A year ago Brian Kelly dismissed the “Navy hangover” as statistical fiction.
Then Notre Dame got drilled at Arizona State, which unceremoniously removed the Irish from College Football Playoff contention and began that season’s vicious downward spiral. It was enough to make Kelly a believer.
Notre Dame enters tomorrow’s showdown with USC looking to shed the post-Navy funk that’s been too regular to be an anomaly. The Irish are 2-6 the game after Navy during the past eight years, which stretches back to the Charlie Weis era.
Kelly is 2-3 in that spot, but even the two wins were suspect. During the BCS National Championship Game run, Notre Dame returned home from pasting Navy in Ireland to struggle against Purdue, needing Tommy Rees in relief to escape. A year earlier Notre Dame also blew out Navy but then labored at Wake Forest before surviving.
The upside for Notre Dame this time is that it survived Navy without a devastating injury – Joe Schmidt broke his ankle last year – even if the pain of cut blocks and infinite hustle remains.
“I’m sore after every game, but definitely after playing Navy you get a little bit more sore,” said defensive end Romeo Okwara. “Everything’s sore for me. You definitely have to get over that quickly.”
Just because the Irish struggle to move beyond the Mids doesn’t mean everybody does. This season teams are 2-1 the week after Navy, with the lone loss unsurprising when Connecticut fell at BYU. Last season FBS programs went 3-6 the week after Navy, with the red letter loss Ohio State falling at home to Virginia Tech after defending the triple option.
Two years ago, FBS programs went a completely normal 6-4 after facing Navy.
Does Notre Dame’s better prep for the triple option also make the Irish better prepared to move beyond it? There’s little doubt special assistant Bob Elliott’s deep dive into option football helped Notre Dame cruise past Georgia Tech and Navy. But how the Irish get back up to spread offense speed remains a question.
“We play Navy every year and it's one of those things you have to deal with,” said safety Matthias Farley. “It's a very physical game every time you play a triple option team because of the way it's played, so I don't know if it's a hangover. I don't necessarily agree with it being a hangover, but I think it's definitely something that guys have to recover from and then just keep on keeping on.”
Whether or not USC can hit Notre Dame early is in question after the Trojans’ opening five games. The Trojans scored touchdowns on their first drives in each of the first three games (Arkansas State, Idaho and Stanford) and nearly went 4-for-4 at Arizona State before Cody Kessler got picked off at the Sun Devils’ two-yard line.
USC got sacked on its first snap against Washington last week and Kessler got picked off on the Trojans’ third play.
Considering the tumult around Troy, whether or not USC starts quickly on Saturday night might hinge on Notre Dame’s fitness coming out of Navy and its ability to snap back into a higher gear.
“I would definitely say sometimes you're so used to running that different type of defense for Navy and things like that, so it takes you time to get adjusted to kind of traditional defense again,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Day. “We've definitely been working on it this week and making sure we get back to fundamentals of football.”