Opponent Outlook: High-powered Navy looks to rebound against Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Navy certainly knows how to put points on the board.

In seven games this season, the 5-2 Midshipmen have scored at least 40 five times. Their most prominent scalp comes from Houston, which Navy beat 46-40 on Oct. 8, when the Cougars were considered a viable candidate for the College Football Playoff.

When Navy meets Notre Dame (3-5) Saturday (at 11:30 a.m.) in Jacksonville, Fla., it will be trying to regroup after a 52-45 upset loss to South Florida.

Bill Wagner, Navy football beat writer for the Capital Gazette, adds some context to the current situation facing the Midshipmen.

ND Insider: How was South Florida able to score 52 points against a Navy defense that has played pretty well (yielding 436 yards and 29 points a game)?

Bill Wagner: South Florida seriously exposed Navy's speed issues on defense. The Bulls do an outstanding job of spreading out defenses both horizontally and vertically. Navy dropped seven men in coverage, which left the middle of the field vacant. That was the primary reason for the long touchdown runs by quarterback Quinton Flowers and tailback Marlon Mack. Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson admitted after the game that Navy simply had a bad game-plan. Navy got more aggressive in the second half and limited South Florida to 10 points — although it was obvious the home team was coasting by then. Navy normally does a good job of masking its weaknesses of overall lack of speed and size. On this night, the Midshipmen got exposed big-time.

SBT: Why has quarterback Will Worth (6-foot-1, 205-pound senior) been able to be so productive (618 yards and 13 TDs on 161 rushes; 52 of 87 passing for 987 yards and 6 TDs, along with 3 interceptions) at a position that seemed to be in crisis when starter Tago Smith was injured in the season opener?

BW: Even the coaching staff has been surprised by just how well Will Worth has performed. He was the third stringer for the previous two seasons for a reason. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has done a terrific job of tailoring the offense to suit the specific strengths of Worth, who is basically like a second fullback. Jasper has used the tight formation (in which the two wide receivers line up just outside the tackle box) quite often since Worth became the starter. That is designed to take advantage of Worth's inside running ability. Worth is a good passer, displaying accuracy and touch. He might actually be better than Keenan Reynolds (the starter for the past several years, generally regarded as one of the best in Navy history) in terms of throwing the ball. Worth has played within himself and shown great toughness when running between the tackles.

SBT: How has coach Ken Niumatalolo’s presence over nine seasons impacted the current Navy team?

BW: Since taking over as head coach, Ken Niumatalolo has done a number of things to improve the Navy program. Niumatalolo is always thinking of ways the Midshipmen can evolve. He has been very innovative in terms of implementing a rest and recovery program, has really ramped up recruiting and allowed the assistant coaches plenty of input, and been open to changing elements of Navy's offensive and defensive schemes. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper deserves a lot of credit on the latter front as Navy's patented triple-option offense has really evolved over the past nine years.

SBT: What’s the key area that must be successful for Navy to beat Notre Dame?

BW: I think it's the same as always with Navy. Use the option to mount methodical drives that eat up the clock and keep a potent offense off the field. When the Midshipmen play keep-away, it can really frustrate the opponent. Navy needs to score at least 31 points and it would help greatly if there were some five-minute or more touchdown drives included.

SBT: What has surprised you about the Midshipmen this season?

BW: I am somewhat surprised that Navy is in the driver's seat to win the West Division of the American Athletic Conference after suffering severe graduation losses. Did not think the Mids had quite enough firepower to take down Houston and Memphis. That being said, I am not at all surprised that Navy is still a winning program despite relying on a slew of first-time starters. Navy has built a program that does not go into rebuilding mode. The Mids need one more win to become bowl eligible for the 13th time in 14 seasons. That is consistency!

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, center, celebrates after an NCAA college football game against Connecticut in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. Navy won 28-24. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)