The Irish looked like the running game was turning the corner after solid performances against Purdue and Stanford, although not your better defenses. Running back Darius Walker ran over 100 yards in both games (146 and 153), the only two times he had done that all year. Then the Bruins came to town and the Irish ground game looked similar to the previous five performances, pretty much non-existent.
Tuesday in practice, the Irish were working on first and second down situations like they always do, getting prepared for a Navy team this Saturday they should be able to run against. Head coach Charlie Weis would generally like to run on first and second down and pretty much the whole game if he could, because running the ball means less chance of a turnover. At one point in practice, the Irish did a 20-play run sequence.
"More reps and times they can see the same play the better chance for success," offensive coordinator Mike Haywood stated.
"We always do those sort of things," Walker said. "Practice, we are trying to focus on ourselves as usual, just work on some fundamental things, techniques, work on what we need to do to get Notre Dame better."
"Obviously we've been stressing the run a little more, we want to get that game going," guard Dan Santucci said. "We usually have a pretty big run-play sequence in our Tuesday practice."
The ninth-ranked Irish (6-1) head into Saturday's game against the Midshipmen (5-2) in Baltimore averaging just 97.4 yards per game on the ground, ranking 99th nationally. While Weis holds everyone accountable from the offensive line, to tight ends to Walker, the players are quick to individually shoulder the blame.
"Critiquing myself I always think that as far as the play goes I can always be more physical, read quicker, get to the hole faster, those sort of things," Walker explained. "Just being able to read your blockers a lot faster because that always helps you understand what blockers are trying to take them or where the hole is going to be."
"I'm taking this week to get better at what I can do," Santucci stated. "I'm just focusing on myself and working on my techniques and the things I can do to get better to help this team. I'm just focusing on what I can do in winning my one-on-one battles."
Left tackle Ryan Harris, a four-year starter who was expected to be in the mix for the Outland Trophy in the preseason (awarded to the nation's top interior lineman) has surprisingly had his fair share of troubles protecting quarterback Brady Quinn's backside and avoiding mental mistakes. Yet he's had his plays where he has looked like an Outland candidate.
"I feel like I am letting my offensive linemen down when I don't play consistently," Harris said. "When you're letting any section of the team down, whether it be the offensive line, the quarterbacks or running back, you are letting the team down. For me as a player my consistent play is something I feel can contribute to this team, and my lack of consistency can be a fact that doesn't help us win games."
"We understand what we need to do be a better team and I understand what I need to do to be a better player," Harris later said. "I am willing to do and I want to do anything I can do to help my teammates so that I improve my play to a consistent level and help establish a running game. The better I play the better I think the offensive line plays. Each of us has an individual attitude that we want to be good for each other. I'm just the same as my teammates."
Navy proposes a get-healthy game for the Irish rushing attack. The Midshipmen, who switch up from a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive set, are average against the run allowing, 128.9 yards per game (57th nationally), but haven't given up this much size to an opponent this season. The Irish offensive line averages 291.6 pounds according to the media guide. Navy averages 251 pounds when they are in a 3-4 along its defensive line and 244.5 when in a 4-3. Defensive tackle Larry Cylc weighs 280 pounds in taking up most of the room. ND should have no problem getting a push against these guys.
To make up for their lack of size, defensive coordinator Buddy Green mixes up fronts and schemes, blitzes from all over, trying to confuse the offense, hence the change from a 3-4 to an occasional 4-3 formation. Green has the ability to do this because of the versatility of outside linebacker Tyler Tidwell. The 224-pound senior has 30 tackles and two-and-a-half tackles for loss. He had 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season, the second most in Navy history in a single season.
Normally bringing down the ball carrier is Rob Caldwell, who has 60 stops from his inside-linebacker position.
"They have undersized players at certain positions," Haywood said. "They do a nice job of slanting and angling, moving guys around, stemming into different fronts, not showing their blitz package, so they do a nice job disguising and doing those things. It's nothing we haven't seen all year."
"They might be undersized but they make up for it with their toughness and their effort," Santucci said. "They play hard every play and we have to go out there and play harder than them. Heart and playing tough is what they do and that's what we need to bring to the table to come out with a win."
When Navy does make a change in its defensive formation, Quinn will easily call it out at the line of scrimmage. If it's a 3-4 he will let everyone know by barking odd odd. If it's a 4-3 he will say down four or something. Against a 3-4 there is obviously more zone blocking then when you are finding a man in the 4-3. The play will hardly ever change.
"It's something we practiced from fall camp to spring ball," Santucci said. "We know both defenses, it's just something that when you get to the line you have to communicate with one each other."
The one area where Navy is at a huge disadvantage is the secondary. They don't bring in the type of athletes a typical Division-I school would, and against the talented duo of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, will be clearly overmatched.
"I think they rotate a few guys in and out so they are going to keep you on your toes with different looks they are going to show you," Samardzija began. "They do a lot of different things that make you as a receiver stay on your toes, keep your eyes open and maybe try to confuse here and there. On top of that they are going to play hard which everyone knows about and you have to play at their level and just be ready for anything. They are smart guys, it's not the easiest thing in the world getting in where those guys are playing, same thing of here for us. They are going to have a lot of different schemes in, especially coming off a bye week."