingham's teams nearly lost to Air Force (2002) and Navy (2003).

Put another way, I don't think it's a coincidence that Notre Dame's winning streak against Navy dates from 1964. That also happened to be Ara Parseghian's first year.

We will see how Charlie Weis's teams do against the other two service academies this year, but my guess is they will win rather handily.

As far as Navy is concerned, 36 of the 43 losses in the streak have been by two touchdowns or more. Navy did what it could on Saturday; early on, it was quite a chess match.

People laughed when Navy Coach Paul Johnson said Notre Dame defensive end Victor Abiamiri was so good the Mids may not block him. Yet we saw what he meant on Saturday. Early in the game, Navy ran a lot of straight option to Abiamiri's side. On those plays, they don't block the playside defensive end (in this case, Abiamiri). The offensive tackle chip blocks him and then moves to block a linebacker. The quarterback comes next and options off the DE.

Notre Dame adjusted by having its outside linebackers and safety Tom Zbikowski overplay the motion (much of Navy's option was run with a slotback in motion). That's when Navy called two misdirection plays--the run up the middle by Ballard after faking a toss sweep, and the reverse by Jason Tomlinson. The runs went for 15 and 26 yards, respectively, to set up the first touchdown.

They continued the misdirection on the next drive--a pass to Ballard off a fake toss and a few counter options to Campbell--mixed with a speed option that was designed to get to the outside before Notre Dame's defenders could get there; the defenders were going to read the play correctly, but it would be at least five yards or so downfield before they met the runner.

Notre Dame caught on to this, too, and moved a linebacker next to Abiamiri. Navy then ran toss sweeps to the other side. Notre Dame switched to a 6-2, with linebackers next to both ends.

This is where Bryant may have come in and started passing, but we'll never know for sure. Because this also is where the game stood when, at 24-14, Navy was called for the late hit out of bounds.

The body language of Navy's defenders changed significantly after the late hit on 3rd and 19. Navy finally had the stop it wanted, its offense was moving the ball and the defense was going to force Notre Dame's first punt in the series since the second quarter of the 2004 game.

Instead, the penalty kept the drive alive; while it almost certainly was a penalty (tho I've seen worse not called), that it came on the Notre Dame sideline didn't help. A tall order became increasingly taller. Navy was overmatched physically; early in the game, David Meek went to block Notre Dame LB Maurice Crum. Crum engaged Meek and then tossed him to the ground.

For the Mids, the game plan and, for the most part, the execution were there. Against a lesser coaching staff, Navy might have rushed for 500 yards. But Notre Dame doesn't have a lesser coach anymore.

On to Duke, with a lot to play for. Getting bowl eligible and also paying them back for some losses in the past, most notably 1997 and a blowout in 2002. I sat next to a representative from the Meineke Bowl on Saturday, and he mentioned Maryland was very interested in trying to get to that bowl. Well, the Terps have their six wins. Let's hope Navy gets there on Saturday.

Christian


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