Just Don't Lose, Baby

Notre Dame might win by 1; it should win by 20, but the program can't afford a third consecutive loss to the Naval Academy on Saturday.

An Irish loss to Navy Saturday would unearth three sobering truths:

  1. Notre Dame would be 6-6 in Brian Kelly's first 12 home games as head coach
  2. Notre Dame would fall to 4-4 for the second straight season following a Game 8 loss to Navy, making season-end program progress highly unlikely (hello Stanford!) after a 2010 season that ended well.
  3. Notre Dame's 2011 roster would likely rip apart at its fragile seams. (More on that in the final section below).

But a win? A win re-starts the engine. A win, no matter how attained, allows the Irish to go into November with a puncher's chance at a meaningful game in Palo Alto – for both teams – to conclude the regular season.

A win, by any means, is absolutely necessary. And though fans and media tend to overreact to any Notre Dame loss, a loss Saturday would, in no uncertain terms, be devastating; crippling. The carnage…well, I'll proceed across that bridge, and probably burn it, if necessary Saturday night.

The Equalizers

A pre-season IrishEyes magazine assignment asked for the Top 10 opponents Notre Dame would face this season. The inclusion of Navy fullback Alexander Teich was a no-brainer (#7, and I might have short-changed him). But he addition of slotback Gee Gee Greene in the 10-player honorable mention list was necessary, too.

The pair, and the positions they play, has collectively riddled the Irish defense for the last two seasons.

Teich's exploits vs. Bob Diaco's group last season have been well-documented, but a little-known fact contained within his 27 touches, 241-yard, touchdown performance?

0 yards lost. Never was Teich stuffed in the Midshipmen's backfield. Teich enjoyed success in a 2009 Navy win as well, rushing five times for 52 yards while his backup fullback Vince Murray earned game MVP honors, rumbling for 158 yards and a score.

Stopping the fullback must be Job 1 for Diaco's interior defenders.

"They've seen every imaginable (defensive) scheme," Kelly noted of Navy's front line. "(They) know what you want to do against three-down, four-down, all the different variations and coverages…and they're very, very aware of how to block each and every front they see.

"If you can't get off blocks and defeat blocks, (the fullback) is going to carry the ball a lot."

The Yin to Teich's Yang is the aforementioned Greene – a rare commodity in an academy team's triple-option offense. That is, he'll be the quickest player on the field Saturday when he and his cohorts take on the Irish defense.

The junior slot-back scored the game's decisive touchdown in last year's matchup between the teams, turning the corner for a 9-yard outside spring vs. the Irish defense to give the Mids a 21-10 halftime edge and momentum that never faded. His 13 career rushes vs. the Irish have produced 92 yards, and Greene's 2011 average of 8.5 yards per rush (34 carries) is somehow second among the team's slot-back weapons (John Howell has carried 24 times for 278 yards – an eye-popping 11.6 yards per rush).

Teich's hammering of the interior, of course, allows Greene, Howell, et al to function outside, the threat of the former's 4.8 yards per pop through the heart of a defense offering a crippling advantage.

"He's extremely athletic. He's not a guy that just drops his head and runs up inside," Kelly said of Teich. "So you've got a big, physical kid. He's got a heart of a lion. I mean, he's just a competitive kid. He makes it very difficult to defend, because inside out, they're very, very dangerous."

Navy's lowest rushing total vs. the Irish defense this decade was 178 yards in (go figure) 2008. Still, the Midshipmen hung tough, losing 27-21 (three rushing scores) with an outside shot to win on their final possession.

Notre Dame won't hold Navy to 178 rushing yards Saturday, that I promise. But holding the Midshipmen to under 250 rushing yards would go a long way toward keeping Navy's well-schooled attack to a final scoreboard number in the low-to- mid-20s – more than enough for a comfortable Irish victory.

Lions or Tin Men?

Brian Kelly's well-timed (in my estimation) or ill-timed comments (if you've enjoyed the last 15 years of Notre Dame football) regarding the "DNA" of some of his players has offended many – including his players – and roused most. Simply put, a coach calling out his players isn't popular these days because they're student-athletes, he gets paid, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

In fact, a coach calling out his players (I assume most of you know to what "it's in their DNA" refers?) is rare. Almost as rare as Notre Dame winning football games: the Irish have lost 16 of the last 31 times they've taken the field in the House that Rockne Built. Yes, it's reached that point. Notre Dame loses more often than it wins at home.

Is Kelly or his staff not without fault in this epidemic? Are you kidding? They've lost six games as the favored team, special teams have been sub par for 20 games, a ridiculous coaching decision directly impacted a last-second loss, the defense once yielded four touchdowns in the fourth quarter vs. its arch-rival, the offense ran fourteen times and passed 43 in its most recent humbling defeat, and last season, Notre Dame readily accepted a beating from Navy so severe and thorough that you wondered which team actually possessed more college football talent as the final seconds mercifully ticked off.

But this staff is not the problem, which leads us to Kelly's point: There's a reason Notre Dame, since Lou Holtz was forced out of town, loses as much as it wins despite more often than not possessing better talent than its given opponent.

Both unfortunate and true, it's Kelly's job to eradicate that heretofore unspoken roster reality – he might not be successful in the long run, but it's not up to the Irish fan, writer, or casual observer to choose his method.

Kelly laid down the gauntlet Thursday evening in what was likely supposed to be an innocuous post-practice interview session. If the Irish lose to Navy, Kelly will likely be blamed for the Great Divide he's created between "His recruits" and the rest of the lot.

(Of note: Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Robert Blanton, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson – Notre Dame's undisputed 10 best players this season – were all recruited by the previous regime. Just saying…)

But if Notre Dame wins Saturday's game, and the next, and next, and next (they'll be favored throughout), and marches into Stanford at 8-3 on Thanksgiving Saturday, what then will fans think of his Thursday revelation?

Actually, hold that thought: better to take care of the task at hand. After all, that's partly how Notre Dame got here (perpetual mediocrity) in the first place.

Notre Dame 41 Navy 28


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