Evaluating the Irish: Navy Midshipmen
Each year, prior to the start of the season, every Notre Dame football fan, whether they admit or not, goes through the schedule to evaluate what kind of final record we can expect for the year. We do it by ourselves, we talk about it with our friends, on message boards, and participate in polls. Even here at Clashmore Mike, we did it.
“Purdue? Win. Michigan? Probably a toss up. Michigan State? Again, a toss up. USC? They’ve had our number. Loss. Navy…? Win.” In our minds, we mark a “W” next to Navy for the same reason most fans hesitantly mark a “L” next to USC—in the past, we’ve had a stellar record against Navy and USC has recently been a tough opponent. College football and its rivalries are cyclical and even though Navy had been downed by the Irish 43 consecutive times, they have since been a much stiffer opponent. Simply put, Navy is a much better team than they used to be. It isn’t a cop out, but it’s the simple reality that Navy isn’t the same team that Notre Dame beat 43 years in a row.
After Saturday’s loss, some of my friends, who are all Ohio State fans, said, “Navy is a tough team. They ran all over us last year and almost beat us.” Yes, Navy has evolved from the doormat that used to be on Notre Dame’s schedule in years past and they executed their game to near perfection on Saturday, but that doesn’t make up for the litany of problems that Notre Dame created for itself. Some of them were a fluke and some will continue to plague the team throughout the rest of the season.
Preparation without execution is useless knowledge.
In the week leading up to the matchup against Navy, Brian Kelly made news by declaring that the Irish defense had been working on stopping Navy’s offense for quite some time. In the four weeks leading up to Navy, for just a little bit each practice, the Irish worked on some of the unique schemes that Navy would present.
“We’ve had to find time—five minutes here, ten minutes here—just to become more acquainted with it. We’ve been focused on the next opponent, [but this week] isn’t the first time our guys are going to see it or hear about it.”
However, all of that preparation didn’t do Kelly’s team much good. The offense that Navy runs was one of the primary concerns for the new head coach as he, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, had little experience with their unique look. And despite all of that preparation by Kelly and his staff, Notre Dame still struggled to stop a potent Navy rushing attack and imposed their will on Notre Dame’s defense. Navy entered the game with one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, partly because they rarely throw the ball, and partly because their entire offense is groomed to move the ball on the ground.
This season, Notre Dame’s rushing defense had been one of the strongest aspects of the unit, but it proved to be no match against Navy’s ground game. Navy’s backup fullback, Alexander Teich ran all over the Irish defense for 210 yards on 26 carries for a 8.1 yard average. Navy’s quarterback, Ricky Dobbs (Side note: maybe it’s just me, but with all the political commercials on, doesn’t that sound like a great name for a politician?) accounted for four total touchdowns: three on the ground, and one through the air. Dobbs ran the ball almost as much as Teich, with 20 attempts, but totaled significantly less yardage, with 90. However, Dobbs managed to score three rushing touchdowns.
Like I said earlier, this isn’t the Navy team from a few decades ago. They are a potent offense with an incredible ability to move the ball and chew up the clock. And even though the Irish spent more time than usual preparing for the Midshipmen, it still didn’t do a bit of good. Let’s just hope that this was a fluke and won’t become normal operating procedure for the Irish.
The developmental roller coaster is not over.
If nothing else, Saturday showed that Dayne Crist is, in fact, developmentally young. Part of that has to do with the fact that he didn’t see much action as Jimmy Clausen’s backup under Charlie Weis and the other is that he was recruited to be a quarterback in a pro-style offense, spent his first two seasons at Notre Dame studying a pro-style offense, and is now converting to a spread-offense quarterback.
The tougher pill to swallow, however, is that during a game when the Irish needed their quarterback to be on the top of his game, Crist turned in his worst performance of the season. Prior to the game against Navy, Brian Kelly talked about the added need for quarterback efficiency.
“The quarterback has got to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game. If he’s on his game, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient at throwing the football, obviously we’ll have to struggle at times.”
Bingo. Crist finished just 19 of 31 for 178 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. And while turning the ball over is never a good thing, turning the ball over in crucial situations is worse.
Hopefully, as the Irish prepare to face Tulsa this Saturday, Brian Kelly and Dayne Crist will use Saturday’s game as an opportunity to establish rhythm in Crist’s production and rebuild his confidence as Utah lurks on the horizon.
Are Irish fans prepared for what’s to come?
The biggest mental obstacle that the game against Navy presented, and one that Irish fans may struggle to accept, is the reality that Notre Dame might very well finish the season with a 6-6 record. If Notre Dame wins the remaining games in which they will be the favorite (Tulsa and Army) and loses the games in which they will most likely be the underdog (Utah and USC), the Irish will finish the season with a split record.
Even though most Irish followers, myself included, had higher expectations for this team and Brian Kelly in his first season, the main goal for the rest of the season should be to win the games in which the Irish are favored. Then, Notre Dame can look to upset Utah in two weeks and take it to the Trojans on November 27th. Win the games you should and the rest is a bonus.
However, if the Irish do finish 6-6, what would be an underwhelming inaugural season for Brian Kelly in South Bend, Irish fans will have to brace themselves and focus their efforts on tempering excitement and expectations next year. And while the eternal optimist in me says, with Brian Kelly’s previous success as a head coach and the promise that this team shows, it should only go up from here, at Notre Dame, nothing is probable and anything is possible. Will a split record this season bring some heat Kelly’s way? Yes. Is it deserved? Probably not. It has little to do with Kelly and everything to do with the string sub-par coaches who came before him.