While ESPN broadcaster Mark May may be right to knock the Irish when discussing the team's merits as one of the nation's best, the reality is that Notre Dame enters this game ranked 19th in the country, and is arguably only a few plays away from a perfect record. With an explosive offense led by several former Parade All-Americans who've finally lived up to their billing, the 2009 Irish are far from the young and inexperienced team which fell to Navy two years ago. Still, with the historic upset fresh in the minds of many of Navy's current players, the Mids will have no shortage of confidence heading into this game, and no shortage of incentive with a bowl bid on the line. Which personnel matchups will Navy need to win to vanquish the Irish? Here are three to keep an eye out for come Saturday.
How do you stop one of the premier playmakers in the country? That will be the question facing Navy's coaches this weekend, as they must contend with the explosive Notre Dame receiver. Tate, who many consider a legitimate Heisman candidate at this point, is not only incredibly productive, but immensely talented. A 5-foot-11 junior, he has elite speed and exceptional hands, and has developed great chemistry with Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The shifty wideout has accounted for nine touchdown catches this season, many coming off the jump balls and deep downfield throws from his quarterback, who also happens to be a legitimate Heisman contender. The task of covering Tate will likely fall on Navy cornerback Blake Carter, who has excelled in containing opposing receivers this year, and has shown the ability to consistently tackle seemingly more talented players in space. The problem for Carter against Tate and Note Dame, however, will be that the veteran corner won't always have the benefit of safety help over-the-top. It's unlikely that Carter can match Tate stride for stride, and if the Irish can take advantage of the athletic mismatch as the game goes on, it could be a long day for Navy's secondary.
While the Irish have an explosive passing offense and benefit from having one of the nation's best quarterbacks (Clausen) and wide receivers, Notre Dame may be more apt to try to control the line of scrimmage against Navy's undersized defensive line. Not only has this been Weis' strategy against Navy in the past, but it takes on new importance this year considering he'll likely want to protect Clausen (who has been bothered by an ankle injury) after backup Dayne Christ suffered an injury last week. The Mids had been playing stout against the run all year up until last weekend, when Temple running back Bernard Pierce ran for 267 yards against the Navy defense. Pierce's running style in very similar to that of Notre Dame's Armando Allen, who sat out last Saturday's game for precautionary reasons after being bothered by an ankle injury. Allen currently leads Notre Dame with 514 rushing yards on the year, and will be supplemented by the bruising Robert Hughes against Navy. Last week Hughes dominated Washington State, piling up 131 yards and a score in the 40-14 win. Containing such a thunder and lightning combination will be difficult for Navy, which will have to rely on linebackers Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer to stay disciplined in their gap assignment. Both struggled with this against Temple, and were all too often out of position when the shifty Pierce burst into the second level. To compound things for the linebacking corps, Navy will likely have to face off against Golden Tate in direct snap formations. While a daunting challenge, if Pospisil and Haberer can step up to the plate and corral the two Notre Dame running backs, then Navy's defense will have a chance in the game.
Talk about your classic "on-paper" mismatch. Navy's 5-foot-9 outside linebacker, while incredibly feisty off the edge and excellent in pass coverage, will be called on to contain one of the best tight ends in the country this Saturday in the 6-foot-6, 260-lb Rudolph. Not only a huge target and security blanket for Jimmy Clausen, Rudolph has elite athleticism for his size, and will often line up in the slot for the Irish. While Vela is a solid open field tackler for his size, he'll likely struggle in bringing down Rudolph on Saturday, and won't always be able to depend on underneath help from his fellow linebackers. To compensate for this, the Navy linebacker/safety hybrid will have to anticipate Rudolph's routes, and take advantage of his quickness to disrupt the timing between Clausen and his tight end. But watch out; Notre Dame will also split Rudolph wide in goal line situations and isolate him on cornerbacks. In such situations, Navy defender Kevin Edwards and Blake Carter will have to be on their toes (literally) to break up the fade route.