Notre Dame Offense vs. the Navy DefenseKyle Rudolph out. Theo Riddick out. Michael Floyd a game-time decision. Without Floyd, the Irish receiving corps, including its tight ends, has totaled an aggregate 30 receptions this season with three touchdowns.
The good news is that each of the five main targets sans Floyd - T.J. Jones, John Goodman, Duval Kamara, Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone - has played plenty of football, either this season (Jones, Goodman) or in his their careers (Kamara, Ragone).
And Eifert looked the best of the bunch in his second career start last week vs. Western Michigan.
"You don't replace Michael Floyd, but with Duval, he's a big rangy kid, so you kind of get the same look over there: he's a matchup guy that you can throw the ball up and he can come down and get it," Kelly noted of his senior backup plan.
"It's falling into place about where I thought it would," Kelly said of the corps re-shuffling this week. "But at the end of the day it's about the comfort level Dayne has and I think he felt pretty good today."
Dayne Crist enters the contest after one of his better outings of an uneven season, passing for 253 yards and three touchdowns; an 18-28 performance that included a late interception.
Plan of attack: While Crist's accuracy, patience and decision-making are crucial to Saturday's outcome, so too should be the Irish ground game. Armando Allen appears healthy; Cierre Wood brimming with confidence and senior Robert Hughes at the ready after his best effort of the season in the second half of last week's win over the Broncos.
Last year's Irish offense was limited to 60 rushing yards on 20 carries in the 23-21 loss. Previous Irish teams rumbled for 230, 235, 176, and 221 yards during the Charlie Weis regime. Post-game critics panned the team's approach last season as quarterback Jimmy Clausen squeezed off 51 passes – completing 37 – for a career-high 452 yards.
While Brian Kelly is cognizant of the need for a running game, the Irish head coach feels establishing something – anything – early, is more important than forcing one aspect of his offense.
"I think any game is important to establish, either the run or the pass, depending on what they allow you to do," Kelly noted Thursday. "This is a team that plays a lot of two-deep…and very deep. You'd think you'd have the opportunity to run the ball successfully.
"We know what we're going to get from a defensive perspective. (But) offensively, this is strictly about possession and putting points on the board. I don't really care whether we throw it 90 times or run it 80 times, this is about maximizing your possessions.
"If you look at last year's game, (Notre Dame) turned the ball over in the red zone twice, and that was the difference in the game. Points on the board."
Kelly's Irish executed just four hand-offs – for three net yards – in the first half last week vs. Western Michigan, but the Irish put 27 first half points on the board.
The second stanza saw 18 rushes by the tandem of Wood and Hughes for a combined 157 yards. Run or pass, the only thing Kelly's crew won't force is the deep ball.
"Quick strikes are not what their defense is going to give up," Kelly offered of the Navy defensive scheme. "They're going to keep the ball in front of them. They're very solid in their fundamentals, so you've got to earn it. I guess what they're saying is ‘go ahead, take five or six minutes to score, shorten the game, we'll be fine with that and we're not going to allow you to score quickly.' So we have to be extremely efficient on offense."
Six of Notre Dame's scoring drives this season have taken less than one minute off the game clock. But the Irish have also converted drives of 13 plays (Michigan), 9 and 11 plays (Michigan State), 9 and 14 plays (Boston College), 13 and 15 snaps (Pittsburgh) and 9 snaps (Western Michigan) into touchdowns.
Navy Nemeses: Graduated from the Midshipmen defense is wildly effective linebacker Ram Vella, who accounted for a head-shaking 9 solos (1 for loss) 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 pass breakup and 2 QB hits in last season's upset.
The Midshipmen are led by outside linebacker Aaron McCauley, who leads the squad with 50 total tackles, and the inside duo of Tyler Simmons and Max Blue (48 and 41 stops respectively). McCauley has 8 tackles for loss in six contests (the Irish are led by Darius Fleming's six TFL in seven games) while defensive end Jabaree Tuani has fought through shoulder injuries this season to notch 38 tackles including 7 behind the line of scrimmage. Tuani rarely practices, but always plays.
Also on the rise is senior outside linebacker Jerry Hauburger who played his best game of the season in last week's comeback win over SMU. Hauburger posted eight tackles (three for loss including a sack), and forced two fumbles. Returning Roverback Wyatt Middleton notched eight tackles vs. the Irish in last year's South Bend upset. Middleton also recovered Jimmy Clausen's game-changing fumble at the Navy goal line to end the third quarter.
The Midshipmen boast veteran cornerbacks in returning starter Kevin Edwards and 2009 nickel defender Kwesi Mitchell. Edwards forced Clausen's aforementioned goal line fumble last November and has accounted for a turnover in each of Navy's last four contests. The tandem has combined for three forced fumbles already this season.
Navy Offense vs. Notre Dame DefenseThe media theme of the week has focused on Navy's cut blocking practice and its borderline legal nature. And, despite Brian Kelly's proclamations that his team wouldn't think about the danger of the maneuver on game day, it was apparent in game week interviews that the practice weighs heavily on the defensive personnel's collective conscious.
"It's really about training your eyes. Where are your eyes?" Kelly offered of defending the triple-option attack. "Your eyes have to be specifically on a particular player. The (Irish) safety has to see that (Navy) slot. How's he releasing? Is he releasing wide? Is he running a wheel route? Is he releasing down and inside? So it's really training your eyes for three days more than anything else.
"And then, being able to play off the cut block. Those are the two things that everybody struggles with: training the eyes and that discipline, and then the ability to play off a cut-block. If you get those two things down you have a chance."
A Series of Success: Notre Dame's defense was shredded last season: 343 rushing yards including 10 carries in excess of 11 yards. Recent Irish defenses have also struggled to contain the QB/FB/pitchman attack, yielding 178 yards (an acceptable total for any defense vs. Navy), 257, 271 and 239 yards dating back through the 2005 season.
