During losing streak, Navy defense has taken a pass

Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green doesn't want to hear about the injuries that have depleted his unit, from the line to the secondary. He doesn't want to talk about the fact that the Midshipmen will start two freshmen in the secondary and a junior lineman making his first college start Saturday here against Notre Dame.

Green, now in his 10th season at Navy, doesn't have to look at the NCAA statistics to know that among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Navy (2-5) ranks near the bottom of several defensive categories that relate to its pass rush (110th in sacks) and coverage (111th in pass efficiency and 119th in third-down pass efficiency).

"We've lost too many one-on-one battles, all 11 [positions], that's been our biggest problem," Green said after practice Wednesday in Annapolis.

Since doing a fairly good job against South Carolina in a 24-21 road loss on Sept. 17, Navy has watched a succession of opposing quarterbacks play like All-Americans.

It started with Air Force's Tim Jefferson (9-for-10 for 136 yards and one TD) and Southern Mississippi's Austin Davis (21-for-23 for 283 yards and three TDs), continued with Rutgers freshman Gary Nova (23-for-31 for 271 yards and two TDs) and culminated with East Carolina's Dominique Davis breaking an NCAA record by completing his first 26 passes en route to a 40-for-45, 372-yard, two-touchdown performance in last Saturday's 38-35 loss for the Midshipmen in Annapolis.

As a result of the injuries and inconsistencies, Green has been constantly reconfiguring his starting lineup. Against Notre Dame (4-3), Navy will start freshman Chris Ferguson for the second straight game, as well as freshman cornerback Parrish Gaines and junior defensive end Joshua Jones for the first time.

Jones had seven tackles — including two for losses — in the setback against East Carolina. Ferguson had an interception return for a touchdown and forced a fumble against Rutgers, then had another potential interception (with a clear field ahead of him) slip through his hands against the Pirates.

Asked whether it makes him nervous or excited to start so many young players, Green said, "I get excited because they got their opportunity and I know they'll play hard and play their butts off, and that's all we ask."

What makes Green nervous is Notre Dame. Despite their own inconsistencies this season, the Fighting Irish will still have a physical advantage in many of the matchups, particularly with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

"They've got so many big play guys," Green said. "Everybody asks about Michael Floyd and he is a great one, without a doubt. He's the most physical [wide receiver] we have ever seen. They've got tight ends that can catch it, a quarterback that's unbelievable. The thing people overlook is that we've got to do a great job in the run game. Those tailbacks can take it to the house. I've seen them outrun the Pitt secondary for 75 yards, I've seen them outrun Michigan State. … We've got to be in the right spots all night long."

Just as Ferguson took advantage of the opportunity of getting his first start against Rutgers, Jones hopes to do the same against Notre Dame. The atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium — a crowd expected to be around 85,000 as well as the fact that the game is nationally televised — makes it a little different for Jones and Gaines than it was for Ferguson at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.

"This is my first time going out to Notre Dame. I'm overly excited," Jones said as he and the Midshipmen prepared for a trip to South Bend, where they beat the Irish, 23-21, in 2009 for their second of three wins in a four-year span, including the past two seasons. "We've been working hard collectively, and we can't wait to get out and play."

The Midshipmen hope they won't add Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees to the list of quarterbacks who have torched Navy's defense this season. A sophomore, Rees threw four interceptions in the team's 0-2 start, but has thrown only three in the past five games. He has not been sacked in the past three games.

"It all starts with us," Jones said. "We've got to get back there and put pressure on him. He's got to know that we're there."

Said junior linebacker Matt Warrick, Navy's leading tackler this season: "As a linebacker group, we've got to make sure we're taking the right drops and executing on every play. When they call for a blitz, we've got to show up. We haven't been doing our jobs."

On a critical fourth-down play in the fourth quarter against East Carolina, Warrick had his man covered coming out the backfield, but Davis double-pumped to allow the receiver to get free. It turned out to be enough for Davis to make the completion as the Pirates went on to score what would be the winning touchdown.

"The margin is so close, so small," Warrick said. "I was there and then I let him get inside of me. That was obviously the turning point in the game. It's those little things that we've got to be able to execute. It's on us. If we had done our job the last few games, we would be in a much better position right now. As a defense, we've got to refuse to let them drive up and down the field."


Saturday's game Navy (2-5) @ Notre Dame (4-3)

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: Notre Dame leads 71-12-1

Last meeting: Navy won, 35-17, on Oct. 23, 2010, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Line: Notre Dame by 20

Navy offense vs. Notre Dame defense: Sophomore quarterback Trey Miller will make his first college start after replacing injured senior Kriss Proctor [dislocated elbow] last Saturday against East Carolina. Miller is the first Navy quarterback to make his debut at Notre Dame Stadium since Brian Madden in 1999 (when the Midshipmen lost, 28-24, after a controversial spot near the goal line after appearing to stop the Irish on fourth down). Miller showed a pretty good arm against East Carolina, throwing for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and nearly a third. With Proctor, the team's leading rusher, sidelined, Navy might have to rely more on junior slotback Gee Gee Greene, who is coming off a season-high 92 yards against East Carolina.

Navy defense vs. Notre Dame offense: In addition to the problems Navy has had stopping the pass, the Midshipmen have struggled against the run (103rd in the FBS, giving up 198.3 yards a game). Three Irish tailbacks — leading rusher Cierre Wood, as well as Jonas Gray and Andrew Hendrix — have runs of 50 yards or more, the first time that has been done by Notre Dame in a decade. But the biggest problem will likely be the matchups against wide receivers Michael Floyd (53 catches for 639 yards and four TDs) and Theo Riddick, as well as tight end Tyler Eifer (32 catches for 363 yards and three TDs). It could be another long day for the Navy secondary.

Don Markus

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