Who, and What, to Watch

Our weekly game preview offers a six-pack of questions for Irish fans entering Saturday night's contest with Navy at FedEx Field.

1.) Will the Irish Offensive Line Continue its Ascent?
Five yards per carry vs. North Carolina in a shootout win. Nearly 4.5 per pop against Florida State one week later. Most important, after suffering 14 carries that *gained negative, 0, 1, or 2 yards against Michigan, 11 vs. Purdue and a whopping 15 vs. Stanford, the Irish offensive front has provided a more consistent push, lowering that tell-tale total to just eight attempts vs. both North Carolina and Florida State.

The Irish O-Line played its best game of the season against Florida State, and weekly improvement remains the unit's lone focus.

"It’s gelling now and we’ll try to keep improving because there are a lot of things we could have been better at against Florida State," said starting center Matt Hegarty.

Expect success to continue Saturday at FedEx Field as the Irish rushing attack has produced a whopping 15 touchdowns and 739 yards in their last three outings against Navy, that after suffering through a 106-yard day in the only loss to Navy of the Brian Kelly era, 35-17 in 2010.

(One year earlier, the Charlie Weis-led Irish managed a paltry 60 rushing yards in a 23-21 defeat.)

If Notre Dame runs it well Saturday night, quarterback Everett Golson will have a field day in play-action.

(*Rushes of 1 or 2 yards that result in first downs or touchdowns are not included in the total as they are positive plays.)

2.) Can the Irish Score Touchdowns on Roughly Half?
Our "Points Per Possession" column published earlier this week detailed the lack of overall possessions that often plagues the Irish offense matched against Navy's ball-control attack.

In short, Notre Dame can expect as few as nine, perhaps as low as eight possessions Saturday night. If its the latter, they'll need touchdowns on at least half to provide a manageable scoring margin heading into the fourth quarter.

The goal in eight to 10 possessions is four to five touchdowns -- and no costly turnovers. (Anything inside either 25-yard line.)

Navy's defense compliments its offense with a basic premise: If the D can come up with one turnover, perhaps another stop on downs, and force one or two field goal attempts in the red zone -- and by chance force a punt -- it's won its share of the battle, because the Midshipmen offense will likely manufacture 3-4 touchdowns and 6-7 potential scoring drives of its own.

Notre Dame is unlikely to punt more than once Saturday night (just five punts in the last nine outings vs. Navy) -- if it scores touchdowns on half of its possessions, a 30-plus point outing will follow, and likely be enough to again subdue the Mid's.

3.) Will their Long-Shared Vision Contain the Option?
Asked Tuesday if he'd imparted any advice to first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder regarding Navy's option, Kelly offered that "this week" wasn't an accurate descriptor. It was rather a conversation that occurred nearly 10 months ago.

"Our philosophy is the same. We talked about it in the hiring process, philosophically how we wanted to go about defending it," said Kelly. "We worked together defending option when we were together, even way back when (Grand Valley State, 1991). So I had a pretty good idea. That hasn't changed much. 

"I think it was more about, how are we going to operate? Are we in three-down, four-down?  Are we in (regarding safeties) two-high, one-high?  Who is inside, who is outside? That kind of stuff.

"They create a lot of problems, and I think the most important thing is it's not whether you're athletic or strong or physical, it's whether you can be 1/11 of that unit and do your job, and get off blocks and make plays and make tackles.  That's why this offense is a great equalizer as it relates to size, speed and strength."

4.) You Are Now Entering Four-Down Territory:
For defensive coordinators, the next best thing to a momentum-changing turnover is holding an offense to three-and-out. Consecutive three-and-out possessions are especially demoralizing.

But what about an offense that prefers to use all four of its allotted snaps rather than defaulting to a punt after three downs?

That's Navy, and it's logical for an offense that considers a first-down gain of three yards as a positive play. 2nd-and-7? All they need is four, because when it's 3rd-and-3, the Midshipmen see two snaps to gain three yards for a fresh set of downs -- from most areas of the football field.

