Improved Navy defense looks to sink Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Ken Niumatalolo sees two options, and few answers.

Since 2011, Navy's head football coach has witnessed his defense surrender an average of 48.3 points per game to Notre Dame, which yielded — unsurprisingly — four consecutive defeats. Throughout that span, the Irish punted a grand total of four times.

When the Midshipmen dropped players into coverage, the Irish obliterated their front with a mauling running game.

And when they loaded the box, Brian Kelly’s quarterbacks exposed them for big passing plays over the top.

Stop the pass, and they run. Stop the run, and they pass.

This is Niumatalolo’s nightmare — a vicious, unmerciful cycle.

“Notre Dame over the years has given us trouble because they mash us with the football, so you have to get your safeties involved,” Niumatalolo said. “Then they throw it over our heads. It's a tough combination for us. We have to get people involved in the run because they're massive. A lot of their zone stuff, they just kind of gobble us up inside. We have to try to get extra hats to the ball, and that leaves our guys on the edge on an island.

“They've been able to exploit us. It's always a tough matchup. If you don't get people involved, they just run it down our throats. And when you do get guys to the football they throw it over our heads, so it's kind of pick your poison."

This season, however, Navy’s defense may be better-suited to remain poison-free.

Through four games, the Midshipmen have allowed just three plays of 30 yards or more, which is tied for fifth nationally. They have yet to allow a play registering more than 40 yards, one of only five teams that can make such a claim.

Navy’s opponents have managed 333 total yards per game, which ranks 35th nationally, but their plodding progress has rarely resulted in points.

They bend, and they bend, and they bend, but Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen have yet to actually break.

“I think that just comes from playing assignment football,” said junior cornerback Brendon Clements, who has started 24 consecutive games. “The reason big plays happen is because people aren’t focused on what they’re supposed to do. I think our coaches do a good job of making sure we focus on our job and our keys and playing sound assignment football.”

But Navy’s four previous opponents — Colgate, East Carolina, UConn and Air Force — aren’t Notre Dame. In fact, none of them rank higher than 51st in total offense (East Carolina) and 46th in scoring offense (Air Force).

Notre Dame ranks in the top 30 in both categories, despite having played all five of its games against FBS programs.

And perhaps more alarmingly, the Irish have scored at least eight touchdowns of at least 50 yards.

So, in the tug of war between an offense that churns out big plays and a defense that has yet to allow one, who will win on Saturday?

“We're playing as good as we've played on defense in a long time right now, but we also know we're going to play a team that, quite frankly, we've had a hard time making them punt the last couple years,” Niumatalolo said.

“Coach Kelly, I believe, is one of the best offensive minds, head coach, play caller that there is around. They always have good schemes. They have good players. He puts you in a lot of different binds. It's going to be tough. I like the way we're playing, but our guys recognize that we're going to play against a very potent offense."

Despite being in his eighth season as Navy’s head coach, Niumatalolo has yet to squash his recurring Irish nightmare.

If he has learned one thing, however, it’s never to trust appearances.

“This is a different animal, we realize, in Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “This is by far the best team we're going to play this whole year. We know them so well that I always hate watching tape, because I watch them on tape and say, 'They don't look as big this year.' Then you see them in person and it's like, 'I was wrong. They're bigger than I thought.'

“It's going to be hard. I think we're playing well, but we know who we are, and we know who they are."

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Corey Robinson played for the second time against Navy, his father's alma mater. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)