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Notre Dame vs. Navy: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Navy: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame returns home to face the Midshipmen Saturday, one week after crushing the hapless Cougars in San Antonio and one week before an away showdown with the 14th ranked and 7-1 Pittsburgh Panthers.

The Navy offense is potent and always offers a unique challenge for the Irish defense, but it is the Midshipmen defense that comes into South Bend as the best in recent memory.

Navy Version 2009

The Naval Academy is led by head coach Ken Niumatalolo who has maintained the rush-heavy, option-based offensive attack so productive during Paul Johnson’s tenure. The Midshipmen return 11 starters from a squad that finished 9-4 in 2008, ending the season with a 29-19 bowl loss to Wake Forest.

Niumatalolo’s troops enter Saturday’s contest with the 33rd best AV Ranking and a 6-3 record against the 72nd toughest strength of schedule.

On offense, the Midshipmen only run a handful of plays, but execute them to perfection—only fumbling six times despite read hand-offs and option pitches on virtually every play. Defensively, Navy plays a lot of base scheme with mostly zone coverage but are very active and swarm to the football.

Not surprisingly, the Midshipmen enter Saturday’s contest showing incredible discipline, ranking first in the country in penalty yards per game (31.2 yards) and ranking 36th in turnover margin (+4). Navy also controls the clock with an average possession time of 34:18 (2) due in no small part to an effective rushing offense and defense that excels on third down.

Offense

In 2008 the Navy offense garnered its fourth consecutive national rushing title. Obviously, the strength of this unit is the ground game. Because of this the total offensive numbers—42nd in scoring offense at 29.4 points per game, 79th in yards per game at 351.4, and 90th in yards per play at 5.1 yards per snap—are rather pedestrian.

But this ground attack is precisely what contributes to excellent offensive efficiency on third down (48.9 percent conversion rate) and scoring touchdowns in the red zone (75 percent) with a rank of 12th for the former and eighth for the latter.

The ground game isn’t overly efficient, but it certainly is effective. The offense averages 4.6 yards per carry (34), better than 279 yards a game (3), and have rushed for 30 scores (2), routinely performing at a much higher level than their defensive competition.

In other words, the loss of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and fullback Eric Kettani haven’t done much to slow the Navy running game.

Quarterback Ricky Dobbs and fullback Vince Murray lead the charge for the option offense. The former averages 3.5 yards per carry and nearly 75 yards per game while the latter gains 4.7 yards per rush and almost 71 yards per game. Running (or slot) back Marcus Curry rounds out the top three rushers with 8.5 yards per carry and just over 56 yards per game.

As expected, most of the numbers in the passing game are fairly average. Dobbs has completed 50 percent of his passes on the year for 77.2 yards per game, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. However, the Midshipmen passing attack is efficient, ranking fifth in yards per attempt (9.1 yards). Moreover, when Dobbs decides to go downfield, he has success. Navy is second in the country averaging a remarkable 18.4 yards per completion.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Midshipmen offense.

Navy Offensive Efficiency
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency48.81239.564
Red Zone Efficiency863082.265
Red Zone TD Efficiency75862.477
Navy Total Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game29.44225.657
Yards316358299459
Yards/Play5.1905.457
TDs34262759
Yards/Game351.479361.957
Navy Rushing Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards25183128967
Yards/Carry4.634462
TDs3021361
Yards/Game279.83156.265
Navy Passing Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt9.157.261
Yards/ Completion18.421266
Completion %49.311759.262
Interceptions36948
TDs31201256
Sacks17651950
Attempts/ Sack4.212017.147
Pass Efficiency131.150128.857
Yards/Game71.7118205.851

Defense

Lacking athleticism in the front four, Naval Academy defensive coordinator Buddy Green prefers to sit back, react to the ball, and force consistent execution. In this way Green’s defense looks much like that of Boston College.

Linebackers Ross Pospisil, Tyler Simmons and Tony Haberer lead the charge, each notching 50 or more tackles on the year. All three are very active and a very nice complement to standout safety Wyatt Middleton.

The defense is the surprise of the team in 2009, ranking 38th in scoring (21.4 points per game) and 27th in yards allowed (315.6 yards per game). Both values are primarily due to excellent play on third down, as the defense has allowed a paltry 29 percent conversion rate (6).

When opposing offenses manage to stay on the field they fare well as Navy’s defense struggles in the red zone (55th in red zone efficiency, 73rd in red zone touchdown efficiency) and gives up 5.3 yards per snap (61).

The run defense is fairly average as the Midshipmen allow 4.3 yards per carry (85) and 137.4 yards per game (59) against teams that don’t run the ball particularly well.

The defense appears much better against the pass. Despite an inability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Navy allows only 178.1 passing yards per game (23), has a pass efficiency defense of 116.8 (36), and has allowed only nine touchdowns through the air (31).

