Notre Dame and Navy will face each other for the 90th time on Nov. 5. Kickoff is 11:30 a.m. Eastern at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., a city that is home to three major naval facilities.
While I thought triple-option football was dead and buried, the Midshipmen have continued to prove me wrong. They’ve won a remarkable 8 or more games for 12 of the past 13 seasons. There’s several challenges to hitting that benchmark this year, including replacing Navy’s greatest football player since Roger Staubach. That would be former quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who set a Football Bowl Subdivision record for most career touchdowns scored.
Reynolds’ successor is senior Tago Smith, who should be a familiar name to those who watched the game versus Notre Dame last year. Smith rushed nine times for 47 yards after Reynolds was temporarily knocked out of the game. Smith lead the Middies on two scoring drives, which kept them in the game (at least until halftime).
Smith has got good wheels – and he may find himself scrambling a lot this season. Navy is replacing 10 of its 11 offensive starters, including its entire offensive line. Junior Robert Lindsey and senior Adam West are the only lineman with experience, with Lindsey having started four games at right tackle and West one game at left guard (both as injury replacements). The other three linemen – sophomore Andrew Wood, senior Maurice Morris and junior Evan Martin – have mostly played special teams during their time in Annapolis.
Jamir Tillman, a senior wide receiver, is the lone returning starter. At 6’4″, 212 pounds, Tillman is used like Demaryius Thomas was at Georgia Tech – a big-play threat that will keep defenses honest against a run-first offense.
And while Navy lost its two most productive fullbacks and two of its three best slotbacks, senior Dishan Romine returns. The slotback had just 378 rushing yards last year, but averaged an eye-catching 10.5 yards per carry. Romine also showed some explosiveness as a kickoff return man, averaging 27.3 yards last year on 24 opportunities.
NAVY’S WINNING WAY REMAINS THE SAME
As SBNation’s Bill Connelly explains, Navy’s philosophy is pretty straightforward: “Frustrate opponents with death-by-a-million-cuts efficiency on offense and perfect red zone execution, eat minutes of clock and prevent big plays on defense. Use your bend-don’t-break D to punish offenses who make mistakes after spending so much desperate time on the sideline. It worked brilliantly 11 of 13 times (last year).”
Invariably, it takes time for an offense like the triple-option to get clicking because it’s based on precise movements, disguises and blocking. Navy will have played eight games before they take on Notre Dame. If the new personnel on offense don’t have it figured out by their Week 6 matchup against American Athletic Conference foe Houston, they’re going to have trouble making that eight-win plateau. (Connelly projects them to win 7.3 games, and says the probability of them beating the Irish this year is about 20 percent.)
Navy’s biggest strength is that they get opposing teams to cough up the football. In their 11 wins last year, the Middies had a +2 turnover margin per game, allowing their defense to get off the field and their offense more time to chew up the clock. If they’re to beat Notre Dame this year, it’ll be because the Irish got sloppy with protecting the ball. A few punts might help things too.
While Paul Johnson is responsible for Navy’s resurgence a decade ago, it was his understudy – and current head coach – Ken Niumatalolo that has made the Middies a tough game for both AAC opponents and Power 5 teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame. Niumatalolo seriously entertained an offer this winter to coach at BYU, which was, on paper, an ideal match. Niumatalolo is a devout Mormon and his son, Va’a, is a reserve linebacker on the Cougars squad.
Coach Ken decided to stay in Annapolis, and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper resisted rumored overtures to lead Hawai’i next season. The personnel may be entirely different, but the Niumatalolo & Jasper collaboration has allowed Navy to play well above its level of recruiting. (Reminder: Recruiting when you’re limited by size restrictions and mandatory military service after graduation is one of the hardest jobs in all of college football.)
A ONE-SIDED AFFAIR
Navy snapped Notre Dame’s 43 game win streak over the Midshipmen in 2007, and the playing field temporarily looked less lopsided. Navy downed Notre Dame, 35-17, in Brian Kelly’s first year, but Kelly’s teams have put the screws to their counterparts in blue and gold since then. Notre Dame scored 56, 50, 38, 49 and 41 points in their last five against Navy, and lead the all-time series, 76-12-1.
This will be Navy’s third appearance in Jacksonville, and the Irish’s
first fourth (they lost the previous three). The Midshipmen played Georgia Tech twice at the Gator Bowl in the mid-1960s and again in the early 70s. Notre Dame and Navy hooked up in Orlando, Fla., in 2000 – a game the Irish won, 45-14, over a truly terrible Navy team which went 1-10.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Connelly, SB Nation: “This will be a reset year. … Long-term, Navy will be fine. … Niu has earned a mulligan year. I have to figure he’s got Navy back in the AAC race within a year or two, and honestly, if they’re good at home (Houston and Memphis both visit Maryland), the Midshipmen could still play a role in the AAC West race this year. But that’s ‘could,’ not ‘should.'”
Gordon Larson, GoBlackKnights.com: “It’s unlikely that Navy will have the same success in the AAC this year for a few reasons. While they are reasonably deep in talent, they lost what has to be considered the best group of seniors in recent history, including superstar Keenan Reynolds. While Tago Smith should be an able replacement, he’ll have big shoes to fill, and the experience level drops way off after him. Chris Swain is another major player who will be hard to replace, and it’s hard to imagine that the offensive line will be as good as it was last season.”
Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated: “Too much attention always centers on whether the Irish can stop the triple-option attack. Navy will get its share of yards and score points against the Irish, just like versus almost everyone. The real issue is whether the Midshipmen can hold Notre Dame to less than 40 points, because defensively it does not possess the size and overall speed. … If Notre Dame commits two or three turnovers and has to punt two or three times, then Navy will have a decent shot at victory.”
Rich Cirminiello, CollegeFootballNews.com: “Now that Niumatalolo has resisted the temptation to take on a new challenge, it’s relatively smooth sailing ahead for a Naval Academy that’s remarkably won at least eight games in 12 of the past 13 seasons. Yes, significant roster turnover brings new challenges to the staff. But the Midshipmen have become the epitome of consistency, discipline and stability since the beginning of this century. And with Niumatalolo at the helm, they’ll find a way to remain at the forefront of postseason and Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy contention.”