Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Navy
It wouldn’t be a Notre Dame football season without the Fighting Irish meeting Navy. The two programs, whose history goes well beyond the gridiron, have met every year since 1927. Notre Dame won 43 straight games in the series before the Midshipmen won three of four between 2007 and 2010.
The Irish have righted the ship (no pun intended), taking a three-game winning streak in the series into November’s clash at FedEx Field, one of three neutral-site games Notre Dame will play this season. A back-and-forth shootout last season in South Bend saw the Irish defense force a late turnover on downs to preserve a 38-34 victory.
The Mids return their star, quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who set the NCAA record last season for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. The Irish benefit from having two weeks to prepare for the triple-option attack, their first pre-Navy bye (not including the 2012 season opener) since 2007.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and Navy open spring practice Mar. 17 and will tentatively hold their spring game Apr. 11. Let’s drop our preview anchor in Annapolis and take a look at the Midshipmen.
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Date: Nov. 1 (Noon ET, CBS)
Site: FedEx Field (Landover, Md.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 38, Navy 34 (2013)
Last Meeting in Landover: Notre Dame 30, Navy 0 (1998)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame—three
Bowl: Armed Forces Bowl (defeated Middle Tennessee, 24-6)
Leading Passer: Keenan Reynolds (So.)—68-of-128, 1,057 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT
Leading Rusher: Keenan Reynolds (So.)—300 carries, 1,346 yards, 31 TD
Leading Receiver: DeBrandon Sanders (So.)—13 receptions, 223 yards, 1 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Navy—5.81 (53rd nationally); Opponents—5.65 (73rd nationally)
Turnover Margin: +12 (12th nationally)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Navy—68.85 percent (22nd nationally); Opponents—66.67 percent (98th nationally)
Third-Down Conversions: Navy—51.15 percent (sixth nationally); Opponents—45.93 percent (110th nationally)
Explosive Plays*: Navy—53 (80th nationally); Opponents—41 (ninth nationally)
*Explosive plays are play in which a team gains 20-plus yards
Navy’s offense doesn’t work as designed without a triggerman. After a year and a half of struggles following the departure of Ricky Dobbs, the Midshipmen turned to redshirt freshman Keenan Reynolds in the 2012 season. After a narrow win at rival Air Force, the Mids were off and running behind Reynolds.
A triple-option quarterback doesn’t need to be an elite passer, but does have to be able to take advantage of defenses overplaying the run. Reynolds has that ability, throwing 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions over the past two seasons.
Of course, Reynolds’ legs are his biggest weapon. He ran for 1,346 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, three of those coming at Notre Dame Stadium. He had seven in one game against San Jose State, the most ever by a quarterback in a single game.
Notre Dame’s defense was gashed by the Mids in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s first go-round with the triple option in 2010. Reynolds is capable of a similar performance against new Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The triple option requires both slot backs and fullbacks. From Kyle Eckel to Eric Kettani to Alexander Teich, Navy fullbacks have always given the Irish trouble. The newest heavy hitters in the Mids backfield are senior Noah Copeland and junior Chris Swain. Copeland missed last year’s game in South Bend, but did finish with 339 yards for the season while paving the way for Reynolds and others. Swain’s 16 carries against the Irish were a career high.
Navy does have to replace its leading slot back, Darius Staten. Senior Geoffrey Whiteside, who weighed just 171 pounds last season, was tops among returning slot backs with 363 yards in 2013. Juniors Demond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders are in the mix for the other starting role.
The fullback is generally the key to this unit, and the Midshipmen are set at the position with Copeland, Swain and Quinton Singleton all returning. In an offense in which players without the ball are often more important than those with the ball, having plenty of experience here bodes well for Navy.
Navy throws only out of necessity, averaging just over eight attempts per game last season (nine against Notre Dame). Wide receivers caught less than half of Navy’s 74 completions, and players responsible for 27 of those 35 receptions in 2013 are now gone.
Senior Brendan Dudeck caught five passes last season, most among returning receivers. Dudeck is just 6’0”, however. Navy prefers taller receivers since they are often matched up in one-on-one coverage on the outside, a la two-year leading receiver Brandon Turner, who left after the 2012 season.
At 6’3”, sophomore Jamir Tillman is the closest thing on the roster to Turner. He had his first career catch in Navy’s big upset of Pittsburgh, but had just one other reception last season. Dudeck has the most experience, but Tillman could be the breakout player of this unit.
