In advance of Saturday’s game vs. Navy, we reached out to Mike James of The Birddog, a Navy football blog, to help us preview the matchup.
What’s a Birddog you ask? Well, here is a brief history of the term.
“A ‘bird dog’ is just another name for a pointer. Pointers are a hunter’s best friend; dogs that track game birds and point at them so hunters can find them. The Naval Academy had a nationwide system of “pointers” in the 1950s and 60s led by the legendary “Rip” Miller. Instead of game fowl, though, these scouts looked for athletic talent. Scouts would identify high school athletes and alert Navy coaches, who could then begin the process of recruiting them. The similarity to the relationship between the hunter and his dog earned this scouting network the nickname, ‘Birddogs.’ The Birddogs were once labeled by Time Magazine as “perhaps the most extensive recruiting service in college football.”
So now that we all have a basic understanding, on to the questions.
OR: Navy started the season out hot, but have come back to earth over the past month. What has the difference been over the last four games?
MJ: The biggest difference is that Memphis and UCF are really good teams. The Temple game was more of a mystery. Ken Niumatalolo said he was “bewildered” over how his team came out in a funk against the Owls, and that he hadn’t seen a Navy team play like that in his 20 years at the school. That listlessness was a big reason why he made the decision to move Malcolm Perry, the team’s best ball-carrier, to quarterback; he felt the team needed a spark. It got one in the form of Perry’s 282 rushing yards in the win over SMU.
OR: Were Navy fans in favor of moving to the AAC or is there still a portion that wish to stay independent? How has the move benefited the program and what has been a downside?
MJ: Fans and media were split when the decision was made, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone against the move now. It’s been a huge boon to recruiting, especially in Texas and Florida. Navy’s made regular appearances in the polls, and they’ve played games of national significance deep into the season. The school’s goal when they joined the league was to ensure that the football program remained relevant, and that’s exactly what has happened.
Honestly, it’s difficult to come up with any downsides. I guess the only thing I can say is that it’s weird to see the team gain bowl eligibility but not know where the team will be headed. This is the first year that Navy will be part of the American’s bowl rotation rather than their own affiliation.
OR: Navy has been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the last 10-15 years. How have the Midshipmen been able to sustain that success and what must they do to keep that momentum?
MJ: Navy wins the same way anyone wins: with good coaches leading good players. Maybe that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it’s really the bottom line.
OR: Give me a player on offense and defense for Navy that ND fans should keep an eye on.
MJ: It’s tough to name a player on offense at this point; it’s questionable whether Malcolm Perry will play after getting hurt at the end of the SMU game, and we might not know who the starting quarterback will be until Saturday. The best bet might be slotback Darryl Bonner. Bonner hasn’t been as much of a factor this season with Perry’s move to slotback, but now that Perry is hurt (and presumably moved to quarterback), Bonner is once again the Mids’ best big-play threat.
Defensively, Navy’s best player is inside linebacker Micah Thomas. The traditional Navy ILB is more of a run stopping gap-filler, but Thomas has proven to be more versatile. He can step up to stop the run, but with three interceptions and two pass breakups, he’s shown the ability to drop back into coverage as well.
OR: Ken Niumatalolo has taken what Paul Johnson established and run with it. What makes him such a great coach? His name has been rumored with some high-profile jobs over the past few seasons, do you get a sense that he has been legitimately tempted to leave? How confident are Navy fans in the academy’s ability to keep him?
MJ: The thing that makes Ken Niumatalolo so great is that he sweats every detail looking for an edge. For a coach that has been so successful, he never acts like it. He constantly evaluates his performance and the performance of his staff to look for ways to get better. He never rests on his laurels.
There’s no doubt that he was tempted by BYU, and I’m sure he’ll listen whenever schools call. He truly does love the Naval Academy and the midshipmen, though, so it will have to take the perfect situation to make that happen. What “perfect” looks like is anyone’s guess; that all depends on the eye of the beholder.
OR: What does the Notre Dame rivalry mean to Navy fans? Is it a firm No. 2 behind Army as far as rivalries?
It’s #2 to me. Others would say Air Force, but to me, the Notre Dame game is a connection to the great Navy teams across different eras. Niumatalolo caught a little bit of heat a few years ago when he said that he’d choose to keep Notre Dame on the schedule over Air Force if conference scheduling forced him to pick one, but he was right. Recruits grow up dreaming of playing against Notre Dame one day. Nobody dreams of playing Air Force. Playing Notre Dame is a throwback to the days when Navy was college football royalty, and as such it’s invaluable.
MJ: What is your prediction for Saturday and how do you see the game playing out?
I don’t like to predict games since so much depends on how defenses choose to line up against the option. Not even knowing who Navy’s quarterback will be doesn’t help matters. After throwing the ball more than they probably wanted to against Miami, I think Notre Dame sees this as a “get right” game and will get back to running the ball, which should keep the clock moving.
It could be a close and relatively low-scoring game with limited possessions if Navy can move the ball too. Mike Elko has a track record against the option after playing Army while at Wake Forest, so Navy’s coaches should know what’s coming. Like most Navy-Notre Dame games, though, it’ll be tough for the Navy defense to get off the field.