Said Irish sophomore safety Max Redfield, "The fact that they will most likely run first through fourth-down if they need to, we understand that. The fact that they do go for it on 4th down a lot, too. They want short yardage on fourth down and that makes them a lot different than other teams."

"When a three-yard gain (is positive), it's different."

Positive plays are the order of the day for Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds.

"If you give him the fullback, the fullback is going to get the football. I think it starts with an unselfish quarterback, whose understanding of the system is superseding any of his individual stats and accolades," said Kelly of the junior triggerman. "That is number one.

"Number two, (he's) an outstanding athlete with the ability to throw the football. He's not one dimensional where you'd say, okay, we're just going to lineup extra guys on the line of scrimmage because we know we can't throw the football. He's an accomplished thrower of the football. He can spin it on you and he can hurt you. 

"And then the third is that he's extremely elusive. He's put together pretty well…and because of that he seems to always fall forward for four or five yards. When you look up there, it's 2nd-and-4, and he does a great job of obviously managing the down and distance."

5.) Will These Five Continue, Or Begin, To Rise? Nick Martin, Amir Carlisle, Steve Elmer, Max Redfield, Greg Bryant Martin played his best game of the season in Tallahassee, a sign he's learned to play with torn thumb ligaments. Ditto Elmer, who 's settled in at right guard as a powerful run blocker.

Kelly noted Thursday that Carlisle appears back to his (outstanding) pre-injury form when he riddled Michigan's defense while Redfield is simply too talented not to impact games more than he has to date.

As for Bryant? The Irish offense has one more weapon waiting to be unleashed, and it's the redshirt-freshman.

6.) Can They Contain The "Varsity" Early?
To a man, Irish defender noted that adjusting to the speed in which Navy operates its offense is the matchup's biggest challenge. Matthias Farley said that it will always take a few plays, maybe even a couple of series. Jarron Jones echoed the senior's sentiments. Jaylon Smith took it one step further, offering "up to a quarter-and-a-half" as an adjustment period.

If it takes that long Saturday night, Notre Dame might need the fourth quarter to fend off the Mid's. Again.

"Let's be clear," said Kelly. "We're not playing a JV team. Keenan Reynolds is an outstanding player. You still have to have the players. What makes this team explosive as well is they have two veteran fullbacks in (Chris) Swain and (Noah) Copeland."

In both of Navy's recent wins over the Irish (2009-10) and in last year's close loss, 38-34 in South Bend, the Midshipmen offense shared a common denominator: a first quarter touchdown.

Conversely, in blowout losses (2011 and 2012), Navy didn't hit pay dirt until it was trailing by 14 and 28 points, respectively.

When Notre Dame and Navy are tied 7-7, a close contest usually ensues:

  • 2007: Navy ties ND, 7-7, with just four seconds gone in the second quarter, winning in 3OT, 46-44
  • 2008: Navy ties the score at 7 with 2:39 remaining in the second quarter, losing 27-21.
  • 2009: Navy took a 14-0 lead, won 23-21, and never trailed, nor were they tied.
  • 2010: Navy scored first, was tied by ND 7-7, then went on to score 21 straight en route to a 35-17 humbling of the Irish.
  • 2011: Notre Dame raced to leads of 14-0 and 28-7 en route to a 56-14 blowout win.
  • 2012: The Irish built a 28-0 lead before cruising to a 50-10 season-opening win.
  • 2013: Navy tied the Irish at 7 midway through the first quarter -- and never trailed by more than four points thereafter in a 38-34 defeat.

The speed of the machine -- coupled with the foreign, full-bore impact of consistent helmets and shoulder pads on a defender's knees -- has often made Irish defenses look slow and hesitant early. It's a reality of which VanGorder is well aware.

"They’ve gotta adapt, it’s an entirely different game," he said. "But these guys will. Our players, again, are high character, smart guys. They’ll adapt and be fine."

Or as Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock noted, "Navy's going to punch us right in the nose."

They will, but Notre Dame 2014 has proven it will punch back.

Notre Dame 38 Navy 21


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