Nov. 5, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82|
Game 9: Navy (Nov. 7)
2008 record: 8-5, including a 27-21 loss to Notre Dame in Baltimore on Nov. 15 and a 29-19 loss to Wake Forest in the EagleBank Bowl in Washington D.C.
2009 record: 6-2 – Opened with a 31-27 loss at Ohio State before knocking off Louisiana Tech, 32-14, in the home opener. Dropped a 27-14 verdict at Pittsburgh before running off five straight victories over Western Kentucky (38-22), Air Force (16-13 OT), at Rice (63-14), at SMU (38-35 OT) and Wake Forest (13-10). The Midshipmen dropped a 27-24 decision at home against Temple last weekend.
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
Kickoff: 2:42 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: NBC
Navy head coach: Now in his second full season as head coach of the Midshipmen, Ken Niumatalolo replaced Paul Johnson (who took the head coaching job at Georgia Tech) in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl before assuming full control of the program for the 2008 season. Niumatalolo served as Johnson’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach prior to being elevated to head coach. He was the offensive coordinator at Navy in 1997-98 prior to Johnson’s arrival, and was the offensive play caller at UNLV from 1999-2001 before joining Johnson.
Niumatalolo went 8-5 in his first season as head coach in Annapolis and has a career mark of 14-9 heading into the Nov. 7 game versus Notre Dame.
Series history: Notre Dame holds a 71-10-1 record against Navy in a series that dates back to 1927 and has been played every year since. The Irish won the first six games in the series before losing three of the next four. From 1935-55, Notre Dame won 18, lost two and tied one against the Midshipmen before Navy won five of the next eight.
The Irish then embarked upon a 43-game winning streak from 1964-2006 before Navy claimed a 46-44 triple overtime victory in Notre Dame Stadium in 2007.
Last season, Notre Dame had a 27-7 lead and was threatening to add to the advantage when Navy recovered a fumble and cut it to 27-14 with 1:39 remaining. The Midshipmen recovered an onside kick, which was negated by a penalty, but was followed by another recovery of an onside kick. Navy scored two plays later to make it 27-21. Navy recovered yet another onside kick, but Notre Dame held on downs to seal the victory.
Ending the streak: Navy came close on numerous occasions to ending the long losing streak to the Irish. Four times from 1997-2003, the Midshipmen lost by single digits to the Irish, three of which came in Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame won 21-17 in 1997, 28-24 in 1999 and 27-24 in 2003, all in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish also won 30-23 at Ravens Stadium in Baltimore in 2002.
Finally, Paul Johnson’s ’07 crew got it done in a nip-and-tuck game that saw the score tied five times before the Midshipmen tallied the decisive two-point conversion in the third overtime. Travis Thomas’ five-yard touchdown run pulled the Irish to within two, but his two-point conversion run was stopped short and Navy had prevailed, 46-44.
“It’s a big win for our program and it’s a big win for the academy,” Johnson said at the time. “I’m happy I don’t have to answer anything else about the streak every time we play.”
It would be the last Notre Dame-Navy game Johnson coached.
See how they run: Navy’s triple option offense is one of the great constants in all of college football. The Mids are vying to earn an unprecedented fifth straight rushing title. They currently sit third nationally with a 279.8-yard average per game. The high-water mark during this streak was in 2007 when the Mids set the single-season school record for rushing yards per game with a 348.8-yard average.
Fullback Vince Murray leads the Navy ground attack with 638 yards rushing. Murray, with just four career starts, has three games of more than 100 yards rushing, including 175 yards on 27 carries in the upset victory over Wake Forest.
Quarterback Ricky Dobbs, despite battling a knee injury that has kept him out of one game and limited him in several others, is second on the squad with 595 yards and 16 touchdowns. Dobbs is just four touchdowns shy of the school-record for touchdowns by a quarterback and a mere seven off the NCAA record.
Irish fans are excited to see #3 Michael Floyd back on the field for ND this weekend. Floyd missed the last five games after breaking his collarbone vs. MSU.
Yet Navy has had its difficulties running the football this season as well. Pittsburgh held the Mids to just 129 yards rushing in their 27-14 victory over Navy. That’s the fewest yards rushing by Navy since mustering just 113 yards against Rutgers in 2006. Air Force held Navy to 173 yards on the ground while Ohio State limited the Mids to 186.
Navy has averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry since 2002 – the year Johnson arrived. The Midshipmen currently are averaging 4.6 yards per carry, so there appears to be some slippage, at least statistically, without Johnson calling the plays.
Almost perfect: Lost in Navy’s remarkable comeback last year was the fact that the Irish put forth a tremendous defensive effort against one of the most difficult offenses to contain. Notre Dame held Navy scoreless until the 2:39 mark of the second quarter and was pitching a second-half shutout before scoring 14 points in an 18-second span.
