Tim Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame vs. Navy

Notre Dame’s preparation and performance against Georgia Tech has a carryover effect for the Irish since Paul Johnson was the architect of Ken Niumatalolo’s Navy attack.

Navy head coach

Ken Niumatalolo (8th year at Navy) – Niumatalolo, 50, was Navy’s successor to current Georgia Tech head Paul Johnson, taking over full-time prior to the 2008 season. With a 4-0 start to the 2015 campaign, Niumatalolo has fashioned a 61-35 record as Navy’s head coach, which includes 10 victories in 2009, nine victories in 2010 and 2013, and a winning record in all but one season (2011).

Niumatalolo became the fastest coach in Naval Academy football history to reach 50 wins (81 games). His 61 victories are the most in school history. He joined Eddie Erdelatz (1956-57) and Wayne Hardin (1960-61) as the only coaches in Navy history to defeat Notre Dame in back-to-back seasons (2009-10).

Under Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen have won 21-of-24 games against Air Force and Army.

Key personnel

QB-Keenan Reynolds (Sr.) – Master of the Navy triple-option attack. His 25 victories as a starting quarterback are the most in Navy history. His 73 career touchdowns are the most in NCAA history by a quarterback. He’s rushed for 3,674 yards and passed for 3,063 with 25 touchdown tosses.
FB-Chris Swain (Sr.) – Keenan Reynolds’ complement in the Navy rushing attack with 1,505 yards rushing in his career, including 126 on 11 carries and a touchdown vs. Colgate and 123 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown against East Carolina in the first two games of 2015.
LB-Micah Thomas (Soph.) – One of just three underclassmen in Navy’s offensive/defensive starting lineups. Paces the Midshipmen in tackles (32) and solos (18). At 249 pounds, a larger version of the typical Navy linebacker.
NG-Bernard Sarra (Sr.) – Veteran anchor of the Navy defensive front. A 26-game starter, including each of the last 18. Dropped 50 pounds between his freshman and sophomore year to put himself in position for success.
DE-Will Anthony (Sr.) – Led all Navy defenders with 11 tackles for loss in ’14. Off to a solid start in ’15 with team-leading three tackles for loss and 1½ sacks. Credited with two of Navy’s five fumbles forced.
OG-E.K. Binns (Sr.) – Veteran of Navy’s offensive front with 24 career starts.

What Navy does well

Win: The Midshipmen come into Notre Dame Stadium with a 4-0 mark. That makes Navy 10-1 in its last 11 games, including a 17-16 Poinsettia Bowl victory over San Diego State as a three-point underdog. Navy’s current eight-game winning streak is the fifth longest in the FBS.
Run the football: Navy’s 338 yards rushing per game in ’14 was the most by a Midshipmen squad since 2007 when they averaged 349 yards per game on the ground. They’re sitting at 339.8 yards per game so far this year and a 5.8-yard average per carry.
Protect the football: Navy has lost just one fumble on 262 snaps, 234 of which have come in the running game.
Convert on third down: Navy ranks fourth nationally in third-down conversions with a 53.8 percent success rate (28-of-52), including 13-of-17 vs. East Carolina and 8-of-12 against UConn. (See “Third-down conversions” below.)
Limit scoring: The competition – Colgate, East Carolina, UConn and Air Force – hasn’t been stellar, but as a new member of the American Conference, it’s been much worse in the past. Navy has allowed just 60 points in four games (15.0). Since 2002, the Midshipmen have allowed less than 20 points per game for a season just twice.
Takeaways: Navy has forced nine fumbles, seven of which it has recovered. With two interceptions, that’s nine takeaways with just one fumble lost by the offense. Navy is tied for fourth nationally with a plus-two per game turnover margin.

Where Navy struggles

Third-down defense: The Midshipmen ranked 100th nationally in third-down defense in ’14, allowing a 42.9 percent conversion rate. Allowing 39.6 percent so far this season, that ranks 84th nationally.
Third-down conversions: Here’s an anomaly with this category listed as both a strength and a struggle. Navy’s offense typically is very good on third-down conversions, and overall, the Midshipmen are fourth nationally. But they were just 3-of-9 against Colgate and 4-of-14 vs. Air Force.
Defending the pass: Six of the seven touchdowns scored against Navy so far this season have come through the air with just two interceptions on 120 attempts. One of every 20 passes has gone for a touchdown.

Kelly’s Call

“The response (to the loss Clemson loss) is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for. To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not (vs. the Tigers). There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing at times. We got great effort and we finished strong.

“So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. But we need those four key components.”

Odds and ends

Notre Dame and Navy square off on the gridiron for the 89th consecutive season. That’s the most games against any rival for the Irish, just ahead of Purdue and USC at 86 times each…The Irish won 43 straight against the Midshipmen from 1964-2006. Since then Navy is 3-5 against Notre Dame, although the Irish have won four straight…The Irish are 14-0 vs. Navy in Notre Dame Stadium in the month of October…25.21 percent of Notre Dame’s plays have gone for at least 10 yards, which ranks 11th in the country. The Irish also are 11th in 20-yard plays, 13th in 30-yard plays, 7th in 50-yard plays, 6th in 12-yard running plays, and 3rd in combined 12-yard runs/20-yard passes…Since 1970, only C.J. Prosise and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail have posted 100-yard rushing and 100-yard receiving games in the same season. Prosise became the first Irish running back to gain 100 yards receiving in a game since Larry Parker had 184 yards receiving against USC in 1970…Notre Dame has eight touchdowns of at least 50 yards, which matches the most for a season since 1992…The Irish defense forced Clemson into six three-and-outs. Notre Dame is third nationally in that category, forcing a three-and-out 37.14 percent of the drives it’s faced. Only Michigan (45.31) and North Carolina State (39.22) have been better…For just the fifth time since 1971, Notre Dame has scored at least 22 points in each of its first five games.

