Remember when Navy could be abbreviated as “W” within Notre Dame’s schedule?
It’s been a while since the Midshipmen were 43-year afterthoughts on the Irish slate. In fact, in the last eight years Notre Dame has been more likely to lose to Navy (three times) than blow out its service academy rival (twice). With three tight wins in that run, including last season’s 49-39 victory outside Washington D.C., the Mids are now officially a problem.
That doesn’t even get into the Navy hangover, with Notre Dame 2-6 the game after facing the Mids during this eight-year run.
Navy will be a handful again this season with quarterback Keenan Reynolds running the option. Of course, so should Notre Dame with a roster as deep as Brian Kelly has had, perhaps surpassing the BCS National Championship Game year. The Irish hammered the Mids by 40 points that season as talent overwhelmed scheme.
If Notre Dame routs Navy again, the same will likely be true. Because the Mids have a scheme that’s vexed Kelly, regardless of his defensive coordinator.
Here’s your first look at Navy, a growing headache that falls between Clemson and USC.
Last year Navy’s three games before Notre Dame went Western Kentucky, Air Force and VMI. This year it’s East Carolina, Connecticut and Air Force. With the Mids now part of the American Athletic Conference – as if they’d join a league by any other name – it will beef up their overall schedule and perhaps reveal a threadbare roster that could be hidden for just a few big games per season.
Navy also hosts South Florida and SMU, plus gets road dates with Memphis, Tulsa and Houston. That’s a big step up from Texas State, Western Kentucky, VMI, Georgia Southern, San Jose State and South Alabama.
“I don't know that anyone around Navy football really knows how it'll play out,” Mike Althouse, part of the Navy site on Scout.com. “For sure, we should expect more difficult games than prior years leading into the Notre Dame game.”
Althouse believes Navy’s talent is on the uptick with the AAC move after the Mids had multiple players attend rookie minicamps this summer. That doesn’t include Navy’s long snapper actually getting drafted in the fifth round, two rounds before Ben Koyack went as Notre Dame’s only draftee.
Navy’s incoming class would seem to back that up considering the Mids landed offensive lineman Andrew Wood, who had offers from Virginia, Duke, California and Vanderbilt. While he might not factor into the lineup this season, it’s a positive check for head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
If Reynolds stays healthy heading into Notre Dame this October, that game should mark his 37th career start.
The quarterback’s junior season was striking for its production and the curveball Navy threw at Brian VanGorder. Reynolds led Navy in rushing attempts, rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns. He nearly doubled up the next closest player in carries (250 to 129) and almost quintupled him in touchdowns (23 to 5). As Reynolds went, so went Navy.
Yet against Notre Dame last year, Navy got fullback Noah Copeland loose with 16 carries for a season-high 138 yards while slotback Geoff Whiteside put up five carries for 52 yards. Whiteside rushed for more yardage just once all season (Temple).
Reynolds posted 18 carries for 47 yards against the Irish. Those numbers weren’t completely out of character, but they showed how the Mids tried to beat the Irish with Reynolds playing the part of distributor.
Althouse believes Navy has the pieces to mix and match the rushing game again, even with new starters at fullback and slotback. Fullback Chris Swain does return after putting up 104 carries, 693 yards and four touchdowns last season. He had five carries for 21 yards and a touchdown against the Irish.
“Keenan Reynolds is a great security blanket, though,” Althouse said. “He's started since he was a (freshman) and is really an extension of offensive coordinator, Ivin Jasper, on the field. He has shown a great knack for putting Navy in the right play over the last three seasons.”
Navy doesn’t need to play the perfect game to push Notre Dame, although when the Mids do it puts the Irish under severe pressure.
When Navy blew out Notre Dame 35-17 in Kelly’s debut season, the Mids didn’t commit a turnover or get flagged for a penalty. Two years ago in a narrow Notre Dame win in South Bend, the Mids again didn’t commit a turnover (interception or fumble) or get flagged for a penalty.
Navy has earned the right to be confident coming to South Bend.
“I think winning three games in four years (2007, 2009 and 2010) was what turned that tide, pun not intended,” Althouse said. “Let's be honest though, those weren't exactly great Irish teams either, so that certainly helped.
“And as good as he is, Keenan Reynolds hasn't beaten Notre Dame yet. Notre Dame seemed to bounce back nicely in 2011 and 2012 as well. Navy still needs to play nearly perfect and Notre Dame needs to help some through turnovers or kicking field goals over scoring touchdowns. But I do think the pedestal that Navy fans had put the Irish on has been shortened somewhat.”