“Until the 900 onside kicks at the end of the game, the defense really mauled them,” said Charlie Weis of the Irish defense that allowed Navy just 11 first downs and 178 yards rushing. “We really dominated against a pretty good offense that had been running the ball up and down the field against everyone.”
The Irish have held their last three opponents – USC, Boston College and Washington State – to a combined 97.6 yards rushing per game.
“I feel really good about the confidence of our defense, especially when it comes to a team that intends to try to run the ball for 300 yards against you,” Weis said. “That’s been one of our strengths over the last six games. Although we’ll get challenged with a different scheme, I think we’ll be up to the task.”
Building off last year: Irish defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who assisted Corwin Brown in ’08 when Notre Dame limited the Navy attack, would like to pick up where the Irish left off last year against the Mids. Navy’s leading rusher last year against the Irish was fullback Eric Kettani, who had just 42 yards on 11 carries.
“You go back to what we did well and you build from there,” Tenuta said. “Obviously, that’s your starting point.”
Yet no offense forces a defensive coordinator to adjust on the fly quite like the triple option.
“It’s based on what type of option they’re having success with,” Tenuta said. “If they’re having success with the mid-line option, the counter-trap option, the belly G option – whatever they’re doing well, you have to adapt to. You’ve got to do it right then and there. It happens right now. It’s fast.”
The third dimension: Navy perennially has one of the nation’s best third-down conversion offenses, due in part to the nature of their attack. The Mids put themselves in advantageous 3rd-and-short situations and, in many instances, 4th-and-short scenarios.
Navy enters the Notre Dame game ranked 12th in the country in third down conversions with a 48.9 percent rate (64-of-131). The Midshipmen also are converting 61.1 percent of their fourth-down attempts (11-of-18).
What sets this Navy team apart from many of its predecessors, however, is its third-down success on defense. The veteran Navy defense that sports 10 upper-class starters has limited the opposition to an impressive 28.9 percent on third down. That’s the sixth best mark in the country. Last year, Navy allowed a 47.2 percent conversion rate on third down.
Navy is the only team in the country that ranks in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive third-down efficiency.
“All of their linebackers are seniors and all of their defensive backs are juniors or seniors,” Weis said. “These guys have been playing together for a while. It’s a junior-senior team that’s been playing the same defense for a number of years.
“We already know about the effort of the guys from the Naval Academy. That’s never an issue. Now you get guys that are used to playing together for quite some time.
“They don’t try to do too many crazy things on defense. They just try to play sound fundamentally and run to the football. And trust me, they run to the football.”
The Mids are led by inside linebacker Ross Pospisil, who has a team-leading 65 tackles to go with 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Junior rover Wyatt Middleton paces the secondary with three interceptions.
“They’ve got a lot of experience,” said Irish offensive line coach Frank Verducci. “It’s a typical Navy team as far as the effort, but they have much more experience on their entire defense. They’ve been in the same defensive system for a while and have gotten a lot of reps. Just that continuity factor and experience factor is a big deal for them.”
Navy did, however, prove vulnerable last week against Temple in its three-point loss to the Owls. Temple running back Bernard Pierce rushed for 267 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, including a 41-yard touchdown run with 2:41 remaining. It was the most yards rushing by an individual player against Navy since Michigan’s Ron Johnson rushed for 270 yards on Oct. 7, 1967.
Near upset: Navy came very close to shocking the college football world and getting everyone to understand the trepidation the Irish feel every time they play against Navy. Leading 20-7 at halftime, Ohio State was shut out in the third quarter and out-scored 20-9 in the second half with Navy attempting a two-point conversion to tie the game at 29. But Brian Rolle intercepted a pass by Ricky Dobbs at the goal line and returned it 100 yards for two points in the 31-27 victory over the Midshipmen.
“It wasn’t a dazzling fourth quarter for us, that’s for sure,” understated Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel.
Key match-ups: Navy’s offense starts with quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who has battled knee injuries this season. When healthy, he is a threat running it and throwing it. Not only has Dobbs rushed for 74.4 yards per game, but he’s also throwing for another 77.2, which doesn’t sound like a lot for teams with conventional attacks, but keeps defenses honest in the triple option. He completed an 85-yard scoring strike to Marcus Curry, which pulled the Midshipmen to within striking distance of the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter.
The Midshipmen are the masters of ‘shortening the game’ by limiting the opposition’s possessions and forcing the opponent to maximize every opportunity it gets with the football.
“If they get the ball first, before our offense gets the ball, there might be five minutes left in the first quarter,” said Irish Mike linebacker Brian Smith. “We watched their tape against Temple. They had three-and-out in the first series, but in the second series, it seemed like a zillion plays and (Temple) didn’t get the ball back for a long time.”
