Nov. 2, 2016
By John Heisler
Check out all the factors that could come into play when Notre Dame’s football squad takes on Navy Saturday morning in Jacksonville, Florida:
Turnovers: Navy doesn’t make many mistakes—the Midshipmen rank 11th nationally in turnovers lost (with eight) and fifth in interceptions thrown (with three). However, in Notre Dame’s five straight wins (2011-15) over Navy the Irish have done even better in that category than the Mids, turning the ball over only seven combined times (never more than twice in any of those games) compared to nine for Navy (four in 2012, three in 2015). Navy is 24-1 over the last five seasons when winning the turnover battle.
Rushing: Navy comes in rated fifth nationally in rushing at 296.6 yards per game, but that’s hardly unusual. The Mids since 2004 have always ranked in the top 10 coming into their game against Notre Dame and twice (2007 and 2014) have ranked first. Navy since 2004 never has averaged less than 259 rushing yards coming into its matchup with the Irish and has averaged as many as 342.88 (2007) and 352.3 (2014). On a season-long basis, Navy led the country in rushing in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008—and finished second in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Navy quarterback Will Worth leads the team in rushing, averages 23 carries per game and has topped the 100-yard mark each of the last three games. Navy averages 55.2 rushing plays per game, has rushed for 26 touchdowns in 2016 (Notre Dame has half that many) and has individual team rushing games of 447 yards (vs. Memphis), 427 (Fordham) and a season low of 57 versus Air Force. Says Irish coach Brian Kelly, “We did some studies from other programs that had success (against Navy) and wanted to see some thoughts that other programs had that had gone against Navy multiple times, not just one time. We compiled all those thoughts and schemes and then sat down and said, ‘All right, what makes sense with what we do?’ And then we went to work from there. We installed some things that have been really effective, fine tuned them a little bit, and then Bob Elliott has worked directly with the graduate assistants that are running the scout teams to help them run the offenses effectively for our defense.”
Rush Defense: In Notre Dame’s five straight series wins, on a combined basis the Irish have limited Navy to 127 rushing yards below its team rushing averages (not counting the 2012 game that was the season opener for both teams). Meanwhile, in Navy’s three recent series victories (2007, 2009 and 2010) it combined to gain 92 yards more than its rushing averages. Says Kelly, “There are some differences in terms of fronts and coverages that we may play compared to what we did last year. But I think we've got a pretty good sense of the kind of system of defense we want to play against Navy. I think we found a system that we feel is effective. There's no system that is going to cover everything.”
Pass Defense: This area has not been a strong suit for Navy—with the Mids ranking 110th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Navy allows 250.4 passing yards per game, and the Notre Dame offense has been even better than that in averaging 263.8 passing yards per contest.
Passing: Navy’s numbers in this category are more than a little deceiving. Overall the Mids rate 120th in passing offense with 147.4 yards per game. Yet Worth, especially in games against Air Force and USF (both Navy losses), has been impressively productive. He completed 17 of 30 throws against Air Force for 260 yards and then went 15 for 25 for 299 yards Friday against USF. Navy has combined for five TD passes over its last three outings and the Mids rank second in the country at 19.47 passing yards per completion. Says Kelly, “They lose their starting quarterback and Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off. You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there's going to be a drop-off, but the production has been unbelievable. I think it's 500 yards per over the last few games, and 40-something plus points, and they're throwing it even better than they've ever thrown it with a multiple offensive formational set.”
Penalties: No team in the country is more efficient in this category than Navy. The Mids lead the nation in fewest penalties (16 in eight games) and fewest penalty yards (126). Navy also led the nation in fewest penalties in a season in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015—and ranked second in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
Points: Kelly expects his Irish to put points on the board. In Notre Dame’s five straight series wins, the Irish have averaged 47.6 points and 486 total yards per game against Navy. Meanwhile, Navy in 2016 averages 35.4 points per contest. Says Kelly, “If you're consistent at running the football, we're going to be scoring boatloads of points. That's why we run hot and cold at times offensively, because we haven't established that consistency running the football.”
Third Downs: Navy is one of the top teams in the country (ranking fifth nationally) while converting at a .511 pace on third down. Meanwhile Notre Dame is coming off its most productive game of the year in that category, with eight third-down conversions versus Miami.
Weather: The Jacksonville forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions, 72 degrees and 59 percent humidity Saturday. That shouldn’t bother the Irish considering they played their home game last weekend in 73-degree conditions. Plus, it was sunny and 77 in South Bend Tuesday for practice. If there is any concern, the Notre Dame travel party is headed to Jacksonville on an 8 p.m. charter flightThursday, so the team will have a full day to acclimate itself to whatever the conditions turn out to be. Meanwhile, Navy has had an extra day to prepare since its last game came Friday night in Tampa against USF.
Momentum: The Irish did not have much of this after consecutive defeats against North Carolina State and Stanford, but a win last Saturday versus Miami—and particularly based on the comeback nature of the victory—boosted Notre Dame fortunes in this category. Meanwhile, Navy is coming off only its second defeat of 2016, a 52-45 loss at USF in which the Mids came back from a 45-14 deficit and scored three TDs in the final 7:14 and four in the last 10:34. Navy scored five second-half TDs versus USF on drives covering a combined 393 yards. Navy’s 81 plays and 616 net yards against USF were high marks for 2016 for the Mids.
Decisiveness: Kelly used this word at length in the last week to describe what his players need to display—noting that the term means showing confidence in your own abilities, showing confidence in what you’ve been coached to do and showing confidence in your teammates. Says Kelly, “We talk about that openly as really a piece that still needs to grow within our football team. Some of that is just inexperienced players that have to trust in those three areas, and we just have to continue to work on those and be pretty transparent in talking about those things on a day-to-day basis. And then pointing them out when those opportunities arise in practice, and then spending time. Maybe it's DeShone (Kizer) and K.J. (Stepherson) spending more time on a particular route to build that confidence that he can go and throw that route without any indecisiveness.”
History: This is the longest continuous rivalry in college football—with this game the 90th consecutive meeting. Jacksonville and EverBank Stadium qualify as the 16th different site for the rivalry. These two programs also met in 2000 in Orlando (in a 45-14 Irish victory). Notre Dame has won its last eight outings against service academies and 25 of its last 29. Notre Dame’s history in Jacksonville equates to three Gator Bowl appearances (1976, 1998 and 2002).
Bottom Line: Says Kelly, “When it comes to defending Navy, they strike on such a broad front that you can't take away a particular play. They don't care if you take away the fullback--that's okay, they'll run the toss sweep 47 times. At times you're going to have to fight through a block to make a play. It never becomes a math equation where you can get an extra hat to a particular run play and outnumber them. You can't do it against this offense, so don't try. If you try to outnumber the dive or try to outnumber the quarterback in a particular defensive structure, they've got answers.”
Challenge: Says Irish captain and linebacker James Onwualu, “I like the fact that you can really zone in on what they're going to do. Depending on how much you really study and put time into this offense this week, it can kind of align you for the amount of success you'll have in the game. The tough part about it is you don't see this all year and all of a sudden it's on you. You just came from playing a great offense in Miami to a totally different offense in Navy. That's the challenge of it, just trying to flip your mind, be very assignment-oriented.”
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish football fortunes since 1978 as a member of the athletics communications team.