SAN DIEGO — Third-ranked Notre Dame is trying to stay in contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Navy is just trying to win a game.
The Fighting Irish and Midshipmen find themselves on opposite ends of the college football spectrum going into the 92nd meeting between the schools.
That was often the case during Notre Dame’s historic 43-game winning streak in the series, but has not been ever since former head coach Paul Johnson returned Navy to respectability in 2003.
Navy has posted winning records and secured bowl berths in 14 of the past 15 seasons. The Midshipmen have been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 many times during that sustained stretch of success.
Not surprisingly, the Midshipmen have also played the Fighting Irish extremely tough over the last 15 years. Navy ended its record losing streak in 2007 and has beaten Notre Dame three more times since then. Four of the last five meetings between the schools have been decided by 10 points or less.
“Again, these are battles. They play extremely well against us. We'll have to be at our best playing a complete football team that plays hard for four quarters,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Navy.
Navy has presented a particular challenge to Notre Dame since Ken Niumatalolo took over as head coach. The Midshipmen have either beaten the Fighting Irish or lost by one possession in six of the 10 games played during Niumatalolo’s tenure.
“Ken Niumatalolo is one of the better, if not the best, at what he does in the country – that is consistency,” Kelly said. “Year in and year out, Navy is just a well-coached football team.”
However, this year’s Navy-Notre Dame game looks more like the mismatch it was so many times from 1964 through 2006. This is the longest, continuous intersectional rivalry in college football and the Fighting Irish lead the series, 77-13-1.
“We recognize who we are and that we have to play perfect against a team like this. We have to minimize our mistakes as much as possible and hope they’re off a little bit,” Niumatalolo said. “We know exactly who they are. They are going to be the best team we play every year and it’s going to be a tall order to beat them. We have to play really, really well to even have a chance.”
Notre Dame is undefeated entering the eighth week of the season for just the 12th time since 1950. The Fighting Irish are off to a 7-0 start for only the third time since 1990.
Notre Dame started the season No. 12 in the Associated Press poll and has steadily risen to third. The Fighting Irish have knocked off three ranked opponents and now the inevitable talk about competing for the national championship has begun.
An upset loss at the hands of a struggling Navy squad would certainly doom any chance of Notre Dame being selected for the College Football Playoff for the first time under the current format. The Fighting Irish are one of five unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Kelly was asked if he talked to his team about what happened last weekend when third-ranked Ohio State was stunned by Purdue.
“Look, it's a one-week deal for us. We're one day at a time, one practice at a time. They know where they are,” Kelly said of his players. “They have to stay focused, stick with their process. If you don't have a process you can stick with, then you're going to listen to all that stuff. But if you just stick with your preparation, what your process is, then you can focus on the moment and not worry about all that other stuff.”
That puts the Midshipmen in somewhat of a spoiler role if they can somehow shock the college football world. Unlike Alabama and Ohio State, which both play in a Power Five conference, independent Notre Dame cannot overcome a loss and hope to be one of the four schools chosen for the College Football Playoff.
“I’m extremely excited. It’s a big opportunity,” said Navy junior slotback Malcolm Perry, who has never suited up against Notre Dame. “Any time you get to play the third-ranked team in the country is huge. It’s something a lot of college football players don’t get a chance to do.”
Meanwhile, the Midshipmen are mired in a four-game losing streak for the first time since 2011 when they finished 5-7. That was Navy’s only losing season between 2003 and 2017.
The Mids must pull an upset in order to avoid their first seven-game losing streak since 2002 as the next three opponents (Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Central Florida) have a combined record of 20-1.
Niumatalolo admits the Mids will need to show dramatic improvement to have any shot of beating the Irish.
“It’s a great opportunity. We haven’t been playing very well this season so our goal is to go out there and play Navy football just to give ourselves a chance,” he said. “I hope going against such a storied program brings out the best in our players. It’s a great honor to be able to play a team the caliber of Notre Dame.”