Thirteen of Navy’s 43 scoring drives this year have been 5:14 or longer, including 6:54 and 8:38 scoring drives against Ohio State, a 9:01 scoring drive versus Western Kentucky, a 7:41 march against Air Force, and three scoring drives of more than six minutes against Wake Forest and Temple the last two weeks.
Can Navy slow down ND’s potent offense, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jimmy Clausen? We’ll find out on Saturday.
On paper, Navy should not be able to stop Notre Dame’s passing attack. Part of the reason the Midshipmen only allow 178.1 yards per game through the air is their control of the clock. Navy is second in the nation in time of possession with an average of 34:18 per game. Yet Navy has just 11 sacks this season (including none in four of the last five games), and although they’ve allowed just nine touchdown passes while intercepting nine passes, the Midshipmen should have great difficulty stopping Jimmy Clausen, especially now that he’ll have the services of Michael Floyd back in the lineup.
Navy ranks No. 1 in the nation in fewest penalties per game (3.6) and fewest penalty yards per game (31.2). Notre Dame ranks tied for 74th in penalties per game (6.88) and 81st in penalty yards per game (60.8). This would not be a good game for the Irish to be undisciplined.
Both kickers are hot coming into this game. Notre Dame’s Nick Tausch has nailed a school-record 14 consecutive field goals while Navy’s Joe Buckley has converted seven straight. Buckley kicked game-winning field goals in overtime against Air Force and SMU, and nailed a 50-yarder against Wake Forest. Contrary to Tausch, who has missed three extra points, Buckley is a perfect 27-for-27 on points after touchdowns.
Fighting Irish/Midshipmen facts – Notre Dame’s No. 19 ranking in the Associated Press poll this week is the highest the Irish have been in the polls since a No. 11-ranked Notre Dame squad took on No. 4-rated LSU in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2006. That was 33 games ago … The 40 points scored by the Irish against Washington State were the most in a regular-season game since Notre Dame lost 46-44 in triple overtime against Navy on Nov 3, 2007. The last time the Irish had scored at least 40 points in regulation came on Nov. 4, 2006 in a 45-26 victory over North Carolina … Wide receiver Golden Tate ranks among the nation’s top 20 in seven offensive categories, including touchdown receptions (tied for 2nd), total receiving yards (3rd), receiving yards per game (4th), yards per catch (9th), receptions per game (14th), total receptions (tied for 16th), and all-purpose yards (18th) … Notre Dame’s defensive backs totaled 51.6 percent of the tackles through the first five games; Notre Dame’s front seven totaled 62.4 percent of the tackles compared to 37.6 percent by the defensive backs in the last three games … Based on the cumulative record of future opponents, only two schools (Ohio State and Pittsburgh) ranked in this week’s BCS top 25 face a tougher schedule the rest of the regular season than Notre Dame … Offensive tackle Sam Young is expected to make his 47th consecutive start this weekend. The current Notre Dame record is 48, held by Tom Zbikowski and Maurice Crum Jr…. Notre Dame currently ranks fifth in the country in total offense with 457.6 yards per game. The last time the Irish finished a season ranked among the nation’s top five in total offense was 1992 when the Rick Mirer/Reggie Brooks-led offense averaged 470.4 yards per game.
Navy’s 14 victories against BCS schools since 2003 ties Utah for the most wins by a non-BCS school. Navy has defeated Duke (ACC) four times, Vanderbilt (SEC), Wake Forest (ACC) and Rutgers (Big East) twice each, and Stanford (Pac 10), Connecticut (Big East), Pittsburgh (Big East) and Notre Dame (independent) once each … For the fourth year in a row, the Naval Academy is at the head of the class for graduating student-athletes on the FBS level. Navy graduated 100 percent of its student-athletes in 11 of 19 NCAA sports, and no sport graduated lower than 95 percent. Notre Dame also is listed at 98 percent … Navy has a 57-28 record (.671) over the last seven seasons after posting a 3-30 mark (.091) from 2000-02. The 57 victories are tied for 18th most in the country over that time span. Navy has won at least eight games in six consecutive seasons, which is the most in school history and the 12th-longest active streak nationally … Navy was the last FBS team to participate in an overtime game (2006 vs. Tulsa), but has played in seven overtime games in its last 42. The Mids have won five overtime games in a row, including the streak-breaking victory over the Irish in ’07 … No college team in the country has played in more NFL stadiums (10) than Navy the last seven seasons … Navy is one of just four schools to produce a President of the United States (Jimmy Carter) and a Super Bowl winning quarterback (Roger Staubach). The three others are Michigan (Gerald Ford/Tom Brady), Stanford (Herbert Hoover/Jim Plunkett-John Elway) and Miami of Ohio (Benjamin Harrison/Ben Roethlisberger).
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games – every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.