Notre Dame football: An insider's look at Navy
Notre Dame and Navy will play for the 88th consecutive year when they meet Saturday at 8 p.m. (Eastern) at FedExField in Landover, Md. Longtime Navy beat writer Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., took a few minutes this week to discuss a number of topics pertaining to the Midshipmen.
NDI: How different of a team is Navy with quarterback Keenan Reynolds in the lineup?
Wagner: Keenan Reynolds is the straw that stirs the drink, so to speak. He is the engineer at the controls of the triple-option offense and one of the best quarterbacks in Navy history. By the time Reynolds graduates, he will have rewritten the Navy offensive record book. Reynolds is a dual-threat quarterback — a strong, elusive runner and a solid passer.
But what separates Reynolds from Navy quarterbacks of the past is his understanding of the option — the ability to read defenses, make checks at the line of scrimmage and distribute the football to the right spot. Reynolds was not himself during Navy's three-game losing streak, clearly bothered by a knee injury that appears to have been much worse than anyone let on. After getting two full weeks of rest to heal, Reynolds looked like his old self in rushing for 251 yards on 39 carries against San Jose State.
NDI: What can Navy exploit on Notre Dame’s defense?
Wagner: I don't think Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper looks at the Notre Dame defense on tape and thinks he can "exploit" anything. All Navy can do is see how the Fighting Irish line up and try to attack accordingly. That has always been what the Midshipmen do: They figure out what the defense is doing then counter.
First and foremost, Jasper will try to establish the fullback dive because that sets up everything. Obviously, it would make sense to use Notre Dame's speed and strong pursuit against it with misdirection plays. If the Notre Dame safeties start cheating up to provide run support, Jasper will wait for the opportune time to throw the ball over their heads.
NDI: What is one thing Navy must do in order to win?
Wagner: Navy absolutely cannot commit turnovers, which has been a major problem this season. The Midshipmen have 13 turnovers through eight games after having just 10 all of last season. It has become a big problem and proven quite costly in all four of the team's losses. The Midshipmen must make the most of every possession in this game and cannot afford to have any sort of negative plays (penalties or turnovers) that kill drives.
NDI: What is one thing Navy could do/not do that would guarantee a loss?
Wagner: I think the big question for Navy is whether it can stop/slow down the Notre Dame offense. Obviously, the Mids are overmatched in a lot of areas beginning at the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame's offensive line outweighs the Navy defensive line significantly and there have been times in the past when the Irish have must mauled the Mids at the point of attack.
Navy must show it can stop the run or else Notre Dame will just run it down their throat. There is also major concern on the outside with the size (Corey Robinson) and speed (Will Fuller) the Fighting Irish have at wide receiver. This will be a huge challenge for the Navy cornerbacks. Notre Dame always seems to have a quality tight end that has hurt Navy as well and I'm sure Ben Koyack or one of the backups will make an impact.
This is a really difficult task for the Navy defense, which will have to play its best game of the season to hold Notre Dame below 30 points.
NDI: Seven years in, where is the program at compared to when Ken Niumatalolo took over for Paul Johnson?
Wagner: Navy did not miss a beat because of the coaching change. In fact, it is my opinion that Navy has continued to get better under current head coach Ken Niumatalolo and the program is as strong as it's ever been.
This coaching staff has continued to ramp up its recruiting efforts and the Midshipmen now have better size, speed and athleticism than ever before. Obviously, Navy is still recruiting a lot of players who did not have any other major college offers, but this staff has done a great job of finding good players that fit the offensive and defensive systems.
Niumatalolo has been at Navy a total of 17 seasons while six of the assistants, including Jasper and defensive coordinator Buddy Green, have been with the program for 12 years or more. That continuity and experience has been a big reason for Navy's consistent success.
For more stories on Navy ahead of this week's game against Notre Dame, go to http://capitalgazette.com/navy_sports