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Notre Dame vs. Navy: Keys to an Irish Win

By · October 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment · 3,110 views
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Notre Dame vs. Navy: Keys to an Irish Win

The Irish travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey to take on the United States Naval Academy this weekend. Notre Dame is 14-0 in the Garden State including an 11-0 record in Meadowlands Stadium.

Head coach Brian Kelly’s troops are 4-3, have won three straight, and are looking to make it four against the Midshipmen. It would be the first four-game win streak for the overwhelming majority of the current Irish players.

Navy enters the game having faced the 78th toughest AVR strength of schedule with four wins over (FCS) Georgia Southern, Louisiana Tech, Wake Forest, and Southern Methodist, and losses to Maryland and Air Force.

Navy, Version 2010

Coach Ken Niumatalolo returns for his third season leading the Midshipmen and hasn’t deviated much from the blueprint Paul Johnson put in place. Under his direction Navy is 22-12 (0.647), but his first year was the most successful as he led the cadets to eight wins, a bowl game, and the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy.

Per the norm, the Midshipmen play with great effort and exceptional discipline. The team currently ranks 10th in penalties per game, 13th in penalty yards per game, and 7th in turnover margin. Navy has protected the ball (8th in turnovers lost per game) and forced takeaways (23rd in forced turnovers per game) equally well.

Offense

Not much has changed on offense with coordinator Ivin Jasper calling plays for the third consecutive season. Jasper has been at the Naval Academy since Johnson’s first year in 2002 and was with him at Georgia Southern prior to his stint in Annapolis. The time with Johnson certainly had an influence on his play-calling and approach to offensive football.

Jasper operates with a triple-option attack and wants to run the ball (4th in rush attempts per game), control the clock (7th in time of possession), and minimize possessions (11 per game). The offense is predicated on precision and quick decisions, and the cadets are ideally suited for both.

The Midshipmen rank at the top of the country in nearly every rushing metric, highlighted by 4.7 yards per carry (39) and 259 yards per game (9). The ancillary benefits are also there—Navy converts almost half of their third down opportunities and is very efficient, albeit not overly productive, throwing the ball.

The problem has been scoring points. The Middies have been able to move the ball fairly well—they average better than six plays per drive and have gained over 48 percent of available yards—but rank 109th in red zone efficiency and 80th in red zone touchdown efficiency.

The leader of the offense is quarterback Ricky Dobbs who started 12 games in 2009 and was the primary offensive threat—Dobbs led the team in rush attempts (315) and yards (1,203), and was second in the country in rushing touchdowns (27). The Middie quarterback only averaged 3.8 yards per attempt, but was the frequently the first choice in short yardage situations.

The senior signal caller has continued to carry the bulk of the load this season but the results haven’t been as productive. Like last year, Dobbs leads the team in carries (132) and yards (469), but has only notched five touchdowns on the ground and his per-carry average has dipped by almost a yard.

Dobbs is joined in the backfield by fullbacks Vince Murray and Alexander Teich who rushed 19 times for 210 yards (11.1 yards per attempt) and a touchdown last year in South Bend. Murray and Teich have combined for 512 yards and three touchdowns on 109 carries (4.7 yards per attempt) through the first six games, good for about 100 yards per outing.

Dobbs, Murray and Teich have carried the ball on over 72 percent of Navy’s rush attempts, but the other backfield options are far more explosive. When Dobbs, Murray and Teich aren’t keeping defenses honest with the dive and keep, slot backs Gee Gee Greene and Andre Byrd are attacking the perimeter. Greene and Byrd have only combined for 57 carries (compared to 241 for Dobbs, Murray and Teich), but have averaged 7.5 yards per attempt.

Upfront Navy has had quite a bit of shuffling. Jeff Battipaglia has started every game at left tackle after notching 14 starts in 2009, but, beyond Battipaglia, things have been dicey. Matt Molloy returned after 13 starts last season and was expected to anchor the other tackle position but has been sidelined due to repeated concussions.

Additionally, Eric Douglass, the interior lineman with the most game experience, hasn’t been able to hold down a starting spot and the offensive line is effectively operating with four first-year starters. This is typically a plug-and-play position for Navy, but this year has been the exception.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Midshipmen offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Navy’s 2010 opponents excluding Georgia Southern).

