Notebook: Navy helps buoy Notre Dame's playoff argument

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The irony percolates quietly beneath the boisterous Notre Dame/Iowa/Big 12 deliberations.

That the Irish (9-1) remained No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, unveiled Tuesday night, is in part due to a team that, often and perhaps unfairly, eroded at least perceptually ND football’s strength of schedules.

And Notre Dame was too loyal to ever evict the Mids from the schedule for a decades-old favor that kept Notre Dame, the university, afloat in tough economic times.

Navy (8-1) showed up at No. 16 in Tuesday’s CFP rankings, higher than the teams that constitute the best wins of the two teams closest to the Irish in the rear-view mirror, No. 5 Iowa (20th-ranked Northwestern) and No. 6 Oklahoma State (18th-ranked TCU).

Just as important, after 134 years as an independent, Navy this season became part of the American Athletic Conference, and controls its own destiny in terms of playing for and winning the league title as a league newbie.

Which would also puff up Notre Dame indirectly.

The rest of the top four — No. 1 Clemson (10-0), No. 2 Alabama (9-1) and No. 3 Ohio State (10-0) remained the same as well.

Committee chair Jeff Long said the Irish again “remain strong at No. 4,” and that most of the debate involved No. 5-7 — Iowa (10-0), Oklahoma State (10-0) and Oklahoma (9-1).

Notre Dame can help itself by winning out, Saturday night in the Shamrock Series game against Boston College (3-7) at Boston’s Fenway Park and Nov. 28 at CFP No. 11 Stanford (8-2).

But Clemson, Navy and USC — new to the rankings at No. 24 this week — winning out are extremely important to ND’s playoff argument. And Stanford winning against rival Cal would also help.

Looking out for No. 1

Boston College is on a trajectory that would net the Golden Eagles the rare distinction of being the nation’s No. 1 team in total defense at season’s end — but with a losing record.

That last happened in 2004, when a 5-6 North Carolina State team did the trick.

Also rare, the Irish butting up against the No. 1 team nationally in total defense. Notre Dame has faced the team that won the national statistical title in total defense only four times previously, since the NCAA started keeping records in 1937. And the only time the Irish prevailed in such a matchup was 1940 against Navy, a 13-7 win at Baltimore.

The losses came to Miami of Fla., in 1989 (27-10 in Miami), to Michigan in 1997 (21-14 in Ann Arbor, Mich.) and to Alabama in 2012 in the BCS National Championship Game at Miami Gardens, Fla. (42-14).

Technically, the Irish faced the No. 1 total defense in two others seasons (1946 and 1974) — in practice. Notre Dame led the nation those two seasons.

That 2012 ND team actually faced six top 20 total defenses and won the other five games besides Alabama, against No. 3 BYU, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 13 Michigan, No. 17 Pitt and No. 20 Stanford.

BC third-year head coach Steve Addazio, a tackles-tight ends-special teams assistant under Bob Davie during his three seasons at Notre Dame (1999-2001), has built the Eagles into a dominant defensive unit in short order.

The year before he arrived at BC, the traditionally strong defensively Eagles ranked 100th in total defense. In Addazio’s first season, BC ranked 92nd, then 11th last season before ascending to the top so far in 2015.

“It's really a defensive unit philosophy that you're working at more than anything else,” Kelly said of how ND is approaching the game from an offensive standpoint. “It's not one particular guy. So you're really looking at how they're coached and how they're defending down and distance, and formationally.

“You're really attacking a system of defense and how it's coached, and that's how you go about it.”

Fifty-six of the BC’s opponents’ 125 drives have resulted in three-and-outs, a nation’s best 44.8 percent.

The Eagles’ defensive numbers are admittedly skewed a bit by playing FCS teams Howard and Maine, which they held to 11 total yards and 91, respectively. But if you extract those two games and BC’s non-conference matchup with Northern Illinois, the Eagles would still only fall to ninth in total defense and one spot to No. 2 in rushing D.