There are two trends that do not bode well for an upset. Navy has collapsed in the second half of its last three games (losses to Air Force, Temple and Houston), getting outscored 66-19. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has dominated its last three opponents defensively in the second half, yielding just one touchdown from scrimmage to Stanford, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Quarterback Garret Lewis and the rest of the Navy offense moved the ball effectively during the first half of home games versus Temple and Houston the previous two Saturdays. However, the program’s patented triple-option attack ground to a halt in the second half of those two contests, leaving the coaches scratching their heads as to why.
“I’m trying to find a reason. What is different about the second half? We came out in the third quarter last Saturday and got a drive going then things began breaking down and after that it snowballs,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. “This is very disturbing because we’re not accustomed to this. It’s a combination of everything. I can call better plays, our kids can execute better. We have to find a way to put it all together.”
Niumatalolo and Jasper are hoping some continuity will lead to consistency. Lewis will make his third straight start at quarterback while Perry will do the same at slotback. Zach Abey has recovered fully from a knee injury and returns to his hybrid role as starting wide receiver and short-yardage quarterback.
“Offensively I think they've really found themselves in terms of what they're doing. Malcolm Perry is certainly a dynamic player on offense. Garrett Lewis seems to have found himself as far as running the offense,” Kelly said. “There's probably Zach Abey also healthy so he could play the quarterback position. We’re running a lot of different looks at our defense at the quarterback position right now.”
Notre Dame is only playing one quarterback and he has been pretty darn good since taking over as the starter in Game 4 versus Wake Forest. Junior Ian Book leads all of FBS with a 75.2 completion percentage and has passed for 1,151 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions over four starts.
“One player that definitely stands out is the quarterback. He’s playing phenomenal football right now,” Niumatalolo said. “They’ve always been good up front, they’ve always had good wide receivers and good running backs. I think the Book kid is playing at an elite level. You can tell he knows where to go with the football, makes good decisions.”
Niumatalolo said Book, who is listed at 6-foot and 203 pounds, reminds him of Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton in that both have a “really high football IQ” and are extremely accurate throwing the football.
“Book just brings a different element in that it’s hard to do things to him. If you try to bring blitzes, he sees them. If you try to disguise coverages, he’s hard to fool,” Niumatalolo said.
Book has plenty of dangerous weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Maurice Boykins has been performing at a high level of late and leads Notre Dame with 35 catches for 512 yards and four touchdowns. Tailback Dexter Williams was suspended four games to start the season, but has been explosive since returning – rushing for 370 yards and four scores in just three games.
Chris Finke (25 catches for 305 yards) is an elusive slot receiver while 6-foot-4 Chase Claypool is a tall target on the outside. Notre Dame has a long history of standout tight ends and Alize Mack (6-5, 247) is the latest with NFL potential.
The Fighting Irish had to rebuild the offensive line after losing two All-Americans – Quenton Nelson (Indianapolis Colts) and Mike McGlinchey (San Francisco 49ers) – to the NFL, but still has the size and strength to overpower the Midshipmen.
“To me, the Notre Dame offensive line has always been special,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “They have talent at all the skill positions, but that line is the engine that makes it all go.”
Everyone involved with Navy football knows the formula for upsetting Notre Dame begins with dominating possession by mounting time-consuming touchdown drives. The Midshipmen executed that game-plan to perfection in beating the Irish, 28-27, at Everbank Stadium two years ago.
“We need to play like we did in 2016 in Jacksonville. We had a touchdown every quarter then ran the last seven minutes off the clock,” Jasper said. “We’ll need something like that. We need to take care of the football, grind it out, eat up the clock and score points.”
Zach Abey was a sophomore backup quarterback when starter Will Worth directed that ideal offensive performance that upended Notre Dame at the facility now known as TIAA Bank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Archbishop Spalding product, who almost led the Midshipmen to another upset of the Irish last season, would love to experience that feeling again.
“To take down Notre Dame would be awesome, especially for the seniors. I was lucky enough to be part of it as a sophomore. Standing on the sideline and watching Will Worth and the offense play so well... it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s definitely attainable and would certainly change the outlook of the season,”Abey said.
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