There is ball control and time of possession … and then there is Navy.
Like most triple-option programs, the Midshipmen play “keep away” versus the opposition.
In last year’s 28-27 victory against Notre Dame, Navy limited the Fighting Irish to six possessions. According to research by the NCAA, that was the fewest by a Football Bowl Subdivision team since Northern Illinois also had six during a 16‑0 loss eight years earlier on Nov. 25, 2008.
The opponent that year? Navy, of course.
To help level the playing field against opposition such as Notre Dame that has vastly superior football talent, the Midshipmen football dicta centers on not beating yourself with turnovers and penalties, plus shortening the game by keeping the clock running with the controlled ground attack.
“Six possessions are not going to do it,” Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of defeating Navy. “It’s too razor thin.”
Navy currently ranks No. 1 nationally in time of possession with an average of 35:48 to the opponents’ 24:12. Power-oriented Wisconsin and triple-option programs Georgia Tech and Army West Point also are among the top five.
Navy likewise is No. 1 in rushing offense at 369.8 yards per game — creating a cause-and-effect symmetry between the two stats.
Last year, Navy owned the ball “only” 33:53 against the Irish, but more pertinent was the six series Notre Dame had on offense. It scored on five of them with three touchdowns and two field goals, and punted on the one other series.
Particularly amazing is Notre Dame had one possession apiece in the third quarter (a touchdown drive that lasted 5:17) and in the fourth quarter (a field goal after a march that took 4:29).
That latter field goal with 7:28 remaining cut the Irish deficit to 28-27 — but they never saw the ball again, while Navy ran out the clock. On their previous series to take a 28-24 lead, the Midshipmen consumed exactly nine minutes on a 16-play, 75-yard march.
There is always much conversation about how taxing the triple option is on the opposing defense, especially in maintaining discipline, but it also puts much stress on the team’s offense to maximize every possession, especially coming away with seven points instead of three.
“There’s no doubt that plays upon how you go about your game plan,” Kelly said. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity that you possess the football. So how you play call, your fourth-down situations, punt, no punt … when you go into this game, that affects you.
“Now, you can’t let that affect the way you play the game. Your guys have to play with a mindset that they’re out there to attack and make plays, but as a play caller, no question you’ve got to be thinking that I must possess the ball, I must finish drives, and I must finish them with seven points.”
There were six lead changes in last year’s game, and a Notre Dame school-record nine in the 38-34 Irish victory versus Navy in 2013. Taking a two-possession lead in any contest is highly valued, but against the Midshipmen it especially is golden.
What Notre Dame cannot afford is to let the triple option dictate the pace.
“We’ve been much better on third down, much better taking the football away,” Kelly said of this year’s defense. “We’ve got to get back to playing that kind of defense where we’re much more aggressive.
“We’re defeating individual blocks and making plays on third down to get off the field. We need more than six possessions.”
Through the first eight games, Notre Dame had allowed only 116.6 yards per game on the ground. In the last two, it surrendered 239 against Wake Forest in a 48-37 victory and then 237 to Miami in a 41-8 defeat. That dropped the Irish to No. 39 nationally against the run with a 140.9 yards-per-game average.
In their final two regular season contests, the Irish face the No. 1 rushing team in Navy and then the country’s top rusher in Stanford’s Bryce Love (1,622 yards).
“Our fits have got to be better,” Kelly said of the run defense that has regressed the past two weeks. “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.
“… We’ve 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.”