After four-plus decades of dominance by the Irish in the Notre Dame-Navy series, the tide has turned a little bit.
Over the past 10 seasons since Navy ended Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak in 2007 with a 46-44 triple-overtime win, the Irish hold just a 6-4 advantage over the Midshipmen. That includes Navy’s 28-27 victory in Jacksonville, Fla., last season.
The Irish were in a free fall last season on their way to a 4-8 mark. The Midshipmen, however, sat 9-2 before losing their final three games — including the American Athletic Conference championship game against Temple — to finish 9-5.
Navy ended a three-game slide this season with a 43-40 win over SMU last week, while Notre Dame fell 41-8 to Miami to end its College Football Playoff hopes. Sophomore quarterback Malcolm Perry rushed for 282 yards and four touchdowns on 33 carries to spark the Midshipmen’s win, while junior fullback Anthony Gargiulo contributed 145 yards and one score on 15 carries.
Both teams still have plenty to play for in 2017, and Notre Dame is looking to avenge last year’s loss to the Midshipmen.
“First of all, it’s about getting back to our traits, and you have to have an incredible attention to detail when you play Navy and their offense,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. “I think everybody knows quite well how prolific they are and how difficult they are to stop. They do things offensively that teams each and every week struggle to defend.
“And the other thing you have to do is you have to beat a lot of one-on-one blocks. You have to play physical. You have to be able to get off blocks. You have to be able to make tackles against a very good and well-disciplined football team, a team that fights for four quarters.
“They’ve won close games. They manage the clock very well. They play smart football. It will be a great challenge for us.”
Navy leads the nation in time of possession, controlling the ball for 35:48 of game action on average, which makes it crucial the Irish convert their opportunities into touchdowns.
“Offensively, we have to be able to score,” Kelly stated. “Last year, obviously, we scored, but we didn’t score touchdowns. You have to score touchdowns. You have to finish off your drives.
“You have to be extremely efficient, and that’s what their offense forces you to do — to be extremely efficient on offense.”
To counter, Kelly knows turnovers could play a major role into flipping the script and getting a couple more possessions throughout the game.
“We didn’t do that last week,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to get the football, take it away, and revert back to some of the things that we were doing defensively. If we can get some turnovers and get some points relative to touchdowns instead of field goals, then we’ll put ourselves in a much better position against a very good opponent.
“… We’re going to get our turnovers. We were right there. We didn’t make a couple of plays that we have been making, but we’re going to get back at it on the practice field. We’re going to keep teaching and trust our teaching, and our guys will get back to making those plays.”
The Midshipmen also try and throw a few new looks at opponents to keep defenses and coaching staffs off balance.
“Clearly, they are always looking to make some adjustments, and you have to be prepared for every look for the last 10 years,” Kelly explained. “They did some things against us two years ago that we hadn’t seen in six, seven years. You have to be able to adjust and sometimes adjust on the fly.”
Kelly touched on a few injuries, including to junior running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.
“You know, knock on wood, this looks to be the best week that we’ve had with them in terms of the medical report,” Kelly said. “Josh shows no ill effects from an ankle, a head or neck, and Dexter had the quad contusion, which was limiting, and it was the best that he's felt.
“We’re hopeful that all of the backs are in a better position than they have been at any time this year.”
STOPPING THE RUN
The Irish were effective against the run throughout the first eight games of the season. But against Wake Forest and Miami, the Irish gave up an average of 238.0 rushing yards per game.
Navy boasts the top rushing attack in the nation with an average of 369.8 yards per contest. With the Midshipmen heading to South Bend this weekend, bouncing back on defense is key for the Irish.
“We have to have a better attention to detail,” Kelly said. “Our fits have got to be better. We’ve got to get off blocks. We’ve got to get back to that mentality of dominating those one-on-one matchups. You’ve got to win some matchups. We had guys in position to make plays. We’ve got to simply make the plays.
“Look, they ran — their first-half running attack was one that we felt really comfortable that we should be more effective with. We’ve simply got to be better in our preparation and coach our guys better, go back and make sure that we’re teaching them the fundamentals so we can make the plays necessary.
“There’s no high science here. There’s nothing that can’t be prepared during practice for us to get back to playing the kind of run defense we need to play, simply stated.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has experience himself stopping the run facing Army while at Wake Forest.
“There are similar tenets there, certainly,” Kelly said. “Having the understanding of that. You know, his background is that he’s had to stop option teams before, Georgia Southern. He’s been in the option system. That was something that we vetted out in the interviewing process.
“[I am] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing in terms of — this isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”
A loss late in the season that derails the goal of winning a national championship can negatively impact a program during the remaining parts of its schedule.
Notre Dame still has two games left — versus Navy and at Stanford. Kelly likes how his team has bounced back during the early portions of the week preparing for the Midshipmen.
