Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 11, Navy
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Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 11, Navy

This is the second of our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty — at least prior to spring drills — from 12 to one. At No. 11 is the Navy Midshipmen, at home on Nov. 6.

Navy Midshipmen linebacker Diego Fagot
Linebacker Diego Fagot has paced the Navy defense in tackles two straight years and could be an NFL prospect. (Navysports.com)

Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo 101-67 (.601) entering 14th season

Recruiting Rankings: 2017-21

2017 (76th)

2018 (91st)

2019 (78th)

2020 (83rd)

2021 (64th)

2020 Record: 3-7

After the 55-3 slaughter to BYU in the opener, Niumatalolo blamed himself because the preseason had no contact work due to fears about contracting COVID-19.

The Midshipmen bounced back by winning three of their next four contests, but finished the campaign with losses to Memphis (10-7), Tulsa (19-6) and Army (15-0). It was only the third losing season for the program the past 18 years.

Most stunning was the vaunted triple-option offense that annually ranked among the top three nationally in rushing with about 300 to 350 yards per contest finished 52nd with a meager 177.6 average. That resulted in a scoring output of 16.6 points per game to rank 121st among 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that played in 2020.

Did You Know …

Navy started three different quarterbacks in its first three games of the season for the first time since 1992 (when it finished 1-10). Navy played at least two quarterbacks in eight of the 10 contests played.

Sophomore Xavier Arline, listed at 5-9, 165, seems to be the future, starting in three of the five games he appeared as a freshman and finishing with the third most rushing yards (210) on the team.

2021 Capsule/Outlook

It has been quite the roller-coaster ride for the Midshipmen the past three seasons.

In 2018, they had their worst season under Niumatalolo in his 13 years (through 2020) with a 3-10 finish — but then followed up with an extraordinary turnaround in 2019, finishing 11-2 and No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, their second highest placement since 1964.

Then last year they faltered badly again, most notably getting crushed 40-7 by military rival Air Force and losing for the fourth time in five years to Army (15-0).

Under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry in 2020, that side of the ball excelled at the end of the year and returns nine starters. The linebacking corps especially is strong with all four starters back, most notably 6-3, 240-pound Diego Fagot, a potential NFL prospect who has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons (72 last year, with 11 for loss and three sacks) and earned All-AAC notice.

Be that as it may, Navy’s football identity is a clock-controlling and highly productive triple-option attack with a dominant quarterback to operate it — e.g. Ricky Dobbs (2008-10), Keenan Reynolds (2012-15) or Malcolm Perry in 2019 — and high hopes are that the diminutive Arline can develop into that type of figure.

Fullback also returns Jamale Carothers, but his 97 carries last year averaged a modest 3.7 yards.

Why 11th Among 12 In Countdown

Through the years we’ve learned to never take this game lightly. Still, in the last two meetings in 2018 and 2019 — last year marked the first time since 1926 the two teams did not meet, due to the pandemic — Notre Dame asserted physical dominance from the outset. It built a 27-0 cushion by halftime in 2018 en route to a 44-22 win. Against the 11-win Midshipmen in 2019, the Navy deficit was 38-3 by halftime, and the final score was 52-20.

While the heart of the Midshipmen always will be present, it’s a physical mismatch overall. In the last two meetings the Irish demonstrated no signs of being spooked by the triple-option as they had been in previous years. Last year was the worst Navy offense in decades, and there is still much to develop there.

Unlike in 2020 when the cancellation of spring drills affected a rebuilding Navy offense, it should be vastly improved this season. It just might not be enough when facing the Irish.

Similar to Toledo, the No. 12 team in our countdown, Navy could be at least a three-touchdown underdog in this contest. What one must be wary of, though, is the Irish will have come off back-to-back contests versus USC (Oct. 23) and North Carolina (Oct. 30), two of the better foes on the slate. An emotional lull versus the prideful Navy brigade could spell problems if the offense can return to its ball-control identity.

No. 12: Toledo

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