The '08 defense that limited Navy to 178 rushing yards surrendered only 242 yards of total offense but managed to keep the Midshipmen in the game as Navy threatened a miracle victory late, eventually succumbing 27-21 in the Baltimore rain.
Key Irish defenders Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith all appeared in that '08 contest while Darrin Walls, Ethan Johnson, Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Gary Gray have all been exposed to the attack since. Carlo Calabrese and Zeke Motta will get their first on-field looks Saturday in the New Meadowlands.
"Somewhat but nothing like this offense of course," Calabrese said of his familiarity with the triple-option. "This offense, watching film, is real quick. They're cutting you every play pretty much. They're very disciplined in what their offense does and they don't make mistakes."
Entrenched at inside linebacker vs. a game that will feature up to 60 rushes against his defense, Calabrese is ready to play a central role back in his home state.
"I need a bunch of tickets. Its 15 minutes away from my house," he said of the stadium. Everybody's going to be there."
While Navy earns its keep on the ground, the Irish know senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs is capable of burning them over the top.
"Well, that's the whole thing. They try to lull you to sleep and then throw one over your head," Kelly said of the difficulty of defending the Midshipmen. "It's the discipline that we'll need. Our eyes will have to be on our keys at the safety position. We'll have to stay alert at all times and that is the nature of their offense. They want you to let your guard down for one moment, and then put the ball over your head."
Dobbs did just that at a crucial time last season, hitting slot receiver Greg Jones for a 52-yard unmolested score down the heart of a confused defense – one that pointed more fingers at each other than they laid on Dobbs or Jones on the debilitating play.
Ricky Dobbs: Though his numbers are down due to nagging injury this season, Dobbs ranks as the most prolific college football player the Irish will face in 2010, totaling 2,077 rushing yards and 40 rushing touchdowns in his career. With four more rushing scores, Dobbs will move into 10th place on the all-time NCAA list for TD runs at his position.
Dobbs piled up 102 net rushing yards including a crucial 4th and G TD plunge in last year's contest vs. the Irish. The Midshipmen anchor ran for eight first downs and threw a TD pass in last year's Navy win.
Slotted: Returning speedster Gee Gee Greene (274 rushing, 205 receiving yards on 14 receptions) and Greg Jones (216 receiving yards on 11 grabs) are the chief threats on Navy's perimeter. Jones scored the aforementioned 52-yard TD in last year's matchup and Greene accounted for three chain-moving runs including two on 3rd down in the contest.
Alexander the Great…or the Great Regime Changer: Fullback Alexander Teich started the first five games of the 2009 season before yielding (due to injury) to backup Vince Murray. Murray as much as any other player on the '09 Irish schedule ended the Notre Dame tenures of Weis, Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown, rumbling for a game high 158 rushing yards on 14 carries…losing nary a yard on a single snap.
Murray is questionable for tomorrow's contest with a knee injury, but the senior Teich is back, totaling 229 yards on 54 rushes with 2 TD this season. Murray's damage has been similar, 55 carries for 283 yards and a rushing score. Either or both will be focal point No. 2 for the Irish defense, especially nose guard Ian Williams and whichever Irish inside ‘backer is responsible for that run fit on a given snap.
Miscellany:Navy has outscored its opponents 45-14 in the third quarter. "We have to be ready coming out of the locker room after adjustments are made in that third quarter," Kelly noted.
Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar likewise marveled at the Midshipmen's on-the-fly acumen.
"This is what everybody appreciates with Navy: how well-coached they are and how their team can go to the answers so quickly," he offered. "Whatever you do to try to stop them, they're so well taught, they don't even need the coaches (to tell them) they know right what the answers are, that's really a tribute to them to have a system they've stuck with and that the coaches and players believe in."
My Team's on the field: The Irish haven't featured excessive defensive substitutions through seven games, both by design and due to key injuries along the back line. Expect to see 12-14 key defenders again Saturday.
"Well we won't change personnel other than to give somebody a look," Kelly noted. "You won't see nickel or dime or things of that nature. From a defensive standpoint you'll see regular personnel (most) of the game."
Consistent snaps will likely result in high tackle totals for the inside duo of Te'o and Calabrese, not to mention the safety tandem of Smith and Motta, as banged up starter Jamoris Slaughter won't be at full strength for the contest. No Irish defense has seen its leading tackler finish with fewer than 10 tackles in this matchup since 1991.
Something for the grandkids: Navy's senior class is trying to join the Midshipmen Class of 1937 and the Class of 1964 as the only groups to beat Notre Dame three times in their career.
The 50-year war: Navy has won two of the series' last three matchups, but both of those victories occurred in South Bend. The Irish haven't lost to Navy outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium since 1960.
BCS Busters: Since 2003, Navy has won 17 games against BCS opponents, tied with upcoming Irish opponent Utah for the most by a non-BCS team during that span.
Vegas Says: Notre Dame was installed as a 6.5-point favorite (not a 4-point favorite as widely reported).
O'Malley Says: The days of losing to Navy are past, but the close battles that have highlighted the series since Lou Holtz left campus will remain the norm. Notre Dame's offense is simply too beaten up and too inconsistent to run up points aplenty vs. this Navy defense – one that functions to augment the team's efficient, clock-killing defense.
The key to Saturday's contest will be the play of the Irish outside linebackers, namely their ability to remain assignment focused – and upright – as I have no doubt senior nose guard Ian Williams will win the battle up front while sophomore ‘backer Manti Te'o will be light years better than he was in last year's matchup, the worst game of the future All American's Irish career.
Look for a big game from Gary Gray on the corner, Te'o on the stat sheet, and Williams as the key cog inside.