Notebook: Navy presents different challenge than GT

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The blathering coming in Brian Kelly’s direction on Tuesday predictably was loaded with questions about how the Notre Dame football coach was going to deal with a second dose of triple-option reflux.

If only that was his lone source of potential heartache Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

The 4-0 Navy team that visits the 15th-ranked Irish (4-1) is much more complete than usual, with total defense and scoring defense national rankings (35 and 13th, respectively) well ahead of what it’s doing on offense (60th total offense, 22nd scoring offense).

The Mids sack opposing quarterbacks more proficiently than the Irish defense and are far better at coaxing turnovers from their opponents than ND.

In double-digit wins over Colgate, East Carolina, Air Force and former ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s UConn team, Navy has allowed just one rushing touchdown, and that came in the fourth quarter of last week’s 33-11 bludgeoning of Air Force.

The Mids were the second-to-last FBS team to yield a rushing TD this season, leaving Iowa alone as the only team that hasn’t allowed any.

Even their special teams have some glimmering facets.

Alex Grebe, who replaced slumping Nick Sloan midway through last season, missed his only extra-point attempt in 53 tries last week in a driving rain, and is 10-for-10 on field goals.

Overall, Navy, which hasn’t lost since Notre Dame’s 49-39 survival at Landover, Md., last Nov. 1, has a shot Saturday at its first nine-game win streak since 1959/1960.

“I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 (coaches poll) as a top 25 team,” Kelly said. “I think they've earned that.”

Navy, which has finished no lower than sixth in rushing offense over the past 14 seasons, is back near the top again, averaging 339.8 rushing yards a game. That’s nine yards off the school-record pace for a single season and good enough for third-best in the country this week.

If only it were a matter of cutting and pasting the defensive template from the 30-22 squelching of triple-option bully Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 into the Navy game plan. But even with the schematic similarities between Navy and the Yellow Jackets, Kelly knows he needs a fresh counterpunch.

“What they do that is different from Georgia Tech is formations,” Kelly said. “A myriad of formations. I mean, too many to count. … You have to look at all of those things and get into the right defensive looks, because it becomes a numbers game if you're not in the right defensive alignments.”

That’s not to say there aren’t residual benefits from playing two such similar schemes philosophically so close together on the schedule.

“We hit the ground running (Monday),” Kelly said. “We were able to work on maybe some of the nuances that you can't work on when you're just trying to figure out how to line up.

“So I think that there's certainly some things that we're going to have to tweak a little bit, but I can tell you that I'd much rather have already have played Georgia Tech and played an option offense than not have played any.”

Personnel matters

Max Redfield won’t be a spectator this time against the triple-option, as the junior safety was against Georgia Tech.

Kelly said Redfield will start against Navy, after recording a career-high-tying 14 tackles in the 24-22 loss at Clemson on Saturday.

“He was physical, double-digit tackles, was our highest point producer,” Kelly said. “What we have to have from Max is a consistency from week to week. We brought him in, and we talked about that. That's the kind of football he's capable of.”

• Starting offensive guard Quenton Nelson was still in a protective boot on Tuesday, but Kelly is optimistic the sophomore will be able to play Saturday. Fellow sophomore Alex Bars relieved Nelson Saturday night after 6-foot-5, 325-pounder suffered a high ankle sprain.

• Sophomore Tyler Luatua, ND’s best blocking tight end, has been cleared for contact after missing the past two games recovering from a concussion.

• Kelly will mull his options at kickoff returner this week, with grad Amir Carlisle and freshman C.J. Sanders as the most likely to surface.

Carlisle’s production has declined steadily from a 27.0 average in a small sample size in 2013, to 21.7 last season to 19.5 this season. That’s good for 94th nationally.

Sanders is averaging 35.5 on two returns, with a 46-yarder to midfield setting up ND’s first score against Clemson — a 46-yard field goal. His 25-yarder to start the third quarter ended in a lost fumble, which the Tigers cashed in for a touchdown.

“We'll keep practicing this week, keep working on it, and then probably make a decision on Thursday,” Kelly said.

Show of respect

It helps that Notre Dame and Navy are both Under Armour schools, but the two are taking advantage of that shared relationship to celebrate their own with each other.

The two teams will be wearing the same baselayer, gloves and cleats. The baselayer features both of the alma maters on the sleeves. The glove palms feature the words, “Respect, Honor, Tradition.”

Both sets of coaches will also wear the same sideline gear as a sign of mutual admiration.

By the numbers

Notre Dame senior running back C.J. Prosise’s 100-yard receiving game Saturday night against Clemson put him in distinct company.

Since 1970, only three players — former All-American Rocket Ismail, current Detroit Lion Theo Riddick and Prosise — have recorded at least one game of 100 yards or more rushing and one of 100 yards or more in receiving in their ND career.

Ismail and Prosise are the only two to do so in the same season.

• Since 1985, Navy has knocked off four ranked teams, the most recent being Notre Dame in 2009.

• Saturday will mark the first time in the 88-game series Notre Dame and Navy won’t meet each other as independents. After 134 seasons, Navy football is a member of a conference. The Mids debuted as a member of the American Athletic Conference this fall.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day, left, and James Onwualu collide as they tried to bring down Navy’s Keenan Reynolds during the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA college football game on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2014, at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN