University of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s 2018 Irish football team presumably is rested, refreshed and rejuvenated after an open date last week.
Meanwhile, the five-game stretch run in front of the Irish could hardly come with more bright lights:
- Notre Dame makes a rare primetime appearance on CBS Saturday when the Irish face off against old rival Navy in San Diego. A week later Kelly’s crew plays in prime time at Northwestern (on either ABC or ESPN) before returning home for a third straight night game against Florida State in Notre Dame Stadium (on NBC). That trio adds to three previous primetime affairs (Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech) and the regular-season finale against USC could join that group.
- Notre Dame’s name already is being bandied about prominently in College Football Playoff conjecture, and that process officially begins next week with the first release of CFP standings.
- The Irish play four of their final five regular-season challenges in major markets away from home — with trips to San Diego (Navy), Chicago (Northwestern), New York (Syracuse at Yankee Stadium) and Los Angeles (USC) on tap.
- Notre Dame at 7-0 and rated third in the polls as of today remains one of only five remaining Football Bowl Subdivision unbeatens, joining Alabama (8-0), Clemson (7-0), UCF (7-0) and USF (7-0). Only Notre Dame and Alabama have done that against exclusively FBS opposition.
All of that combines to fit nicely into Kelly’s suggestion that his players avoid the noise and focus on the task at hand.
This week, that means taking on a Navy team that provides something of a unique annual challenge, given the Middies’ offensive predilections (Navy ranks third nationally in rushing this week, while standing 128th in passing yards per game).
The Mids defeated Notre Dame as recently as 2016 in Jacksonville (28-27). Current Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo boasts three wins against the Irish (also 2009 and 2010) and among his teams’ losses to Notre Dame are contests decided by six, four, 10 and seven points.
Navy is looking for its first win over a top-five Notre Dame team since 1957 (also in 1944) and will be trying as an unranked squad to become the third Navy team to defeat a ranked Irish unit (also 1936 and 2009).
Offers Kelly, “Ken Niumatalolo is one of the better, if not the best, at what he does in the country. That’s consistency. Year in and year out, it’s a well-coached football team. They complement each other so well offensively and defensively in terns of what they do.
“Malcolm Perry is certainly a dynamic player on offense. He’s played quarterback, he’s played slot. Garret Lewis has now seemed to have found himself running the offense. We have to prepare for both. There’s probably Zach Abey also healthy, and he could play the quarterback position (he starts at wide receiver and plays quarterback in short-yardage and goal-line situations). We’re running a lot of different looks at our defense at the quarterback position right now.
“Having said that, they’re extremely efficient. They’ve given us all that we can handle year in and year out. There has to be an incredible sense of urgency on the offensive side of the ball, by maximizing possessions, quite frankly every snap, because you just don’t know how many possessions that you will get. Scoring points is absolutely crucial.
“From a defensive standpoint, that attention to detail and everything that you do is at a premium. We could use two more bye weeks to prepare for Navy in terms of what they present to you.
“Defensively up the middle they are really solid. (Jackson) Pittman at the nose guard is doing a great job for them. (Nizaire) Cromartie and (Taylor) Heflin are solid inside. The safety, (Sean) Williams, is a three-year starter. They’ve done a really nice job.
“They don’t give up big plays. They keep the ball in front of them. It’s a really standard Navy defense in terms of what they’re looking to do.
“These are battles. They play extremely well against us. We’ll have to be at our best playing a complete football team that plays hard for four quarters.”
The Irish team normally returns to South Bend immediately after games — but this week Notre Dame makes the unusual decision to stay overnight in San Diego on Saturday (as opposed to arriving on campus at the crack of dawn Sunday) and then fly home the next morning.
“We’re really just trying to take this as a quick business trip out, use the flight back as rest, kind of recovery,” says Kelly.
“This was really about trying to make sure that when we get back here sometime around four o’clock in the afternoon Sunday so that we don’t put ourselves behind relative to the rest and recovery.
“I think that’s really the most important thing, getting out there hydrated, staying on the eastern standard clock, playing the game, staying over, getting a good night’s sleep, getting on the plane, using that as an opportunity to rest so when we get back here we’re not feeling the effects of the West Coast trip.”
Kelly understands the Irish will be facing an offense they don’t see on a regular basis.
“We have three different quarterbacks that are running that offense right now. Lawrence Keys is Malcolm Perry. We have a walk-on that is Garrett Lewis who is doing a really good job for us. Then for Zach Abey, who is big, physical, we’ve moved a couple of guys in there to give us more of a quarterback sweep load kind of look. Phil Jurkovec has been in there. We’ve had three quarterbacks in there.
“We spent a lot of time with that scout team outside of this week just working on the mechanics of it in the spring and pre-season, so that when we get into this it’s run effectively, to the level it can be. It’s never going to be as effective. You’re never going to play with the kind of speed that you need to. The bye week helps, yet we could use a couple more weeks.”