Prister’s breakdown

There are more convenient opponents than Navy to take on when coming off a loss. But that’s where the Fighting Irish find themselves this Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium when they try to rebound from a heartbreaking 24-22 setback to Clemson.

At least Notre Dame has the advantage of playing against Navy’s triple-option attack three weeks after stonewalling Georgia Tech’s offense. When the Irish took to the practice field earlier this week, Brian VanGorder’s defense had a specific alignment and attack in mind for the Midshipmen.

Ken Niumatalolo’s Navy squad is in a position to analyze the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech tape and make counter moves to VanGorder’s plan. But at least the Irish have a basis from which to start.

What makes this an even trickier assignment is a Navy football team that looks to be Niumatalolo’s best since his 2009-10 squads when the Midshipmen won 19 games in two seasons (with plenty of Paul Johnson leftovers). Not only were those juggernaut Navy offenses, but it also was the zenith of his defenses. Navy allowed just 19.4 points per game in 2009, which slipped to 27.3 points per game in 2014.

So far, Navy has been as stingy defensively – the Mids have allowed just 60 points in four games – with Dale Pehrson replacing long-time coordinator Buddy Green. Meanwhile, the maestro of the offense, quarterback Keenan Reynolds, may be the best decision-making quarterback since Navy became a true triple-option juggernaut under Paul Johnson.

Reynolds enters the Notre Dame game with 73 career rushing touchdowns, five shy of the all-time FBS record. In just four games this season, he’s added nine rushing scores to his tally sheet. More importantly, his decision-making in the triple-option accentuates the other assets of the attack, including fullback Chris Swain, who has 361 yards and four scores as a complement to the running dynamic Reynolds offers.

Reynolds has thrown just 27 passes so far this season for 265 yards, two of which have gone for touchdowns. As always, the Irish have to be prepared for the unexpected in the passing game, particularly with safeties that have shown a vulnerability to the big play through the air.

Despite Navy’s sparkling numbers defensively – they’ve allowed just 15.0 points and 333 yards total offense per game – the question remains as to how stout the Midshipmen defense can be against an offense as prolific as Notre Dame’s.

Notre Dame’s numbers ballooned with the 62 points and 681 yards total offense against UMass. And yet the Irish are scoring at a rate (37.2 ppg.) that hasn’t been seen around these parts since the end of the Lou Holtz era when they regularly tallied at a 35-to-37-point pace in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

Does Navy really have the troops on defense to curtail an attack that is averaging 507.2 yards total offense per game (ranked 13th nationally) and 250.0 yards rushing per game (also ranked 13th nationally)? That’s doubtful, especially when Notre Dame sends an offensive line onto the field Saturday that will be hell-bent on proving the 116-yard rushing effort against Clemson was a fluke.

As always, when playing a triple-option attack, possessions and a maximization of those possessions will be critical in deciding a winner in this game. If Notre Dame is limited to nine or 10 possessions and can score touchdowns just four or five times, it might not be enough if Reynolds and his offense is clicking. Navy has scored 34 and 39 points against the Irish in each of the last two seasons, including a 24-0 run last year at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., that erased a 21-point Notre Dame lead.

This is a veteran Navy team with all but three starters on offense and defense younger than junior and senior status. They’ve beaten up on FCS Colgate (48-10), East Carolina 45-21), a projected frontrunner in the American Conference, offensively challenged UConn (28-18), and academy rival Air Force (33-11), which won 10 games a year ago, including a 30-21 victory over the Midshipmen .

The victories over East Carolina and Air Force and the way they were accomplished are noteworthy. But Navy must now take on Brian Kelly’s best team in three years with an offense that is ready to get back to the explosive tendencies displayed through the first four games of the season and in the fourth quarter against Clemson when the Irish scored three touchdowns.

In other words, this is Notre Dame and Navy at their best right now, which points to a high-scoring affair, unless the Irish can duplicate their defensive performance against Georgia Tech. That’s always an uncertainty against Navy’s triple-option attack, even with a blueprint for success in VanGorder’s back pocket.

This is an X and O aficionado’s dream game as moves and countermoves are sure to occupy both coaching staffs from start to finish. It’s a cliché that the Midshipmen never give up. It’s a cliché because it’s true.

Also true is that Navy – which surrendered 533 yards total offense to Notre Dame last year – still shouldn’t be good enough defensively to throttle an Irish attack with a balance Navy’s defense has yet to encounter. Dale Pehrson’s more aggressive approach to defensive football could play into the hands of Notre Dame’s big-play offense.

If the Irish were coming off a come-from-behind victory at Clemson, a hangover would be more likely. Navy gets Notre Dame’s best effort, fights back to stay in contention, and then eventually succumbs to the superior football team.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 14; over-under 56
Prediction: Notre Dame 42, Navy 23
2015 Season Record: 3-2 straight up; 0-5 vs. points; 3-2 over-under

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