Trouble Spot #10 – Navy

Historian George Santayana would not approve, but the dangerous Midshipmen are near the bottom of our 2011 Trouble Spot rankings for Brian Kelly's Irish.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.

Trouble Spot No. 10 – Navy

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
– George Santayana

Trust me, I'm aware this slotting seems far too low, but the nature of Notre Dame's schedule – one that includes 10 teams capable of finishing anywhere from the lower portion of the Top 25 through #45-50 nationally, necessitates some tough decisions in this year's Trouble Spots rankings.

The Irish get Navy at home, two weeks after the season's first bye, and two games following their first week of 2011 preparation for the triple-option, an early October matchup vs. Air Force.

Frankly, a prime time game at a veteran Purdue squad and another likely on tap at Pittsburgh under new head coach Todd Graham both pose tougher game situations than this rematch with a Midshipmen team that throttled the Irish last October.

I'm not overlooking Navy…Notre Dame simply plays two handfuls of similarly talented/developed teams next fall, and Navy incurred a few key losses that should work in the Irish's favor.

Situation (date, time, location): October 29 at Notre Dame Stadium. Kick-off is set for 3:30 ET.

Navy/Irish Game Slot: Ideal for Navy as the game precedes a home Midshipmen matchup vs. Troy and follows a home date with East Carolina. Notre Dame, conversely, will entertain the Naval Academy one week after arch-rival USC hits town. The Irish travel to Wake Forest following the October 29 matchup with the Middies.

Numbers/National View of Navy

Underrated nationally in successive seasons, Navy outperformed projections in both 2009 and 2010. Nonetheless, the Midshipmen are again near the middle of the 120 team BCS pack, listed at #57 according to Lindy's, #56 by Athlon's while Phil Steele projects the Midshipmen will not match last season's 9-win total.

My View of Navy: Navy at its best is a difficult team to put down – one capable of staying in most contests with a bend-but-don't-break defense that compliments its ball control offense. It's to their decided advantage when the Midshipmen enter a second half within a touchdown of their foe or with a lead, especially against a heavily-favored opponent such as Notre Dame (or in the recent past, Ohio State), as the pressure turns heavily to the team expected to win, and win handily.

But that's merely a hypothetical for Irish fans to ponder entering the 2011 contest, because collectively, over the bulk of the last two seasons, Navy has simply been a better college football team than has Notre Dame – at least until last November when the Irish appeared to turn the corner. Navy has run the ball at will vs. the Irish and against a pair of coaching staffs, though the root cause of Notre Dame's recent failures was the inability of its offense to either capitalize (2009) or dent (2010) the Midshipmen's patient Cover 2 scheme.

The Irish have been unable or unwilling to run the football vs. Navy over the last two losses, a departure from the bulk of the previous four decades in which the Irish regularly pounded the ball down the undersized Midshipmen's collective throats.

Navy is a dangerous team, one with a mental hold over the current Irish roster, but key pieces to its defense – not to mention quarterback Ricky Dobbs – are missing following heavy graduation losses since the teams last met in October 2010.

Coach Element

A change at the top at Notre Dame likely saved the Irish program from an embarrassing continuation in a war of words with fourth-year Midshipmen head coach, Ken Niumatalolo, with whom the former staff took umbrage do to a hideous chop block by one of his players during the 2009 contest in South Bend, and a subsequent perceived sleight in the wake of the upset's post-game interview.

Niumatalolo has racked up 27 wins and three bowl appearances (including a blowout of Missouri in 2009) over the last three seasons, has never lost to rival Army, and recorded back-to-back victories vs. the Irish, not to mention a near-miracle comeback as a rookie head coach in 2008 (a 27-21 ND victory). He benefited greatly from the presence of since-departed triple-option triggerman Ricky Dobbs, and since ‘09, a developed, veteran opportunistic defense.

He has neither at his disposal in 2011 – though the bulk of his offense returns intact, including a well-schooled offensive front and 2010 game star, Gee Gee Greene.