Top-ranked Clemson was the one team that had its way with the BC defense, amassing 532 total yards — roughly 36 above its average — in a 34-17 victory on Oct. 17.

Channel surfing safari

For the first time in the 25-year Notre Dame/NBC marriage an Irish home game — and yes, this Shamrock Series game at Fenway Park counts as one — will be the first one not to be carried on NBC’s regular channel.

Instead, NBC is airing Insider, Movie of the Week: Free Birds, and a rerun of Saturday Night Live, while the Notre Dame-Boston College game appears on NBCSN (NBC Sports Network).

That means you’ll need to have a cable or satellite package to view the game on TV. NBCSN is in 85 million homes in the U.S. That compares to the 92 million cable sports giant ESPN can claim.

Nielsen estimates there are 116 million TV households overall in the U.S., so 27 percent of them won’t have access to the ND game. The problem is more acute in Canada, where there’s a large and avid Notre Dame football fan base and limited alternatives.

The NBC Sports Group does offer a free live stream of all the Irish home games to desktops, tablets and mobile devices to cable/satellite subscribers in the U.S.

It’s the first regular-season game on cable for Notre Dame since CBS College Sports aired the Oct. 26, 2013 game at Air Force. And it’s the first Notre Dame-controlled game to be broadcast on cable since the Irish faced Penn State on ESPN on Nov. 17, 1990.

Meanwhile, both the kickoff time and televising network for Notre Dame’s regular-season finale at Stanford (Nov. 28) won’t likely be determined and announced until Sunday.

The possible kickoff times (in Eastern Standard Time) are 3:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. Fox has the first choice to televise. If it passes, the game will be on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

Quick hits

• The Blue-Gold Game will be back at Notre Dame Stadium next spring after a one-year absence.

The Campus Crossroads construction last spring pushed the game to an invite-only affair at the LaBar Practice Complex, but apparently it’ll be possible to work around construction this time. The date of the game is April 16.

• After getting completely ignored by the Biletnikoff Award committee last season, not even making the award’s preseason or late-season watch lists, Notre Dame junior receiver Will Fuller on Tuesday made the cut to 10 semifinalists.

The award is given annually to the nation’s top receiver. Among the previous 21 winners, Golden Tate (2009) stands alone as the lone rep for Notre Dame.

Fuller’s value to Notre Dame doesn’t just show up in his own glittering stats (47 catches, 937 yards and 12 TDs), but in the best Irish running game since the Lou Holtz Era by how his skill set opens up the field for the run game.

• Lombardi Award semifinalist Ronnie Stanley didn’t make the final cutdown Tuesday from 12 to four finalists for the award given annually to the nation’s best offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker.

All four finalists this year are defensive ends: Joey Bosa (Ohio State), Carl Nassib (Penn State), Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Shaq Lawson (Clemson).

Lawson had seven tackles, 3.5 for loss, against the Irish in the 24-22 Tigers victory on Oct. 3.

Past Notre Dame winners comprise Manti Te’o (2012), Aaron Taylor (1993), Chris Zorich (1990), Ross Browner (1977) and Walt Patulski (1971).

• That redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer is on the doorstep of the single-season rushing TD record at Notre Dame comes as no surprise to Irish coach Brian Kelly.

Kizer has eight this season heading into Saturday’s game with BC. Tony Rice and Rick Mirer share the record with nine.

“We're running option down there,” Kelly said. “A true read option. Didn't do it with (Everett) Golson. Didn't do it with Tommy Rees. Didn't do it with the other quarterbacks who were here. So that's one reason.

“The other reason is he's 235 pounds. He's big, he's strong. And down there, if you're going to go double some really talented receivers, you get friendly boxes to run the football.

“So I think those two things right there, and he's a guy that enjoys running the football. So you put all those things together, and that's why those plays are called.''

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame players participate in Navy's postgame Alma Mater following ND's 41-24 victory on Oct. 10 at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)