The long-standing rivalry between Navy and Notre Dame hits year No. 87 in a row Saturday afternoon, but at this point, it feels more like a formality than anything else.
Following a tough loss to Oklahoma, the Irish have reeled off wins over then No. 22 Arizona State, USC and Air Force, improving to 6-2 and jumping to No. 25 in the BCS poll. Brian Kelly's teams at South Bend always seem to click in November (10-1), and with a post-New Year's Day bowl game still in the realm of possibility, you can bet the Irish will continue their recent improvement going forward.
Navy, meanwhile, sits at 4-3 with every defeat coming away from Annapolis. Going into South Bend, it's easy to see why the Midshipmen are 14.5-point underdogs, per Covers.com.
Nevertheless, strange things can happen in rivalry games. The teams have split the last six meetings (albeit the Irish have won the last two by a combined score of 106-24), and Navy has actually won two of three in South Bend.
Despite the clear gap in talent, this isn't a game to immediately skip past on the calender.
Let's take a look at some important keys to the contest.
Stopping Navy's Run Game
The Midshipmen are addicted to running the football.
According to TeamRankings.com, they are third in America in rushing attempts per game (57.3) and second in rushing play percentage (79.26 percent). The balanced running attack (seven different players have at least 175 yards on the ground, led by QB Keenan Reynolds) has worked, too, as they average nearly 5.0 yards per carry.
Moreover, Notre Dame missing big Louis Nix, arguably the best defensive tackle in the country, won't make matters any easier.
That being said, the Irish just held Air Force, a side that runs nearly as much as Navy, to 4.5 yards per carry and 10 points. Moreover, Nix's impact against an option-style, misdirection running game wouldn't have been felt nearly as much.
Still, the Irish's front seven has been up and down this year, and it will have to be ready in what figures to be a busy day against Navy.
Who Do You Concentrate On When Notre Dame Has the Ball?
Notre Dame, a team that made it to the national championship last year on the strength of its defense, receives a lot of flak about its offense.
But the Irish are loaded with under-the-radar playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.
Tommy Rees can be inconsistent, but he has played better as of late and sits at 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions on the season. Of course, having two stars in TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels makes things a little bit easier.
After Jones and Daniels, who have a whopping 74 combined catches, freshmen William Fuller and Corey Robinson can be relied upon in a pinch. Fuller had two catches for 93 yards against Air Force, and Robinson uses his daddy's height (some guy named David) to serve as a legit red-zone threat.
In the run game, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III give the Irish a little thunder-and-lightning combo that has been seriously effective the past four games—combined 507 rushing yards on 92 carries (5.51 YPC).
The Navy defense, which gives up 401.7 yards per game and is 123rd in America in getting teams off the field on third down, is going to have its hands full in every aspect of the game on that side of the ball.
The Turnover Battle
In a vacuum, there's no reason the Irish should come close to losing this game. At South Bend, they should move the ball with ease on offense and get enough stops on defense to build a sizable lead.
One thing that can counteract a difference in talent, however, is turnovers.
In the Irish's two losses, they have turned the ball over five times (all interceptions). In their six wins, just three giveaways.
Navy isn't a team that forces many mistakes, averaging just 1.3 takeaways per contest (94th in the country). If that doesn't change, and the Midshipmen don't force Rees into a couple of bad throws, they have a very minuscule chance of winning this game.