“Regardless of a win or a loss, we use Monday to refocus,” Kelly said. “Our team has been refocused. … What happened on Saturday is behind them, and we’re back to work. We went back to work yesterday, and our guys are clearly focused on the preparation for Navy.
“There’s a 24-hour rule that they have to abide by, and they went through that process. We're ready now to take on a really good football team in Navy and get back to the traits that have gotten them to 8-2. That’s going to be important because they’re going to need them on Saturday.”
Saturday was not first-year starter Brandon Wimbush’s best outing in an Irish uniform. The junior completed just 10 of 21 passes for 119 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Kelly sees this weekend as a chance for Wimbush to show how he can respond to adversity and bounce back. Kelly is confident his signal-caller will rise to the challenge.
“A competitor wants to be at his best when his best is needed, and he wasn’t,” Kelly said of Wimbush. “He wants to rededicate himself this week to his preparation, and he wants to go out there and be the best version of Brandon Wimbush. That’s all you can ask for from your players.
“He'll go about his work today. We’ll be demanding but never demeaning to him, and ask him to be passionate and persevere in coming back after a difficult performance. That’s what we do to all our players, not just the quarterback.
“Brandon, we’re getting to know him — his first year in the fire, if you will. This was the first year. Last year he had the best job in college football, right, backing up, and he knew he wasn’t going to play because we told him pretty much that we were going to redshirt him.
“We’re getting to know him in a sense of being in the fire, having to compete at the highest level, and then having to deal with the ups and downs. We’re kind of getting to know him. How is he going to handle adversity? Does he have the grit necessary? Does he have the passion and perseverance? I think he does, but we’re learning, as you are. We’re asking the question, and my response is we’ll find out a lot about him as he bounces back.
“I think he’s going to bounce back really well, but I think the answer to your question is he’s going to get a chance to show everybody on Saturday.”
MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA IMPRESSING
Late in the recruiting process last cycle, Notre Dame targeted and landed Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa in an attempt to beef up its defensive line after hiring Elko.
The Hawaiian has played the third most snaps on the interior behind starters Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner. In 10 games played, the freshman has recorded eight tackles (1.5 for loss).
Kelly wasn’t caught off guard by the early impact Tagovailoa-Amosa made on the Irish defense.
“When we recruit somebody to Notre Dame, I don’t think that we’re ever surprised,” Kelly said. “I think what really is kind of the thing that we evaluate players on is their readiness in terms of how quickly are they going to be able to contribute?
“We felt like he was going to be a really good football player for us. When could he take his physical traits and apply them? And I thought he was able to translate them right away, and I think we’re really pleasantly surprised that he could do that right away. He had the size. He had the physicality, but can you learn our defense and apply it right away?
“That’s that football IQ. That’s that awareness that he took and ran with immediately when he got to camp, and that was a pleasant surprise for us.”
Saturday represents the final home game for the Irish and the last chance for numerous players to perform inside of Notre Dame Stadium, including several key members of the starting lineup.
“This weekend, we’ve got 26 academic seniors and/or graduates that will be honored before the game, and some are playing in their last home game at Notre Dame,” Kelly said of the group. “So very, very important game, obviously, for them and for our football team, and important for us to get back to playing to our standard.
“That standard is set by the jerseys and the uniforms that we’ll be wearing. We’ll be wearing Rockne uniforms. There isn’t a better name that you could be wearing that has set the standard of excellence for Notre Dame football. Getting back to that standard of excellence will be worn, and it certainly is what we’ve talked about relative to refocusing our football team on playing to a standard that we had set this year.”
Fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who is projected as a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, will play his final home game in an Irish uniform.
“I think it’s easy to point to his football accolades, but he’s what you want from a student-athlete at Notre Dame, graduates, stays to play with his teammates, captains his football team for two years,” Kelly said of McGlinchey. “I just think he embodies all of the traits that we look for here at Notre Dame, not just in our student-athletes, but in our students.
“That’s what he means to this university. We can be really proud of him and not even look at his jersey number. He’s really the model of the man behind the jersey more so than the number on the jersey.”
Kelly also touched on senior linebacker Greer Martini and why he was a good choice to be a captain this season.
“When you talk about captains, one of the dynamics that you’re looking for is selflessness, and here’s a guy that plays on all of our special teams,” Kelly said of his starting linebacker. “One of the things we want to instill in our players is the ability to not just play on your own defensive unit, but how you can do anything and any job to help your football team, and that’s been Greer. Since he’s gotten here, he’s done whatever we asked him to do.
“We thought that not only is he well respected because of his character traits — and, obviously, well respected in our community here at Notre Dame — but as a player, he does all the jobs for you, and that can be mirrored quite well in your football team. He’s been a great captain because of that.”