Charlie Weis is not sure what is more difficult to deal with, a Navy team that is hungry to beat Notre Dame after losing every matchup for almost 50 years or a Navy team that knows that it can beat Notre Dame because it did so last year.
"That's a very good question that I don't know the answer to," he said. "I'd be lying if I sat there and gave you an answer to that one, because they both have their pros and cons."
He will find out this Saturday as the Irish head to Baltimore to play the Midshipmen one year after losing 46-44 in triple-overtime. Weis will use last year's game as motivation for his players.
"There's no sicker feeling than watching Navy celebrate after that game last year, after they stuffed us on the two-point conversion," he said. "If that isn't enough, if that isn't enough, then their memory is way shorter than mine is."
Navy changed coaches this year with assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo moving up to head coach to replace Paul Johnson, who left for Georgia Tech.
"Coach Niumatalolo is in his first season as a head coach. But he's been there quite some time as the assistant head coach and the offensive line coach. So the change in their offense has been slim to none," Weis said. "Coach (Ivin) Jasper had been there as the quarterback coach. He just moved up to the offensive coordinator/quarterback coach. He's been there for nine seasons, too, even though this is his first as the coordinator. So they just kind of just evolved the way they normally do, just moved the assistant head coach up to head coach and moved the quarterback coach up to coordinator and really haven't missed a beat."
The Midshipmen have certainly not changed identities either. Navy still runs the triple-option and runs it well, averaging 308 rushing yards per game, second in the country.
"It's the same Navy team and they're averaging over 300 yards a game rushing," said Weis. "Nothing changes with them. They're one of the best at what they do. They get in the red zone, they score. They've scored 88 percent of the time, and they get off to fast starts usually. They're outscoring their opponents in the first quarter, 91-69."
While the Midshipmen are second nationally in rushing, they're second to last in passing yards with under 67 yards per game. It seems it could be easy to stop a team when you know that they're going to run it, but they are so good at what they do that it is not.
"Every team that plays against them commits at least eight down there (in the box). So the little quick motions that they run forces people to adjust very quickly on the fly," Weis said. "Even if you had nine guys down there I think the one thing you still have to be able to do is you still have to be able to stop the inside run no matter how many people you had out there and it starts with the quarterback and the fullback."
Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was the quarterback who led Navy to its first win over Notre Dame in 46 years last season, but he is struggling with a hamstring injury and the job will fall to Jarod Bryant. Bryant has played most of the year although he was out with a shoulder injury and Ricky Dobbs filled in and led the Mids to a 20-point comeback win over Temple.
"Bryant's been their starting quarterback he was named their offensive captain. He's been dealing with a little bit of a shoulder that's limited him over the past few weeks but we expect to see him start," Weis said. "Kaipo played in the Temple game, looked like he got reinjured again. But they also used Dobbs and to be honest, looking at Dobbs, he might have the strongest arm of the three of them. But they're all system quarterbacks that do a very good job in their system."
Next to the quarterback, the most important position in the Navy offense is the fullback where Eric Kettani has had three 100-yard games this season.
"One of the bases for this offense is to have a bruising fullback. And Kettani definitely fits the bill," Weis said. "He's 6'1", 233, senior, veteran, runs hard, physical player and really is the centerpiece for this offense, along with the quarterback."
The Mids use slot backs to carry the ball instead of a typical halfback and Weis sees players at that position as well.
"A lot of times people talk about Navy just having a bunch of undersized overachievers. But you'd have a tough time convincing me that Shun White is one of those. He's a slot back. He's 5'9", 190. He's their most experienced. He's a legit 4.4 guy. He's a legitimate good player. He's dynamic with legit speed," he said. "(Greg) Shinego is their other slot back, and he's a guy that you can't just worry about running him because he's probably one of the better receivers coming out of the backfield that they've had since I've started looking at Navy."
The wideouts are used mainly as blockers, but can also hurt you as receivers if you forget about them.
"They always have big, physical wide receivers that block first and catch second. (Tyree) Barnes is their leading receiver and their number one physical blocker," said Weis. "(Curtis) Sharp 6'4", 239, the other receiver, between the two of them, they're big physical guys that block. And when you sell out to stuff the run, that's when they beat you on those play-action passes."
Anthony Gaskins is the anchor of the offensive line at left guard.
The Midshipmen are almost as predictable on defense as they are on offense.
"They play coverage. That's what they do. They make you just take what they give you," Weis said. "Buddy Green, I've known him a long time. He's the defensive coordinator there, also coaches the secondary. The one thing they've done very, very well this year is they've stopped the run. 30th in the country. Only given up 116 yards a game in the run game. And the perfect example of that is the last game they played against Temple. Temple carried the ball 37 times for 69 yards. So they averaged less than two yards a carry."
But Navy will mix up different fronts to accomplish its goals.
"They go back and forth between 34 personnel group and they do play some 33 nickel personnel group. But in both personnel groups they play both odd and even fronts. And they'll line up in odd and stem to even. They'll line up in even and play even," Weis said. "So you have to be ready for them going back and forth between those two fronts, especially coming off a bye week where they've had some extra time to go ahead and practice some of these things."
The defensive linemen make it easy for Green to mix between different fronts while being tough against the run.
"One of the reasons they've been good against the run, it starts with their nose tackle, Nate Frazer. 6'3", 287. Certainly not undersized. He's a pretty dynamic player. He's the guy you've got to worry about the most because he's very, very disruptive," Weis said. "Their defensive ends are a little bit undersized but they're very, very active and physical at the point, both (Jabaree) Tuani and (Matt) Nechak, both of them, are very similar players."
The linebacker unit also has the ability to shift between the various looks.
"The one linebacker who gives them the most versatility is Corey Johnson. He's their most versatile player. He plays both defensive end where he'll put his hand down or he'll walk in and rush when they shift to four down and he plays outside linebacker. No. 5, keep an eye on him," Weis said. "The other guy they do have that has some versatility with is (Ram) Vela, No. 34. Plays outside linebacker. He'll occasionally end up being a defensive end when they go to even as well."
The secondary is pretty solid with a number of returning players and Weis said that while it may be tempting to pick on the undersized Ketric Buffin at cornerback, few teams have had success doing it.
"A lot of times people want to say let's go after Buffin at corner because he's 5'7", 168. Well, he's a senior and the only time he's been beaten is when people have run stutters or something that some kind of move to go ahead and get by him," he said. "He's been pretty solid, as well as (Rashawn) King's been on the other side. They are willing to give up yardage underneath them. But the only way you get by them is if you do some kind of a move-go, because they're very good in not letting that happen."
"They have a good hidden yardage stat. They're averaging over 13 yards a punt return but only giving up 5.7 yards. They're gaining a good seven yards and six and a half yards in that facet," Weis said. "The field goal kicker hardly ever misses, he's 14 for 16. And they've got a new kick-off guy whose had seven touchbacks this year."