2010 Navy Offensive Efficiency
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency48.91944.395
4th down efficiency66.62648.546
Red zone appearances/game4.5314.186
Red zone efficiency7010978.653
Red zone TD efficiency55.58062.470
2010 Navy Total Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game21962664
Touchdowns/game2.7913.364
Plays/game68.35572.895
Yards/game368.568392.174
1st downs/game18.77220.781
Yards/play5.4675.459
2010 Navy Rushing Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game55.344091
Yards/game2599166.175
Yards/attempt4.7394.263
Fumbles23557
Attempts/fumble16636771
TFL allowed/game4.723661
1st downs/game1388.981
Touchdowns/game2391.564
2010 Navy Passing Offense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game1311832.880
Completions/game6.511818.770
Yards/game109.511722671
Yards/attempt8.4236.857
Yards/completion16.931267
Interceptions420658
Attempts/interception19.51114075
Sacks allowed/game1.2281.869
Attempts/sack allowed11.19717.973
1st downs/game4.511810.173
Touchdowns/game0.71081.663
Completion %501135748
Pass efficiency127.423125.357

Defense

The Naval Academy has enjoyed eight years of continuity on the defensive side of the ball with coordinator Buddy Green. The Middies operate out of a 3-4 alignment that caters to their linebacker personnel which is usually stocked with active tacklers.

This year, however, Green lost a host of stalwarts at the position. Linebackers Ram Vela, Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer, Craig Schaefer, and Clint Sovie all graduated after combining for 338 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, and 14 sacks in 2009. Pospisil led the team in tackles and tied for the team lead in tackles for a loss, Vela ranked second in interceptions, and Schaefer led the team in sacks.

Losing that kind of production from arguably the most important position unit on the defense is tough to replace, but Aaron McCauley, Tyler Simmons, and Max Blue have certainly done their part. Simmons is the only returning starter and is second on the team in tackles (48), but McCauley and Blue have also chipped in with 91 tackles and nine tackles for a loss.

Upfront the Midshipmen return three starters from last year’s unit, but Jabaree Tuani is the most disruptive of the group. After notching 5.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, and leading linemen with 54 tackles last season, Tuani has posted 38 stops and seven tackles for a loss in only six outings. Billy Yarborough and Chase Burge round out the front three, but Tuani clearly deserves the most attention.

The secondary fields the most veteran and experienced group of players the Irish will face all season. Corners Kevin Edwards and Kwesi Mitchell both played in all 14 games last season and safeties Emmett Merchant and Wyatt Middleton return after combining for 27 starts in 2009. Merchant has had some injury problems and may play sparingly Saturday, but De’Von Richardson has played well in his absence.

As usual, the 2010 Middie defense has been the recipient of an offense that controls the ball and minimizes possessions. Many of Navy’s total defensive numbers appear respectable, but the production is skewed by facing just over 60 plays per game and a look at the per-play averages tells a somewhat different story. The Midshipmen allow 5.3 yards per play (ranked 58th) as opposing offenses have chewed up yards on the ground a 4.8-yard clip (95).

The pass defense, at least in some metrics, has been pretty solid. Opponents have been able to complete a high percentage of their throws and the Middies haven’t been particularly adept rushing the passer, but Navy has only allowed 160.2 yards per game through the air (9) at six yards per attempt (25) and nine yards per completion (1).

This production has been helped by some run-heavy opponents—Maryland, Georgia Southern, and Air Force combined for only 21 pass attempts—but while Louisiana Tech, Wake Forest, and SMU completed nearly 70 percent of their passes for an average of 270.3 yards per game, they only averaged 5.9 yards per attempt and 8.4 per completion. In other words, even against teams that chose to throw, Navy’s experienced secondary kept everything in front and made their opponents work for yards through the air.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Midshipmen defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Navy’s 2010 opponents excluding Georgia Southern).

2010 Navy Defensive Efficiency
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency34.63337.876
4th down efficiency801147223
Red zone appearances/game3.5603.376
Red zone efficiency763082.263
Red zone TD efficiency57.15365.243
2010 Navy Total Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game18.22228.259
Touchdowns/game2.2223.754
Plays/game60.81467.860
Yards/game323.227390.657
1st downs/game16.82619.958
Yards/play5.3585.852
2010 Navy Rushing Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game34.34039.759
Yards/game16378197.347
Yards/attempt4.8954.938
Fumbles97660
Attempts/fumble36.92759.157
TFL/game4.7945.552
1st downs/game7.75710.151
Touchdowns/game1331.955
2010 Navy Passing Defense
StatisticNavyNavy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game26.5232870
Completions/game17.86115.974
Yards/game160.29193.376
Yards/attempt6257.166
Yards/completion911354
Interceptions489650
Attempts/interception39.88533.467
Sacks/game1.3911.649
Attempts/sack19.98520.751
1st downs/game8.3368.476
Touchdowns/game1.2371.660
Completion %67.311655.287
Pass efficiency127.665127.465

Adding It All Up

Offensively, Navy is the same as they have always been. The Midshipmen have plenty of skill talent to operate their offense and run the ball effectively, but the play of the front five has been limiting and the offense hasn’t operated with the consistent, sharp execution that has become their trademark.