This production does however, come with an asterisk—seven of Navy’s nine opponents rank 60th or worse in passing yards per game.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Midshipmen defense.

Navy Defensive Efficiency
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency28.9638.762
Red Zone Efficiency815582.252
Red Zone TD Efficiency59.27358.559
Navy Total Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game21.43825.668
Yards284048296771
Yards/Play5.3615.372
TDs23522662
Yards/Game315.627355.375
Navy Rushing Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards123772137252
Yards/Carry4.3854.160
TDs10531260
Yards/Game137.459163.255
Navy Passing Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt6.5456.968
Yards/ Completion11.54812.158
Completion %57.1525773
Interceptions940857
TDs9311261
Sacks111041765
Attempts/ Sack22.39715.472
Pass Efficiency116.836126.168
Yards/Game178.123192.177

Summary

The Midshipmen feature a potent rushing offense coupled with a downfield passing game predicated on play-action. They will lull a defense to sleep with a barrage of repeated, well-executed running plays with complementing post-snap motions, and then go deep when opposing safeties come up to stop the run.

Defensively, this is the best unit Navy has fielded in some time. Green’s scheme is very read-and-react and the 11 on that side of the ball excel in this capacity. The production is excellent on third down and very balanced against the run and pass.

Despite the obvious disadvantage in talent, this opponent always poses a unique challenge for Notre Dame. So what must the Irish do to win?

Offense

  1. It’s all about first down. Against a Navy defense that is exceptional on third down and likes to keep everything in front, good gains on first down become critical to sustaining drives. Head coach Charlie Weis must mix the run and pass on first down and keep the Midshipmen guessing. Running back Robert Hughes needs to continue the recent trend of strong, decisive running and quarterback Jimmy Clausen must remain efficient and take the underneath gains. Long distances on third down don’t bode well.
  2. Red zone, red zone, red zone. Both the Irish and Midshipmen offenses are very good ball control units. In other words, there will be few scoring opportunities. Good red zone offense—particularly red zone touchdown efficiency—will be a necessity in this contest.
  3. It’s a game of plus territory. Navy is an effective running team and Niumatalolo has nothing to lose as the underdog. Both make defending the Midshipmen offense particularly difficult on the Irish side of the field. Inside the Irish 40-yard line Niumatalolo is just as likely to use four downs to move the chains as he is to attempt a field goal. It is extremely difficult to hold a run-heavy, option-based offense to 10 yards in four downs. The offense must change field position with each possession and good punting will be a necessity.

Defense

  1. Open the tackle-box. There will be one-on-one tackling opportunities all day for Irish defenders. Navy likes to use the fullback up the middle, but they also attack the edge with various sweeps and option plays. The Midshipmen receivers block well such that Notre Dame’s linebackers and safeties will frequently be isolated. Missed tackles will be very costly.
  2. Don’t let it be the Trojans and Eagles all over again. The Midshipmen may be a run-first team, but they can certainly go downfield with the pass, particularly off play-action. Against USC and Boston College the Irish defense surrendered a host of big plays in the passing game allowing both to sustain drives. The Irish must manage the opposing running attack with front seven to free up the safeties for the play-action pass. If Dobbs is allowed to extend drives through the air the Irish are in for a long day.
  3. Be disruptive, B-E DISRUPTIVE. There are two ways to defend the option: assignment football or attacking and penetrating. The Irish are far more suited for the latter, especially since Kyle McCarthy and Sergio Brown will be needed to defend against the vertical passing game. The front four must penetrate, force the issue, and cause quick decisions from Dobbs.

Summary

As always, possessions are limited against a strong rushing team like Navy. But opportunities will be even more rare with both teams ranked fifth or better in ball control. Scoring on each possession will be critical to the outcome of the game.

For the Irish offense this means improving their woeful red zone touchdown efficiency (54.5 percent). For the Irish defense, this means playing well against the run, particularly on first down.

The addition of Michael Floyd should help the former, particularly if Weis utilizes a running game that was dominant in the win over Washington State.

The Irish run and first down defense has also shown signs—albeit mixed ones—of recent improvement. Against USC and Boston College Notre Dame held both team’s primary ground threats in check, stuffing Joe McKnight and Montel Harris for the duration of each game. Against Washington State, however, the Irish struggled to stop a spread rushing attack.

First down defense has been eerily similar. Notre Dame allowed only 4.4 yards per first down play to Washington State and only 3.4 to Boston College. But the Irish surrendered seven yards per first down snap against USC.

Moreover, co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta must protect against Navy’s vertical passing game. The defense surrendered 18 gains of 20 or more yards through the air against USC and Boston College before settling in and allowing none against Washington State.

Ultimately Notre Dame’s athleticism should win out. The Irish boast too much talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and should have little trouble protecting Clausen against a defense that doesn’t pressure the passer. With Floyd back in the lineup and a defense that is building confidence, this one shouldn’t be close.

Notre Dame 31, Navy 17

Furthermore

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