Opponent outlook: Pass rush, second half play among concerns for Navy

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s last couple meetings with Navy were hardly ideal for the Irish

Last season, the Midshipmen nearly upset the Irish following their blowout loss at Miami, suffering a 24-17 loss. Navy defeated Notre Dame the prior year, 28-27.

This season’s Navy team, though, might be the weakest Notre Dame has faced in years. The Mids are mired in their first four-game losing streak since 2011. That year is also Navy’s only losing season since 2003.

Some of the reason for Navy’s struggles has been its inability to finish games. The Mids have been outscored 66-19 in the second half during their losing streak. They gave Houston (6-1) trouble last week until the Cougars scored 28 second-half points.

Coming off a bye week, the No. 3 Irish should enter Saturday prepared for the Mids’ triple option attack. How will the Mids attack a prepared Irish squad? Can Navy piece together a complete game?

We caught up with Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette for more insight on the Mids.

Navy hung with Houston (6-1), but continued its poor second half trend. Why have the final two quarters been such a struggle?

Wagner: “Navy’s second half struggles are one of the great mysteries of this disappointing season. Traditionally, Navy has been a program that makes sound halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball. Navy has been particularly adept at adjusting on offense, countering whatever the opponent is doing to defend the triple-option.

“Seeing Navy’s offense sputter in the second half of the last two games has been nothing short of stunning. The Midshipmen have been known for wearing down defenses over the course of a contest. This season, it seems like the opposite has been happening. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and staff must figure out how to reverse this trend immediately.”

Houston quarterback D’Eriq King had 413 passing yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win. Three of his receivers eclipsed 100 yards. It looked much like the Navy defense that surrendered 59 points to Hawaii in the opener. What are the defense’s biggest issues?

Wagner: “Navy has generated zero pass rush most of the season. That inability to get any pressure whatsoever on the quarterback has been the biggest issue for the Navy pass defense. Of course, in the pass-happy American Athletic Conference it is somewhat of a pick-your-poison situation. If you try to blitz to generate more pressure you put safeties and corners, or even linebackers, in one-on-one coverage. Against Houston, Navy sat back in a soft zone and applied zero pressure on the quarterback. That was a recipe for disaster.”

Quarterback Garret Lewis made his second career start last week, as Malcolm Perry moved to slotback. Will Perry still play some quarterback and how effective is he in his new role? Is there much difference with Lewis at QB instead of Perry?

Wagner: “I think the days of Malcolm Perry playing quarterback are over. Perry is a runner, pure and simple. What Navy is doing now with Perry is smart. Play him at slotback and simply make sure he touches the ball as often as possible. What the coaching staff needs to decide is whether Lewis or Zach Abey is the best choice as starting quarterback.

Former Navy defensive back Alohi Gilman has been good for the Irish this season. How do you expect Mids fans to react to his play on Saturday?

Wagner: “I’m really not sure how Navy fans will react. Gilman played one season for Navy, and although he had a promising future, it was not long enough to etch his name into the hearts and minds of Navy fans. I think the general reaction of Navy fans to players that transfer after their freshman and sophomore seasons is “Good luck.” It happens plenty of times because of the military commitment and is not worth getting worked up about.”

Notre Dame had an extra week to prepare for the Mids’ triple option attack. Do you expect Navy to be more aggressive?

Wagner: “I think Navy treats Notre Dame like the Super Bowl every year. Every player on the team looks forward to the opportunity to test themselves against the Fighting Irish. Marginal FBS recruits come to Navy simply for the chance to play the likes of Notre Dame. There is never any added motivation needed for Notre Dame.”

Navy quarterback Garret Lewis (7) avoids the tackle from Air Force linebacker Kyle Johnson (40) during a game at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Oct. 6, in Colorado Springs, Colo.