Kelly also understands his players can hardly avoid hearing at least some of the national conversation, especially with the Irish firmly injected into it.
“They probably heard a million times when they went home how they didn’t play great against Pittsburgh.
“Look, it’s a one-week deal for us. We’re one day at a time, one practice at a time. They know where they are. They have to stay focused, stick with their process.
“I know you all hear that all the time. If you don’t have a process you can stick with, then you’re going to listen to all that stuff. But if you just stick with your preparation, then you can focus on the moment and not worry about all that other stuff.
“It’s human nature to be distracted easily today. There are so many devices to do that–24-hour news, cell phones, computers. We try to do a good job on the mental performance piece, sticking with what matters the most, and that is in your preparation and how that will affect ultimately your success. All that other stuff really won’t help you.”
Kelly’s 9-1 record after open dates at Notre Dame suggests the Irish will be prepared on Saturday night.
“We try to balance the time off with intentional preparation. Bye weeks certainly allow you the opportunity to self-scout, to do some things that maybe shore up some areas for you, allow you to get some key players back. But I don’t know that there’s a magic formula.
“We did enough last week to look at some of the things that we felt like we wanted to address. Some of them were personnel related, which we’ve already seen. Some were special teams related, which you’ll see on Saturday.
“We didn’t cast a net over everything that we’re doing. Our priorities were, number one, get our team in here and begin the preparation for Navy, then get them out of here. Get on the road recruiting. Those were clearly far superior in terms of what we needed to accomplish. Then we wanted to look at some things we were doing offensively, defensively and special teams that we wanted to adjust and tweak in this off week.”
Here are a few odds and ends on the Irish this week:
- Notre Dame’s four remaining road trips comprise 8,731 combined miles.
- No quarterback in the country boasts a better completion percentage than Ian Books’ .752 figure. Book heads into the Navy game having completed his last 10 passes.
- Justin Yoon needs six more field goals to reach Kyle Brindza’s career record of 57.
- Over the last three games, Notre Dame’s defense has permitted 5.7 second-half points per outing.
- San Diego’s SDCCU Stadium (66,000 capacity) qualifies as the ninth neutral-site location for the Notre Dame-Navy series.
- Notre Dame’s triumph over Pittsburgh marked its first comeback from a halftime deficit since a 2015 victory at Virginia.
- Notre Dame’s current 16-2 run marks its best since a similar streak in 1993-94.
- The Sports Illustrated Midseason All-America selections included Jerry Tillery and Julian Love on the first team.
- Ian Book rates eighth nationally in passing efficiency this week (167.9), while punter Tyler Newsome is eighth in that category (46.3 each).
- The 92nd consecutive meeting between Notre Dame and Navy on Saturday night will conclude with each team standing behind the other for the respective team alma maters.
- Approximately 500 members of the Brigade of Midshipmen will march onto the field at SDCCU Stadium before the game.
- San Diego made sense as a neutral site for this game because it plays host to the largest naval fleet in the world and more than 35,000 military-related personnel.
- Navy’s next three opponents (Notre Dame, Cincinnati and UCF) stand a combined 20-1.
- Over the last 17 years Navy has never finished lower than sixth nationally in team rushing offense. The Mids a year ago set the school record at 351.4 yards per game.
- Navy is perfect in the red zone this year on 23 attempts (19 touchdowns, four field goals). Notre Dame is 25 of 29 (19 TDs).
- Navy stands fourth nationally in time of possession at 35:36 per game. The Irish are 97th at 28:26.
- Today’s edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune contains this note on why Notre Dame and Navy have continued to play football every year, much of it based on Notre Dame’s appreciation for the Navy’s role in maintaining the South Bend campus during World War II:
“Admiral Chester Nimitz was gung-ho about sending his charges to South Bend, Ind., and not only did they respond by eventually running 12,000 officers through training between 1942 and 1946, they pulled Notre Dame out of dire financial straits that threatened to ruin the school.
“‘We were out of business during World War II,’ former Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., said in a 1992 interview with the South Bend Tribune. ‘Navy came in and kept us afloat until the war was over.'”
Navy paid the school $487,711 for infrastructure needs and administrative expenses while occupying a majority of the space on campus.
- Navy has lost four games in a row for the first time since 2011. Notre Dame has won seven in a row to start the year for the first time since 2012 (those were later vacated by the NCAA).
- “Offensively, we’ve been trying to figure out our identity. What suits Malcolm, what suits Garret, what suits Zach?” Niumatalolo said after practice Tuesday. “It’s taken some time to figure out what’s best for this team.
“We have to find a way to finish. That’s on me. We just have to have the same motivation and drive that we come out of the tunnel with, just not losing that after halftime and feeling like you’ve done something. We have to stay hungry.”
- The last time a Notre Dame football team was ranked third or higher headed into the final weekend of October was in 1993 (rated second at 8-0 going into a game against Navy in Philadelphia).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.