Navy‘s offense, perhaps more than any other unit in the nation, is sure to stick what it does best: attack the field with its disciplined, time-tested, triple-option rushing attack. There aren't many secrets to the Midshipmen's overall game plan, but Weis' focus remains on what he and his players can control.
"I have the same concerns every week," Weis stated when asked Thursday what concerns he had heading into final preparations. "I'm more concerned about how we play than how our opponents plays
"One thing that is 100 percent guaranteed is Navy is going to play with high effort on every single play in every thing they do. If you don't match that effort, any (physical) advantage you could have goes out the window."
There's a short-list of in-game items for Irish fans to monitor Saturday, each of which will play a key role determining the tenor of the fourth quarter and margin for error in the final minutes.
- More and More Murray: Junior fullback Vince Murray has emerged over the last three weeks, topping the 100-yard mark in each contest. Like ex-Midshipmen fullback Kyle Eckel before him, Murray's contribution as the gut-shot option to the soft underbelly of a defense serves as more than the standard triple-option fullback who's role is to simply keep the defense honest. If Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson, and Brian Smith can limit Murray, Navy‘s offense won‘t likely keep Clausen and Co. on the sidelines.
- A Healthy Dose of Dobbs: Navy's most potent weapon is under center, as junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs leads the nation in touchdowns scored with 16 (while adding three more through the air). Weis and the Irish defensive staff are aware of his ability to hurt an unsuspecting secondary over the top: "He's No. 1 in the country at scoring per game," Weis began. "But the other thing he does bring to the table which we witnessed some last year, is that he Dobbs won't beat a good team with his arm, and the Midshipmen have no chance at catching the potent Irish offense if they fall behind early, but the athletic signal-caller could make the Irish pay downfield if an over-eager defensive back doesn't stick to his keys on every snap.
- Sustained Success: Navy ranks 12th nationally in a key stat for any option attack: 3rd Down Efficiency, The Middies have converted just under 50% of their opportunities but their churning style is reliant upon success on 4th Down as well and the Navy offense has preserved 61 percent of its downfield drives with 4th Down conversions along the way.
"You have to make the most of your offensive possessions," Weis explained of Navy's oft-discussed ability to "shorten the game."
"You know (entering the game) you're going to have fewer offensive possessions, so your margin of error decreases."
Weis also touched on the legal, but infuriating Navy practice of the cut-block. "We significantly practiced cutting at every position (this week). We had multiple guys (coming) at (defenders') legs so it was: ‘fend off, and fend off, and fend off.'" Weis stated.
"It's part of what they (the Midshipmen) do."
- Tag Out: Unlike Navy teams of the recent past, this collection of Midshipmen has found a way to get off the field defensively, ranking No. 10 overall in defensive 3rd Down Efficiency. How does a team with a collection of supposedly limited athletes find a way to compete with today‘s offenses (a group that has to date included Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Wake Forest, not to mention much-improved Temple)?
"On the other side of the ball they don't try to do too many things," Weis began. "Their points per game allowed has dropped significantly because they're playing with a bunch of juniors and seniors that have been playing together for quite some time and they understand (the scheme and plan).
Navy team‘s have always played hard, but this group, according to Weis, excels at an undervalued aspect of defense: "Believe me…they flow to the football."
- Watch the Fake: Weis was reminded of his special team's units debacle in Navy's late-game comeback last season (or as Weis referred to it Tuesday: "Before they recovered 9,000 onsides kicks…"). As you might expect, the Irish have prepared for every onsides formation and scheme imaginable this week, but it's the "nothing-to-lose" mentality Navy obviously possesses vs. the Irish that has Weis concerned. "You have to be ready for any gadgets. Why not use them.
A gadget play, one designed to score, undoubtedly awaits the Irish defense (or special teams) Saturday. If the Irish become too aggressive a pass defense that has struggled to play the ball in the air in one-on-one matchups could be vulnerable.
All Hands on Deck?
Weis ran down his team's injury concerns heading into Saturday's contest and revealed a few promising developments…well, at least for next Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Sophomore right guard Trevor Robinson (ankle): "Trevor is going to dress for the game. He can play if we need him to but we're going to try not to play him."
Junior half back Armando Allen (ankle): "I might not dress (Allen) for the game. (Doctors) told me he'll be a full go for (next) Tuesday. I could probably dress him and do the same thing (as he's planned with Robinson) and have him if needed, but I doubt that I'll end up doing that."
Kapron Lewis-Moore (ankle): "Kapron's fine. He didn't miss any practice this week."
Jimmy Clausen (turf toe): "Jimmy's fine. He's not going to run a 4.5 (40-yard dash) Saturday. But he can run the operation."
And that other guy…
"More than I would have thought," Weis answered when asked about the amount of contact returning star receiver Michael Floyd absorbed this week in practice. "We put him in a couple of blocking situations and he hit the ground multiple times in the week. Not that we were drilling him all the time, we weren't being stupid. But enough where he got those initial shots out of the way."
As for Floyd's expected participation level Saturday?
"He'll be in there plenty," Weis began. "He's got fresh legs. He's had a month and a half where he hasn't taken the beat down that everyone else has. He looks very spry."
The Bottom Line
With the exception of the 2007 contest in South Bend (famously won in triple overtime by Navy), the Irish have simply fielded a much better football team than has Navy. A better collection of talent is a given, and two years removed from the low point in program history, the Irish are not only more talented than the always ready-to-play Midshipmen, they actually might have more to play for.
A march toward a still achievable BCS bowl berth. A personal showcase for a duo of Heisman Trophy contenders, and a host of emerging young players that are battling for time on what has suddenly become a much deeper roster defensively.
"The last time we played here they won," Weis reminded the media on Thursday. "A lot of our guys were here then."
The revenge-minded Irish? A new twist to be sure, but this Notre Dame team won't need artificial motivation to handle Navy on Saturday. The group represents the best fielded by Weis since his first season at the helm, with a defense that has greatly improved vs. the run since Week Two and a defensive line that ranks as the squad's most impressive unit over the last three contests.
In the last two games, the Irish defense has allowed zero or negative yards on 20 of 48 first-down plays, a development that, if continued this week, would greatly limit Navy's ability to move the football vs. the Irish.
Navy is a popular pick this week as the Midshipmen have a history of playing well in South Bend. Unfortunately for the visitors, so too does Jimmy Clausen.
With an emotional lift from the nation's best sophomore receiver, the Irish roll: