Players to watch: Notre Dame vs. Navy

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

• Navy just started a four-game stretch against teams with a combined 26-2 record: Houston (6-1), Notre Dame (7-0), Cincinnati (6-1) and UCF (7-0).

• Navy has lost eight straight games away from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, going back to a 30-27 loss at Memphis on Oct. 14, 2017.

• The Midshipmen rank among the top four teams in the FBS in rushing offense (309.4 yards per game), time of possession (35:36 per game) and fewest penalties (3.71 per game).

S ALOHI GILMAN

No one on Notre Dame’s defense should be more familiar with Navy’s offense than Gilman. Even though Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill have each played against the Midshipmen three times in their careers, Gilman spent an entire season at Navy as a freshman. Safeties tend to be pretty involved against Navy’s triple-option, which Gilman will surely embrace. He totaled 12 tackles in Navy’s 28-27 win over Notre Dame in 2016 when he was in the other locker room. Can he match that on Saturday?

OL SAM MUSTIPHER

Notre Dame’s fifth-year center will be lining up next to a fourth different guard to either his right or left in the starting lineup this season. Sophomore Aaron Banks gets the next shot at left guard three games after the Irish lost Alex Bars for the season. On Mustipher’s other side, Tommy Kraemer and Trevor Ruhland are now battling for playing time at right guard. It’s more important than ever for Mustipher to be the stabilizing force on this offensive line. Expect Mustipher and Co. to try to make a statement against Navy.

QB GARRET LEWIS

Navy has three quarterbacks on its roster with starting experience, and head coach Ken Niumatalolo has turned to Lewis to lead his offense. He’ll be tasked with making the option decisions every play for a unit that has struggled on third down (39.8 percent conversion rate). Lewis hasn’t been very dynamic as a runner (3.5 yards per carry), but he’s Navy’s best passer (24-of-50 for 346 yards and two touchdowns). It only takes a few big passing plays from Navy’s offense to get the opposing defense off balance.

LB TAYLOR HEFLIN

The man in the middle of Navy’s defense finds his way to the ball with regularity. The linebacker is second on the team in tackles (44) and leads the Midshipmen with four tackles for a loss and three sacks. Last year against the Irish, Heflin recovered a fumbled punt return by Chris Finke to set up a Navy touchdown. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound senior will likely find himself in position to make another big play Saturday.

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman (11) is plenty familiar with Navy after playing for the Midshipmen as a freshman.
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.