Defensively, the Midshipmen have size and strength limitations in the front seven and struggle to stop the run, particularly without committing extra defenders to the box. So far Green has been mostly content to keep everything in front and play for third down where his troops excel (34.6 percent efficiency, 33rd ranking). The performance against the pass has been deflated by three opponents that ran the ball on 86 percent of their plays, but the secondary is certainly capable of preventing big plays through the air.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Avoid three and out’s. Possessions against the cadets will be a valued commodity. Navy’s run-heavy offense chews a lot of clock and the play count in this contest will be low. Additionally, the Midshipmen are excellent at sustaining drives so the defense will likely be on the field for a long time. The Irish offense cannot afford three plays and punt with any frequency.
  2. Score early and often and make every possession count. Simply put, Navy isn’t a team that can play from behind. An offense predicated on the triple-option doesn’t function when moving the ball on the ground isn’t a valid option and an early lead is the most effective way to force them out of their comfort zone. To this end, the Irish must score early and often and make every possession count. Turnovers are always costly, but—especially in this contest—not switching field position is a critical error.
  3. Make it a balanced attack. Navy hasn’t faced a passing offense as lethal as the Irish, but the matchups—and available personnel—call for a heavy does of the ground game. The Middies allow an explosive run every 13 attempts and surrendered over five yards per carry against their opponents that ran the ball with any frequency. Additionally, Navy does a good job preventing the big play through the air (one per 17.7 attempts) and allowed fewer than six yards per pass attempt against their pass-happy opponents. Two of quarterback Dayne Crist’s top targets—tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Theo Riddick—are injured, Michael Floyd is suffering from a hamstring problem, and the Irish have yet to prove capable of consistent execution in the passing game, something Green will certainly try to force. Inserting new players into the receiving corps certainly won’t help this problem, and could open up opportunities for costly turnovers.

Defense

  1. Keep them behind the chains. Navy isn’t built to throw the ball, particularly in obvious passing situations. Because of this, first down is vitally important. Navy runs the ball on nearly 90 percent of first downs and are extremely efficient doing so. The Midshipmen average 5.8 yards per first down rush and 4.2 yards per first down carry excluding big runs. This efficiency produces favorable down and distance situations, keeps the playbook open, and produces short yardage third downs that the Middies convert at a very high clip (70.8 percent). Additionally, once Navy crosses the 50-yard line Jasper frequently has four downs at his disposal, and the offense becomes almost impossible to stop. More than any game this year, stout first down run defense is requisite to winning the game.
  2. Watch for play-action and the option pass. Dobbs and Jasper can lull a defense to sleep with jet sweeps and the triple-option (dive, keep and pitch), only to spring a play-action and/or option pass for a big gain. At 13 pass attempts per game, Navy certainly doesn’t throw often, but the 16.9 yards per completion average speaks to the ability to generate big plays downfield. In fact, 13 passes have been good for 432 of Dobbs’ 657 passing yards (66 percent), and the Irish defense must be ready for vertical throws.
  3. Set the edge. Dobbs, Murray and Teich may get the majority of the carries and have the most consistent production, but the Middies do most of their damage on the perimeter. The Irish defense has improved in containment over the course of the season but it will be as important in this game as any other. The Middies ripped off plenty of big gains on the outside last year, many of which moved the chains in long down and distance situations.

Prediction

The offensive recipe for beating Navy has been published: run the ball right at their stunting, gap-shooting defense and overpower them with superior size and strength. Green employs a bend-but-don’t break game plan, and executing in the run game is a decidedly easier and less risky proposition than throwing the ball all over the field—particularly for the Irish. Crist should have success through the air but running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood are poised to ride their speed and athleticism to big days. If Kelly keeps it simple and employs balance, the offense should avoid turnovers and have plenty of success.

Defensively, it’s all about assignment football. The triple-option, if executed correctly, will always gain yards. Notre Dame must play with fundamentally sound technique. The extra preparation Kelly has afforded the defense over the past few weeks will certainly pay dividends and the red zone will be strength on weakness for the Irish defense.

This one won’t be like two of the last three. The Irish extend the win streak to four in comfortable fashion.

Notre Dame 27, Navy 13

Furthermore

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