Opponent outlook: Navy adds defense to prolific offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

There will be one undefeated football team in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.

And it's not the Irish.

Preseason whispers from Annapolis suggested Navy (4-0), a new member of the American Athletic Conference, could be on the verge of a “special” season and they've been solid in wins over Colgate, East Carolina, UConn and Air Force.

Not only is the Midshipmen triple-option offense clicking on all cylinders (No. 3 in the country in rushing, 339.8 yards a game) with senior Keenan Reynolds at quarterback, but their defense has proven to be impressive (tied for 35th in the country, just one spot below Notre Dame at 333.0 yards).

Bill Wagner, Navy football beat writer for the Annapolis Capital Gazette, gives Irish fans a peek into what to expect from the Midshipmen this week.

ND Insider: How has joining the AAC impacted the Navy football program?

Bill Wagner: They have added that to their list of goals — along with beating Air Force and Army to capture the Commander-in-Chief trophy. (Winning the league title) is slotted in No. 2 on the list (of goals). Head coach Ken Niumatalolo has talked about how first class the conference is. He also said it might not feel like it’s a conference for about a year or two down the road, playing teams over and over. This first year, they’re playing them for the first time, so it’s similar to the independent schedule they’ve played in the past. Schools like Connecticut, East Carolina, Tulane and SMU are all schools they’ve played before and are comfortable with.

NDI: How did Navy’s recent stretch of success against Notre Dame (winning three of four games from 2007-10, after a 43-game losing streak) change the way the Irish are perceived?

Wagner: I’m not sure it has changed. The idea that Notre Dame is unbeatable, obviously, is not there anymore. That unbelievable (ND) winning streak had become a monkey on Navy’s back. Now that Navy has beaten Notre Dame several times, the aura of invincibility may not be the same, but, at the same time, Navy knows that every year Notre Dame will be the best team on its schedule, have the best athletes – the biggest and the strongest. Navy doesn’t look at Notre Dame any differently, players and coaches know this is a tall task. Frankly, despite Navy’s little stretch of victories, they’ve been brought back down to earth the past couple years (the Irish have won by 42, 40, 4 and 10 since losing in 2010).

NDI: What would a win over Notre Dame mean for the Midshipmen?

Wagner: A lot of people feel this is a special Navy football team. That’s my opinion as a beat writer. This is the best team I’ve seen during this amazing stretch of 11 winning seasons in 12 years. They’ve never had this much talent on both sides of the ball. They finally have a defense that can get after opponents. They never really had that. They’ve had a great offense, then play a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense. Against Notre Dame, we’ll see just how good this defense is, but so far, it’s looking a lot better than the average Navy defense. A win over Notre Dame would make Navy 5-0. Then, you start thinking, “Maybe we can finish this thing off (undefeated).”

NDI: How has quarterback Keenan Reynolds developed this season?

Wagner: What development there was occurred in the off-season. He took his game to the master’s level of the option offense in the off-season. He devoted himself to learning this offense inside and out. There’s never been a four-year starter (at quarterback) for Navy in the triple-option. No freshman ever got the quality reps working with the coaching staff that Keenan did. He’s had more reps of coaching, more time working with (offensive coordinator) Ivin Jasper, than anyone in the option era. He’s a really intelligent kid, a natural football mind. That’s helped the learning process. They’ve never had a quarterback who is like an offensive coordinator on the field.”

NDI: When Ricky Dobbs was the quarterback at Navy (2008-10), he embraced the role of the “face” of the Navy program, to the extent that he often said his long-term goal was to be President of the United States. How has Reynolds handled that similar role?

Wagner: He has handled it absolutely remarkably. He has his head screwed on straight. He has confidence. He says all the right things. He’s a smart cookie. He knows how to be a leader. His teammates respect him by the work ethic he brings to the field. The key word is humble. Despite all the accolades and all the attention, he never put himself above the program. He never considered himself more important than any other player. He’s all about team; all about winning. When he talks about his legacy, he doesn’t talk about any individual records. It’s all about the team.

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) rolls out of the pocket during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Connecticut, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in East Hartford, Conn. AP Photo/Stew Milne)