Few things can strike fear in the fear of a Notre Dame fan like the Navy triple option. Notre Dame has won five straight over Navy, but rarely is the game without a few scares for the Irish. Despite the loss of Keenan Reynolds, the Middies again boast a formidable offensive attack.
While the Irish have struggled this season and Navy was ranked until last week, ND opened as a six-point favorite and that number has risen to 7.5.
Recent Series History
From 1963 to 2006, Notre Dame won a record 43 straight over the Midshipmen before infamously falling in triple overtime in 2007. That game set off a stretch where Navy was victorious in three out of four matchups including a dominant 35-17 victory in 2010, Brian Kelly’s first season.
Since that first matchup with Navy, Kelly has developed a winning formula. In 2010, Kelly ran the ball just 20 times, since then the Irish have run more than they have passes in every game vs. Navy.
2011 and 2012 were blowouts, while the Irish secured a 38-34 win in 2013 when then-freshman Jaylon Smith thwarted Navy on a fourth down reverse.
In 2014, the Irish were cruising to a 28-7 lead late in the first quarter before Everett Golson threw a costly interception that completely altered the tenor of the game. The Middies, led by Keenan Reynolds, made a furious comeback and took the lead in the second half before the Irish offense righted the track and Justin Utopo sealed the game with an interception.
Last season’s game was tight in the first half before the Irish overpowered Navy in the second half and rolled to a comfortable win over one of the best Navy teams in program history.
Gameplan Against the Option
Because of ND’s struggles against the option, the Irish hired defensive analyst Bob Elliott prior to the 2015 season to devise a game plan to defend the attack. That hire has paid dividends as the Irish held Georgia Tech and Navy at bay a season ago, but the question is can the Irish duplicate that effort this season?
The good thing is much of the inexperience on the ND defense is in the secondary, which will be a non-factor Saturday. Notre Dame’s front seven matchup very well with Navy, plus Drue Tranquill thrives when he is given the freedom to freelance in the box.
All that being said, Navy will score points. Quarterback Will Worth (stupid spelling) is more of a bowling ball compared to Keenan Reynolds. Last year, Reynolds could beat a defense to the edge, while Worth is more likely to try and run over a defender.
Momentum is more important in this game than any other game on the Notre Dame schedule. This is Navy’s Super Bowl and if they get an early lead, they can ride it for four quarters.
Navy’s efficiency on offense puts pressure on the opposing offense. The Middies often put together long drives that soak up the clock and limit the possessions of the game.
Navy’s biggest strength is that they never hurt themselves with penalties and turnovers. Their cut-blocking negates any holding calls and for as much as they pitch the ball on offense, they often win the turnover margin.
Another factor to consider when defending Navy is that they annually lead the country in fourth down attempts and conversions. They aren’t afraid to go for it in their own territory and understand for as good as their offense is, they need to take risks to score against an athletically superior opponent.
Notre Dame Offense
The challenge for the ND offense will be to not press and take what the Navy defense gives them.
The Irish generally have a field day vs. Navy’s defense because of the size and athletic mismatch, but it only takes one fluke tipped pass interception to make the offense feel like they are behind the eight ball.
The Notre Dame offensive line has been one of the biggest disappointments of 2016, but look them to have their best game of the season and create enough holes for the Irish to have two 100-yard runners in the contest.
If, however, Kelly continues to fall in love with the passing game, ND will be in trouble.
As mentioned earlier, a fast start is important for both teams. In 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2015, Navy scored on their first offensive possession. If Navy gets off to a hot start, they will be in the game until the end, if Notre Dame can establish themselves early like they did against Miami a week ago, the Irish will be in position to cruise. Anytime you can have an option team playing from behind, you hold the cards.
Navy has been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side since Ken Niamataloulo took over. He may be the most underrated coach in the country and saves his best for ND. For perspective, Navy lost all five offensive linemen, their entire linebacking corps, and their best player since Roger Staubach from last year’s team, yet they were nationally-ranked a week ago and are in position for another 8-9 win season.
Navy will start fast like they tend to against the Irish, but if ND can stay committed to the running game, they will be in position to win. The weight of Navy’s defensive lineman mirror that of safety’s and linebackers at other D1 schools. The Irish can simply lean on the Middies and get six yards per carry. That type of dedication to the running game, however, has not exactly been a hallmark of the Kelly tenure, so anything is possible.
This game will be very similar to 2013 and 2014. Close in the second half and Notre Dame will have to limit their mistakes on the offensive side of the ball and the defense will have to come up with a fourth quarter stop to seal the win. I am going to trust ND’s success against the option from a year ago and their experience on the defensive line will make the difference. ND wins 45-40.