Navy, like all the academies, tends to have smaller, mobile linemen who can get in space and seal off running lanes for Reynolds and others. The Midshipmen offensive line gave Notre Dame fits last season, as its cut blocking does to most teams not used to the style of play.
This year’s group is its most experienced in years, with all five primary starters returning. Only senior guard Jake Zuzek weighs in at over 300 pounds, with the rest of the unit coming in anywhere from 270-290 pounds.
Zuzek and center Tanner Fleming are the two three-year starters, with left tackle Bradyn Heap and left guard E.K Binns entering their second seasons in the starting lineup. The most uncertainty is at right tackle, where the battle between juniors Joey Gaston and Brandon Greene will carry over from last season.
As is the case with offensive linemen, Navy struggles to get enough big bodies to run a 4-3 defense. Hence, defensive coordinator Buddy Green, now in his 13th season at Navy, has established a 3-4 system that sacrifices bringing pressure in order to limit big plays.
The lone loss among the three positions is end Evan Palelei, who started all 26 games the past two seasons. Senior Paul Quessenberry returns at the other end position, with part-time starter Bernard Sarra back at nose guard.
Quessenberry is undersized for a 3-4 end at just 251 pounds and was suspended for the Armed Forces Bowl, but appears to be back in good standing with the program entering the spring. Junior Will Anthony, who had 27 tackles in a reserve role, is next in line to succeed Palelei.
Notre Dame referred to its outside linebackers as “Cat” and “Dog” in Diaco’s 3-4 system. Navy’s comparable roles are “Raider” and “Star”, with the Raider being more of a pass rusher and Star acting more as a fifth defensive back.
Both positions have their starters returning, with senior Jordan Drake at Raider and classmate Chris Johnson at Star. Drake led the team in sacks a year ago, while Johnson tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
The inside linebacker spots will both have new starters. James Britton and Don Pearson were the top backups a year ago, but these positions are both wide open entering the spring, as the Mids tinker with different options inside to complement Drake and Johnson.
Parrish Gaines has seemingly been at Navy forever, but the senior cornerback/safety, who was on the wrong end of a jump ball thrown by Everett Golson to Tyler Eifert in the 2012 Notre Dame game, is back for a final season. His size (6’2”) is a major advantage, and he was already named the defensive captain for the 2014 season.
Gaines moved from cornerback to safety at midseason a year ago, opening the door for freshman Brandon Clements. The Miami native won, lost and regained a starting role within his first few months at the academy.
Junior Kwazel Bertrand, who hails from the same Nashville, Tenn., suburb as Reynolds, has started 13 games over his first two seasons. Aptly-named strong safety Wave Ryder departs, but top backup Chris Ferguson, who started against the Fighting Irish while Ryder was injured, returns.
Junior Nick Sloan has made 21 of 29 field-goal attempts over the past two seasons. He did not attempt a field goal last year against Notre Dame, but did miss an extra point. Sloan has been solid, but not spectacular. He followed up a game-ending missed extra point in double overtime against Toledo with a game-winning field goal to upset Pittsburgh.
Pablo Beltran returns for a fourth season at punter. His average dropped from 43.6 in 2012 to 41.4 last season, but the Mids are still going to have an advantage at punter more often than not.
Navy has not had a punt return touchdown since 2008, but the now-departed Shawn Lynch did have a respectable 7.4 yards per return last season. Kick returner Marcus Thomas also departs, so both return spots are wide open this spring. The Midshipmen haven’t allowed a kickoff return touchdown since 2009.
After seemingly turning the corner against Navy with 56-14 and 50-10 wins in 2011 and 2012 respectively, Notre Dame reverted to its Charlie Weis-era ways against the Midshipmen in last year’s thriller in South Bend.
Of course, Reynolds redshirted in 2011 and wasn’t yet the starter when the teams met in 2012. The Irish held him to just 53 yards on the ground last season, but the rest of the Midshipmen backfield had their way with Notre Dame’s defense.
This year’s game will be more about the Irish offense than the defense. Tommy Rees threw two costly interceptions last year to help keep Navy in the game despite allowing 7.3 yards per rush to the Irish.
The extra week to prepare will help Notre Dame, but Reynolds is too good to be held completely in check. If Golson plays well, this is probably anywhere from a two to three-touchdown victory for the Irish. If he struggles like Rees did, fasten your seatbelts for another back-and-forth battle.