College football isn’t exactly the land of originality. When you think about it, you have the same storylines playing out each season. Some coaches are on the hot seat, while others are rebuilding. Some teams are lucky, while others are “fighting through adversity.” Some teams get labeled as contenders, while others are labeled as frauds. Last year’s losses become this year’s “revenge.” It’s all quite predictable, actually, which is probably why I find myself gravitating more and more to local coverage of each school rather than reading national newspapers and watching ESPN. More news, less cliche.
Anyway, back to this idea of revenge. I’ve never really understood the concept, at least as far as how it gets applied to college football upsets. Team A beats Team B, so Team B is out for revenge the next year? What, did Team A perpetrate some great injustice by actually trying to win? How dare they! Isn’t winning the whole point of all this hullabaloo? Herm Edwards told me that one time; something about how YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME. Herm is wise man, even if he isn’t the most successful coach in the NFL. So maybe if Navy didn’t just beat Notre Dame last year, but also tore down the goalposts, kicked the leprechaun in the face, and had Bill the Goat eat all the grass in one end zone and poop it out in the other… Maybe then vengeance would be called for. Until then, it’s just a team doing what it’s supposed to do. When an underdog wins, it isn’t revenge that the favorite seeks. It’s redemption. Indeed, tomorrow Notre Dame will be looking to redeem themselves after last year’s upset at the hands of Navy.
Navy fans, of course, are looking for an encore. I knew I would see the Mids beat Notre Dame eventually, but a year later it’s still a little surreal. Notre Dame week used to be all about the unending talk of the streak and 1963 and the streak and Roger Staubach and the streak. That’s gone now, but I still find myself annoyed. You know the scene in Apollo 13, where TV news crews want to set up equipment on the Lovells’ lawn? Marilyn Lovell’s reaction is basically, “oh, NOW they care.” That’s sort of Notre Dame week in a nutshell. Local TV crews show up to Navy practice, and national newspapers start writing about Navy and their “wishbone” offense and how unusual it is blah blah blah. Now that there’s no streak to talk about, this kind of stuff sticks out more. But hey, that’s one of the reasons why Navy plays Notre Dame; the national coverage it generates– however trite– is good for the program. So I guess I gotta suck it up.
Moving back to things that are predictable, the natural follow-on story the year after a team ends a long losing streak is how the underdog wants to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. Navy fans won’t want to hear it, but in a lot of ways it was a fluke. Think of the perfect storm of things that came together for a Navy win last year. This was the worst Notre Dame team in ages. Their offense had struggled to move the ball all year, and couldn’t decide on which quarterback to start. Their kicker couldn’t make anything longer than an extra point, stopping the Irish on otherwise reasonable chances to score on three drives. While Notre Dame’s defense was respectable, Navy had its best offensive line in decades and a quarterback that graded out at 97%; he literally was almost perfect. But even that wasn’t enough; the Mids had to score a defensive touchdown, too. And even all of that was only good enough to get the game into overtime. Now, this doesn’t mean that Navy was undeserving, or that they weren’t the better team. It’s just that you need to respect everything that went into that win. The result of the game wasn’t a fluke, but the circumstances that made that result possible were clearly out of the ordinary.
The question, then, is how much those circumstances have changed this year, and it appears to be quite a bit. Notre Dame is a better team than they were in 2007. Despite being shut out last week against Boston College, the Irish offense is still gaining 375 yards per game. That’s more than 130 ypg better than their 119th-ranked offense in 2007. A big reason for the improvement is the development of quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The oft-mocked golden boy of Notre Dame’s 2006 recruiting class struggled in his freshman campaign, splitting time with Evan Sharpley (the starter vs. Navy last year). This year, however, he is clearly a more competent player. Clausen threw for 347 yards against Stanford and 383 against then-ranked North Carolina in a close 29-24 loss. Clausen already has four games with 3 or more passing touchdowns, including the 4OT loss to Pitt two weeks ago. Helping his cause are a pair of emerging young wide receivers, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, who combine for 10 catches and 160 yards per game. Now, does Notre Dame’s schedule have anything to do with their improvement? Absolutely, at least statistically. But you’d be foolish to dismiss their progress as nothing more than favorable scheduling, especially since the Mids haven’t forced Notre Dame to punt since the last election year– even with the terrible Irish offense in 2007.
On the Navy side, all eyes are on the quarterbacks. Senior Jarod Bryant will be getting the start, having sufficiently recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered against SMU. Bryant’s start is not without controversy, as sophomore Ricky Dobbs has directed the Navy offense to victories against SMU and Temple. But no matter who Coach Niumatalolo chose to start, that guy would have some pretty big shoes to fill. Kaipo’s near-perfect game against Notre Dame last year was the key ingredient in Navy’s victory. This year, Navy’s offense will be under even more pressure to keep pace. The coaches believe that Bryant, who Niumat said had a “winning grade” against Pitt and was on his way to a great game against SMU, has the best shot at replicating something close to Kaipo’s performance. No pressure! Then again, quarterback might not be the biggest position change for Navy.
Last year, one of the more celebrated game-planning wrinkles that Paul Johnson incorporated was the use of the tight formation against Notre Dame. It was easy to see the formation, but not everyone understood what exactly the Mids were doing differently out of it. We’ve talked a lot this year about the role of the tackles on triple option plays. On most plays, the tackle tries to run inside of the QB’s give key and block a middle linebacker (Notre Dame lined up with a 5-man front) to keep him from inside-out pursuit. The wide receiver and the A-back block the corner and safety, with each player’s assignment depending on how deep the cornerback lines up. In the tight formation against Notre Dame last year, Paul Johnson changed those blocking assignments:
I apologize if the arrows get confusing, but you can see how different the blocking was. The tackle and the wide receiver basically trade assignments. The wide receiver blocks the linebacker. The tackle releases outside the QB’s read and runs all the way downfield to block the run support safety. The twist in the scheme helped the Mids get to the outside and allowed Reggie Campbell and Shun White combine for 118 yards. Of course, with Jon Tenuta taking over the defense, it’s very possible that Notre Dame will line up differently against Navy this time around. But with the tackles figuring so prominently in Paul Johnson’s game plan last year, one wonders if Ivin Jasper will be able to make similar adjustments given the inconsistency at the position this year. But that’s why they play the game.
It’s weird having the sense that Notre Dame is just a game like any other now. It isn’t, of course; but it’s a lot closer to it with that abominable losing streak no longer hanging over the program. This year the media circus is concentrating less on the streak and more on Charlie Weis assuming playcalling duties. That, and what his fate might be if he loses to Navy again. Hopefully that adds a little pressure to the Domers this year. Because, like always against Notre Dame, Navy can use whatever help it can get.