Nov. 4, 2016
By John Heisler
Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 2016 Notre Dame football team plays three of its final four regular-season games away from home. The next two are at neutral sites against service academies, beginning Saturday in Jacksonville against Navy. Here are five things to watch as the Irish head into November:
1.Ball control will be critical. Navy’s option running attack generally produces longer-than-normal possessions—and that can limit overall offensive possessions for both teams. That means Notre Dame needs to be both patient and productive when the Irish have the football. Last week against USF, Navy’s seven touchdown drives averaged 8.6 plays and 77.1 yards each. “You understand that you have to be patient in what you're doing, understand that your possessions are going to be limited,” says Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. “If they are, you can't go out there expecting to score a thousand touchdowns. But, with that, you also have to understand when you do touch the ball, your ultimate goal needs to be a touchdown no matter how it comes. You start playing against Navy, your tendencies might turn to trying to slow the ball down just as much as they are, allow them to control the tempo of the game, respond on offense the way they're going about their offense. As a high-tempo offense, we find our success when we're up and rolling. So we’ve got to make sure when we're back out there, we're doing the exact same things we have been doing to be successful.”
2. The Irish need to score points. Even though Notre Dame has won five straight series games against Navy, the Mids have averaged 24.2 points in those contests. That suggests the Irish will need to put numbers on the board at EverBank Field. Says Kizer, “They (Navy) know exactly what they do (on defense). They know exactly who they are. They're very disciplined with that. When they're playing well, it's because they're locked into their four or five calls. They ride with them. When they have the experience and the smarts to lock into their keys, it's hard to get the ball past them. They like to keep things in front of them. They like to tackle hard and make big plays. I think the best way to combat that is to take what the defense is giving you. If they want to play off, keep things in front of you, we're going to take the five yards every time. As soon as they want to come up and get aggressive, maybe it's time to take the shot. You have to be able to ride with the game, make sure the ups and downs happen when they're supposed to. There's going to be opportunities to get the ball into these skilled positions hands, like K.J. (Stepherson) on the slant that turns into 50-something yards.”
3. The Miami game last weekend may not have been perfect . . . But the Irish comeback win proved football can be fun again for the Notre Dame squad. Says Kizer, “Now we're back in a position where we got a big win under our belt and had a little fun doing so. We're trying to get our momentum the right way. With that, you’ve got to smile, you’ve got to enjoy it. I'm definitely learning to appreciate the wins now from play to play and also at the game level. As long as we can continue to string them together, hopefully I'll have a couple more smiles on my face after games.”
4. This game means a lot in Jacksonville. This game officially is a Navy home game—with the Mids moving the rivalry around to locations around the country. The 2018 game is set for San Diego and the 2020 game, announced Wednesday, will be back at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. In the Annapolis Capital Gazette this week, Jacksonville Sports Council president and CEO Rick Catlett estimated the Navy-Notre Dame game would bring 25,000 visitors to Jacksonville and generate up to $15 million in overall economic impact. "The value to the city is tremendous. We are almost completely sold out of hotel rooms. Bars and restaurants are going to be filled. Then there's all the ancillary sales tax. It's really good economic development for Jacksonville," said Catlett, adding that any profit would be donated to local charities. Catlett said more than 50,000 military personnel live on Florida's First Coast, defined as the region located on the Atlantic Coast of north Florida and comprising the five counties surrounding Jacksonville. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay is located just 38 miles north in Georgia—and Jacksonville is home to a pair of major bases in the Naval Station Mayport and Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Navy athletics director Chet Gladchuk said he is already reviewing proposals to host the 2022 Navy-Notre Dame game and mentioned Baltimore, D.C, Houston, Seattle and San Francisco as just a handful of many interested cities. Catlett expects an attendance figure Saturday in the neighborhood of 60,000.
5. Navy will gain some yards, but the Irish need to get some stops.
Says Irish captain and linebacker James Onwualu, “It's really tough, almost impossible, to replicate how well Navy does it. So once you get into the game, it does take a little bit to settle in, get a feel for how fast it really is. Any look or any little taste you can get of this offense is beneficial, so the more you do it, the better you're going to be at it. The coaches have done a great job of being able to pull their main runs and their main objectives and give us examples of that from previous years, comparing the reps we've done in practice to actual reps of them running it. You can see how it's done and what corrections to make. It's an offense that is tough to stop, especially when you get them to third down. They're working for every single yard, especially with the style they play and how tough they are.”