Well, this is it.
Army-Navy is the most important game on Navy’s schedule every year. But when it comes to nervous anticipation the week before, there’s no game bigger than Notre Dame. For some people, it’s about The Streak. For others, it’s just about playing on a big stage. Back before there were hundreds of college football games televised every week, the Notre Dame and Army games were the only chance for Navy fans around the country to see their team. One way or another, it’s our annual opportunity to see how our underdog Navy team stacks up with take on college football royalty.
And make no mistake; despite their 1-7 record, Notre Dame is still college football royalty. Notre Dame’s problems have fired up the “this is the year” crusaders more than usual, both among Navy fans and in the media. It’s hard not to think that way. With an offense ranked dead last in I-A, it would seem as if the Irish would be the perfect tonic to cure what ails the Navy defense. Yeah, right. If you find yourself thinking this at some point, ask yourself: even with all of their problems, do you think that Charlie Weis would trade any of his players for ours? No way. So don’t be fooled. Notre Dame is still Notre Dame. When they have problems, they have them at a whole different level than we do.
Of course, they do have problems. With graduation losses and a schedule full of titans, everybody expected the offense to take a step back. A step, maybe, but not a Bob Beamon long jump. Despite being coached by a supposed offensive genius, Notre Dame’s offense has hit rock bottom. Genius status is apparently much harder to maintain when neither Tom Brady nor Brady Quinn are running your offense. Defensively, Notre Dame is better than what they might look like statistically. Notre Dame is 112th in the country in time of posession, so the defense is on the field a lot. They did give the Irish their lone win of the season, forcing 6 turnovers (including a fumble returned for a TD) in a 20-6 victory.
A lot of attention is being given to the matchup between the underachieving Irish offense and the miserable Navy defense, but it’s on the other side of the ball that I’m the most curious. Navy has been able to move the ball decently against Notre Dame the last few years, but Notre Dame has a new look. Under new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, the Irish have switched to a 3-4 defense. This would seem to de-emphasize Notre Dame’s traditional strength vs. Navy, the defensive line. I can’t even begin to count how many times we’ve seen a speedy Notre Dame defensive end track down the quarterback from the backside of a slow-developing option play. And then there’s some mystery around Brown himself. When was the last time he faced an option offense? He spent the last 3 years in the NFL as a defensive backs coach. Prior to that, he spent three years at Virginia, but as a special teams coordinator. That came after a 6-year NFL playing career. His last year as a player at Michigan was 1993, and none of the teams he faced were as option-heavy as Navy. So you can look at this in two ways: either A) Brown has no idea how to defend the option and Navy will run all over Notre Dame; or B) there is hardly any film on Brown’s defenses that Paul Johnson will be able to use, so Navy won’t be as well-prepared offensively as they had in the past. The “glass half full or half empty” test, Navy-style.
Anyway, it’s hard to tell you anything that you don’t already know about Notre Dame, since they’re the most heavily covered team in the country. Here are a few things I’ll be watching for during the game:
1st & 2nd down: Navy’s offense is 2nd in the country in 3rd down conversions this year. That’s because they usually get 3-4 yards apiece on 1st and 2nd down. Since he doesn’t pass much, Paul Johnson isn’t left trying to convert after an incomplete pass leads to 2nd & 10. Notre Dame’s defense has had some trouble getting off the field at times, allowing opposing offenses to convert on nearly 43% of their 3rd downs. The opportunity is there for Navy to prolong drives if they keep 3rd down manageable. Don’t be surprised if Navy plays “in a phone booth,” content run the fullback and quarterback all day. Of course, the health of Kaipo’s neck might be an issue again if that’s the case.
Navy’s defense is even worse than Notre Dame’s in giving up 3rd down conversions, giving up a 1st down 53% of the time. Unlike Navy, though, the Irish offense only converts 25% of the time on. So something’s got to give, and given the difference in the competition against whom each unit has compiled these numbers, that something is probably going to be the Navy defense. But maybe not every time. Giving up 3rd & long is sort of our thing, but Notre Dame is shaky enough on offense to make some mistakes– dropped passes, overthrown balls… That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.
What’s the gameplan? Notre Dame hasn’t been able to do much of anything offensively, averaging 188 yards of total offense per game (34 rushing, 154 passing). So which part of the offense does Charlie Weis feel like getting on track this week?
Navy’s Offensive line: The Navy line has been the heart of the offense, but it suffered its first casualty of the season last week. Andrew McGinn is out for the Notre Dame game, and will be replaced in the rotation by Ricky Moore.
Here we go again: The “here we go again” factor will be in full effect tomorrow for both teams. I think it’s important for Navy to score first, or to at least take an early lead. It isn’t often that Notre Dame will enter this game at 1-7. Navy needs to take advantage of it. If they can get an early lead, then Notre Dame might start to panic a little and force some things. If Notre Dame gets an early lead, then 43 years of doubt starts to creep to the surface and Navy panics. Momentum will be important in this game.