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11/13/08

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Keys to an Irish Win

The United States Naval Academy always presents a unique challenge for the Fighting Irish. This weekend, with the memory of last year’s win fresh in the Midshipmen’s minds and Notre Dame losing three of their last four, it figures to be an uncharacteristically close affair.

The Midshipmen run an unconventional option offense to the tune of nearly 30 points and 310 rushing yards per game. This also directly correlates to an over four-minute time of possession advantage. The discipline and level of execution evident in the Navy running game exceeds nearly every other team in the country.

Against an offense like this, statistics mean little. The goal of the Midshipmen is to chip away, consistently drive down the field, and move the chains until they score. Facing a porous Irish running defense, this figures to be a huge advantage for the Naval Academy.

Of course, when the Midshipmen do dial-up a pass they average 10 yards per attempt and 16.3 per completion. Such is the luxury of an effective rush offense. Notre Dame could learn a lesson from their counterparts Saturday.

Additionally, third down efficiency (48 percent), red zone effectiveness (88 percent scoring and 56 percent touchdowns), and turnover margin (plus eight) are all good-but not great-for Navy.

On offense, the Irish face a secondary surrendering over 250 yards passing per game. Moreover, the Midshipmen allow 8.5 yards per passing attempt and 13 yards per completion in addition to 16 passing touchdowns. In other words, Navy’s secondary play is lacking.

The Naval Academy will not be able to match-up against the Irish receiving corps and quarterback Jimmy Clausen is undoubtedly the best passing quarterback the Midshipmen have faced this year. This points to an advantage for Notre Dame in the passing game. Of course, this also assumes the Irish will be able to protect the passer.

The Navy defense also allows opponents to convert over 50 percent of their third downs and score touchdowns at a rate of better than 66 percent in the red zone.

The keys to winning this game for Notre Dame all surround the potent Midshipmen running game and the indirect consequences of such an attack. Additionally, another overtime game a la 2007 will most certainly spell disaster for the Irish. The Naval Academy’s running game is a prominent weapon from the 25-yard line in and the Irish don’t fare well in the red zone.

Offense

1. The name of the game is ball control - Like so many other games this year, the Irish offense must control the ball to keep their defense off the field. This will maintain a fresh defensive front much more capable of stopping the run. Additionally, it will limit the exposure of a weak run defense. This doesn’t mean the Irish need to run the ball 70 percent of the time, but it does imply patience. Against an opponent like Navy first downs are imperative while big vertical passing plays are more liability than gain.
2. Forget the past - The Irish offense ranks 114th in red zone offense and converts only 53 percent of red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Notre Dame must improve in this area or they are certain to lose this game. Possessions are a commodity against a strong running team like the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen will chew the clock, minimizing the number of times Notre Dame possesses the ball. As such, it is imperative that the Irish score touchdowns when given the opportunity to do so.
3. Win the field position battle - Once Navy crosses the fifty-yard line they become even more difficult to stop. At this point punting gains little and the Midshipmen typically use four downs to convert. For a running attack that picks-up three yards with little trouble, having four downs to move the chains make a first down almost a foregone conclusion. The Irish offense must change the field position on every possession. Three and out’s are devastating against an opponent who becomes much more effective in Notre Dame territory.

Defense

1. Impose your will - Navy’s offense is predicated upon making decisions. The option is designed to read the defense and take advantage of poor assignment execution. If Notre Dame decides to sit back, read, and react to the Midshipmen offense, they will not be able to stop Navy’s running game. The alternative is to take assistant head coach Jon Tenuta’s aggressive pass pressure scheme and apply it to the running game. Fill the gaps, take away the dive, quarterback keeper, and pitch-and do it every play. The Irish cannot be afraid to fill the box and force Navy to throw. Through nine games the Midshipmen have only attempted 60 passes; they aren’t going to win the game through the air.
2. Acute, obtuse, or something in between - Against a running attack that likes to get to the edge, proper pursuit angles are extremely important. The Irish defense cannot over or under-pursue. The former gives up too many yards and the latter misses tackling opportunities.
3. Don’t let them cross midfield - Similar to the offense playing field position, the Irish defense must stop Navy on their own end of the field. Running the ball four times to get 10 yards is virtually a foregone conclusion against a proficient rushing attack. Notre Dame cannot afford to give the Midshipmen another down to move the chains.

Summary

This game is being built as a make-or-break affair for head coach Charlie Weis. After last year’s loss to Navy that ended the 42-game Irish win streak and last week’s debacle against Boston College, another Irish loss would help seal Weis’ fate at Notre Dame.

On paper Notre Dame should win this game easily. But lackluster effort, turnovers, and inept play-calling have caused Notre Dame to lose more than their fair share of “should win” games over the last two years.

This contest will be won in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Irish offensive line must protect Clausen in order to take advantage of the mismatch in the passing game. Concurrently, Notre Dame’s defensive line must take away the dive and play in the Midshipmen backfield.


The rest of the game plan must surround taking away the advantages directly correlated to the potent Navy running game.

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