Opponent Outlook: Mystery at QB leads Navy story lines

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

By now, everyone knows what to expect from a Navy team coached by Ken Niumatalolo.

In his 10 years as head coach of the Midshipmen, Niumatalolo has kept the triple-option offense as the staple of the program.

Notre Dame (8-2) will have to figure out how to defend the nation’s leading rushing offense again on Saturday. But what the Irish don’t know yet is which quarterback it will be trying to shut down.

Navy (6-3) has used three quarterbacks in recent games, and Niumatalolo has yet to disclose this week’s starter.

What else can Notre Dame expect to see from Navy on Saturday? We caught up with Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette for a closer look at the Midshipmen.

• Two of Navy’s three losses came to the top two teams in the ACC: UCF (9-0) and Memphis (8-1). But the 34-26 loss to Temple (5-5) is a head-scratcher. What went wrong for Navy that day and have those issues been solved?

Wagner: “Even head coach Ken Niumatalolo remains baffled about what happened that Thursday night in Philadelphia. It may have been the most lackluster, uninspired performance by Navy during Niumatalolo's 10-year tenure. 

“The Mids had zero energy and emotion. Niumatalolo said it looked like the players were running in quicksand. Navy's offense was stagnant while the defense was a step slow all night. 

“Temple employed an eight-man front and Navy kept running right into the teeth of it, which is why it averaged just 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. Temple quarterback Frank Nutile was getting rid of the ball quickly so Navy could not get any pressure, and the defensive backs just flat-out got beaten in man-to-man coverage. 

“To me, that loss comes down to one team (Temple) playing with a real purpose and the other team (Navy) simply not showing up.”

• With starting quarterback Zach Abey missing some time with multiple injuries throughout the season, Navy appears to have found legitimate backup options in junior Garret Lewis and sophomore Malcolm Perry. Who do you expect to see playing for the Midshipmen this weekend? And how will the offense vary depending on which quarterback takes the field?

Wagner: “It is anyone's guess at this point as to which quarterback will start against Notre Dame on Saturday. Malcolm Perry has played slotback all season and may go back to doing so as far as we know right now. Niumatalolo said he put Perry at QB because he felt the offense needed a spark. He was non-committal as to whether Perry would remain at QB. 

“Abey's enjoyed an outstanding season, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. I cannot see Navy benching Abey for the rest of the season. 

“Garret Lewis has played well in a relief role for three straight games, but that only amounted to a couple series in each. No one knows how Lewis would perform if allowed to play a whole game. Abey has a shoulder injury while Perry has an ankle injury so it may wind up being Lewis by default. 

“Abey is a power runner who does most of his damage between the tackles. Perry is a speed runner who is more dangerous on the perimeter. If both players are healthy, it is possible that Navy could switch back-and-forth between Abey and Perry.”

• Former Navy safety Alohi Gilman transferred to Notre Dame in the offseason. How do you think his decision to join the Irish was received within the program? And how much has Gilman’s departure impacted Navy’s defense?

Wagner: “Alohi Gilman had a sensational freshman season and it really hurt to see him transfer. However, Alohi's heart was not into the military commitment, and he also has NFL aspirations so the coaching staff and his teammates understood the decision. 

“It goes without saying that losing a starter and playmaker weakens the defense. A safety combination of Gilman and Sean Williams would have been one of the best Navy's had in a long time. Gilman was very good in run support and creating turnovers, which is something every team needs. Jarid Ryan is the starter at that safety spot and a definite downgrade from Gilman.”

• While sporting the nation’s top rushing offense with an average of 369.8 yards per game, Navy has outrushed its opponent in every game this season. Notre Dame, averaging 303.2 yards per game of its own, would appear to be a legitimate threat to end that streak. How will Navy try to slow down Notre Dame’s strength on offense?

Wagner: “My experience over many years of covering this matchup is that Notre Dame can bully Navy with the ground game if it decides to do so. I've seen several Irish coaches get cute and try to throw the ball in order to achieve balance when they were having success ramming it down Navy's throat.

“Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said this is easily the best offensive line the Midshipmen will see this season. If Notre Dame is determined to run the ball, it will be a long day for Navy. That said, the Mids tend to play the run a bit better than the pass. 

“It kind of goes with the toughness and physicality aspect of the whole program. Navy does not mind lining up and slugging it out in the trenches. Plus, that would play into Navy's hands of shortening the game.”

• Navy ended its five-game losing streak against Notre Dame last year in Jacksonville. The Midshipmen have now beaten the Irish four times in the last 10 matchups. In what was traditionally a lopsided series, have the recent results changed the way Navy views its rivalry with Notre Dame?

Wagner: “I don't think there is any doubt that the mystique of Notre Dame is no longer a hex over Navy. The Midshipmen know they can beat this team because they have done so on multiple occasions. Same could not be said during the infamous losing streak. 

“For a while, I wondered if the Midshipmen truly thought they could beat the Fighting Irish. Obviously, a big part of this equation is that Navy has much better talent now than it did for most of the losing streak. The Midshipmen will never be anywhere near as talented as the Irish, but at least they know have the caliber of athletes to make it more of a fair fight. 

“Navy will always have the utmost respect for Notre Dame as it is traditionally the toughest game on the schedule. However, I don't think the Midshipmen fear the Fighting Irish anymore.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Will Zach Abey (9) return to the starting quarterback role for Navy against Notre Dame? The Midshipmen have used three quarterbacks in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)