Five Questions: Navy

We ask, they answer. GoMids.com staff writer Mike Althouse stops by Irish Eyes to answer five pressing questions regarding the Naval Academy entering Saturday's matchup with Notre Dame.

1. Memories of 2009, 2010, and more important, 2013 will hold Irish fans in a state of fear this week. Compare Navy's 2014 offense with the most successful Academy unit's of the recent past.

Mike Althouse: It may be hard to believe, but the 2014 offense is arguably more talented than the 2009-10 ones were, and is more experienced than the 2013 version. (Navy returned all five starters on the offensive line.) For whatever reason, corresponding results haven't presented on the field in terms of the W-L record.  Navy has run for 400+ yards in 3 of 8 games this season, and is averaging over 350 yards per game, but has also turned it over 13 times. 

Last season, Navy turned it over only TEN times.  Navy's strength this year is up the middle - center (Tanner Fleming and Blaze Ryder), QB (Keenan Reynolds) and FB (Noah Copeland and Chris Swain) are among the best over the past several years.  But missed blocks, wide open receivers that were overthrown, and terrible pitch decisions have been present throughout this year, as well as several injuries that have hurt offensive line continuity and forced some shuffling.  For Navy fans, the silver lining is that they're coming off their best performance of the season in last week's 41-31 win over San Jose State.

2. When Navy's running game has been slowed, has there been a common denominator? Is it merely the opponent causing turnovers? In other words, was Bob Diaco right when he (infamously) offered following the 2010 debacle that the triple-option "cannot be stopped"?

MA: Diaco frankly didn't really know what he was doing against Navy in 2010.  Mid's fans were kind of sad to see him go.  But the usual common denominator is a defensive line that keeps Navy O-Linemen from getting to the second level and being able to block linebackers and safeties.  Remember back in 2012 when Notre Dame dominated Navy in Dublin?  That was because the Irish had stud defensive linemen that Navy couldn't block and Manti Te'o ran free and made eight tackles.  Dan Fox had six more.  Navy has a fantastic play-caller in Ivin Jasper.  Where Navy usually gets an advantage is that we have two or three counters to a defense's strategy and the defense eventually runs out of cards, so to speak. 

That's what happened to Diaco's defense in 2010.  If the ND safety follows Navy's tail motion, expect a play-action pass to a receiver running a route in the area he vacated. Or a reverse. Or a lot of counter option. But where Navy rips off 10-15 yard gains against a team like San Jose State, those become 4-6 yard plays against a team with athletic talent like Notre Dame.  Another common denominator is well-coached defensive lines.  And by that I mean teams that simply accept Navy is going to cut block and players are coached up to fend those blocks off with their hands.  Rutgers under Greg Schiano was particularly good at that.  If you let cut blocking get into your head as a player, though, Navy gets an advantage because the defense will play slower since they're more concerned with the ankle biters than with where the ball is going.  

3. Irish fans remember Keenan Reynolds' 2013 exploits well. Who else should they be wary of Saturday inside FedEx Field? 

MA: Navy is deep at both fullback and slotback, although depth has been challenged at slot due to injuries.  Noah Copeland and Chris Swain are a tandem at fullback unlike any Navy has had in the past.  Swain is a bruiser while Copeland does everything so well that the coaches hate taking him off the field.  Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders and Demond Brown are the slots to watch out for, but Navy really goes 5 or 6 deep there and they're all the same sort of player - 5'10"-ish, 180 pounds, and quick.  And Reynolds is allegedly as healthy as he's been since the Ohio State game, so he's always one to watch out for.  On defense, expect to hear safety Parrish Gaines' name a lot.  Nose guard Bernie Serra is another good one because he's got size at that position Navy usually doesn't have.  At linebacker, watch out for Chris Johnson.

4. This is the best Notre Dame offense Navy has seen since 2009 (Jimmy Clausen), but that was a one-dimensional group. Can unit hold up for 60 minutes if its bend-but-don't break attack doesn't force red zone turnovers as it did to hold off the Irish in the '09 shocker?

MA: Honestly, I doubt it. This is a scary Notre Dame team for Navy. Like you said, that 2009 offense was good but one-dimensional. That allowed Navy to hang around long enough on defense to force a mistake by Notre Dame.  Everett Golson is exactly the type of quarterback that gives the Navy defense fits.  He's mobile and savvy enough (in my opinion anyway) to take what a defense gives and not force things too much.  If the Irish want to just run the ball all night, they can probably do that too.  Navy has not tackled well lately, which will be a kiss of death if that continues. 

They'll play the same "keep everything in front of you" defense as usual.  Navy will force an offense to snap it again in the hopes that eventually its foe will make a mistake through either a turnover or penult, or have to kick a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown.  Think about how many punts Notre Dame has had against Navy over the years -- you can probably count them on one hand.  Unfortunately for Navy I think this Irish offense is too good to not score a lot of points. There's a reason Notre Dame is favored by 2+ touchdowns.

5.) "Expecting to win" is likely an overstatement regarding Navy fans and this matchup. But has a seven-year run of success (three wins, two scares, two blowout losses) changed their perception of the matchup? Is this particular Notre Dame team viewed as a more insurmountable challenge? Or is that no longer part of the fan base's thinking? (I assume, of course, the players wholeheartedly believe they will win.)

MA: I think Navy fans are generally a pessimistic lot.  For me personally, I've been a Navy football fan since the 1980s, and there are some LEAN years over that time period.  It's been very hard for me to accept the success we've had since 2003 because I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But this is one game I generally go into the season counting as a loss. On paper, there's no reason whatsoever for Notre Dame to not dominate. We don't recruit from the same talent pool. Notre Dame has several advantages over Navy just from a program perspective - academic scheduling, military responsibilities, etc. 

Thankfully, games aren't played on paper or by fan bases. The players we DO get are exactly the types of people you want defending your country - and I really hate waving that flag - this is only a football game, after all. They don't quit, they're intelligent and they're tenacious. So, getting to your actual question - I think the smarter Navy fans take each year on it's own merits. This year will be a difficult one for us to win. We need to play near perfect - no turnovers and no punts - and Notre Dame has to help us out by making some mistakes.  I think we definitely expected to win in 2010, but that's going to be the exception and not the rule. ?


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