2011 and 2012 will test the head man's coaching acumen: the former sans Dobbs with a rebuilding defense; the latter impacted by heavy graduation losses offensively.

Trap Game Potential

Non-existent, as Navy owns this group of Irish players and the new staff, but the "letdown factor" will once again rear its ugly, familiar head.

Notre Dame's first prime-time home contest in 21 seasons precedes its October 29 contest vs. Navy; complicating the matter further: that under-the-lights foe happens to be USC.

Win or lose, there's zero chance the South Bend crowd and Irish student body will reach the same fervor it enjoyed for the October 22 evening battle with the Trojans. Likewise, a loss to USC would make for a difficult week of practice for a deflated Irish program – and a victory would inevitably contribute to a lack of early-week focus by a group of excitable 18 to 21-year old athletes.

Of course, game film from last year's bludgeoning at the hands of the Middies should afford the Irish players – not to mention the staff on both sides of scrimmage – an opportunity to recharge and refocus, despite the letdown after a bout with the Men of Troy.

Unique Aspect of Defense/Offense

And herein lies the rub…

Navy's triple-option amassed an embarrassing 710 rushing yards (710!) vs. Notre Dame's 2009-10 defenses. Furthermore, its base 4-3 front and Cover 2 scheme on D has limited the Irish to 166 rushing yards on 50 carries, while recording three interceptions and forcing two fumbles. Navy's miscues over those same eight quarters? None.

The Midshipmen defense operates in conjunction with the team's offensive attack and mindset. The coverage looks to keep pass completions in front with a hit forthcoming, forcing offenses to sustain long drives before putting points on the board. Red zone failures plagued the Irish in the 2009 loss as the offense managed just 14 points despite racking up 452 passing yards. In 2010 the Irish disjointed, unfocused offense simply failed. Period.

November's defensive resurgence at the University followed the debacle in the New Meadowlands, and that collective four-game effort of stout scrimmage play afforded Irish media and the team's head coach a moment of reflection. In the wake of Navy's incredible success just weeks prior, Kelly offered no excuses, but referred to his team and notably, the defense's meltdown vs. the Naval Academy as "an aberration."

We'll find out in late-October 2011. Fool me three times…

Advantage Irish? The Notre Dame defensive roster and staff will have faced three triple-option foes in a calendar year (Navy and Army in 2010; Air Force in 2011) prior to its game week preparations for the Midshipmen. Moreover, Notre Dame will face Navy just two weeks after its 2011 bye.

Relevant Storylines

Revenge; bad blood (the teams exchanged dirty post-whistle blows last season); the potential end of civilized football society in South Bend as we know it...Just your standard stuff at stake.

Regardless of Notre Dame's game-week ranking or season-end record, if the Midshipmen win a third straight vs. the program, the goodwill and good vibes forged to date by the Brian Kelly era will take a serious, nearly impossible to repair hit. Only two of what would then be four losses in five seasons will be attributable to Kelly and Co., but that won't matter. Perception that Navy owns Notre Dame would be difficult to repair.

The Irish could overcome a loss to any other program (even Michigan) next fall. Navy is the singular must-win game of 2011.

Puncher's Chance for an upset? On a scale of 1-10? 10. I'm only part idiot...

Final Verdict/Prediction

San Diego State 35 Navy 13
Navy 76 East Carolina 35
Duke 34 Navy 31
Navy 35 Notre Dame 17

Navy football 2010 was neither as good as they looked vs. the Irish, nor as bad as they appeared the following week when it fell behind 24-0 at Duke (DUKE!), absorbing scoring drives of 68, 76, 45, 64, and 70 yards by the Blue Devils – then mired in a six-game losing skid.

2011 will mark the first season since '06 – Brady Quinn's final year with the Irish – in which the program handles and dispatches of, the lesser-talented teams on its schedule. And for the first time since '08, Notre Dame will lead the Midshipmen for the bulk of the contest, this time winning comfortably, though not without moments of angst.


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