Opponent outlook: Surging Navy may present Notre Dame its toughest challenge in November
Any skepticism surrounding Ken Niumatalolo’s future as Navy’s head coach has been quieted this season.
One year removed from Niumatololo’s worst season in his 11-plus seasons at the helm, the Midshipmen appear primed for a 2019 campaign that produces at least 10 wins. Going 3-10 last season cast some doubt on Niumatololo’s tenure, but a few dramatic changes set the stage for one of college football’s best turnarounds.
Now AP No. 21 Navy (7-1) figures to be the biggest threat in the month of November for No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2). The Mids enter Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium with the most formidable rushing offense in the country, averaging 357.9 yards.
The Mids benefited from switching Malcolm Perry to quarterback. He had mostly operated as Navy’s slotback in its triple option offense until this year. Perry has turned 157 carries into 1,042 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
Five new assistants on defense, including coordinator Brian Newberry and co-coordinator Brian Norwood, helped revive a unit that ranked No. 86 in total defense, No. 90 in run defense and No. 117 in pass-efficiency defense last season. Now the Mids rank No. 17, No. 17 and No. 19 in those respective areas.
Is Navy’s resurgence enough to put Notre Dame on upset watch? We caught up with Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette for more insight on the Mids.
• What additional context can you provide to explain Navy’s turnaround?
Wagner: Niumatalolo deserves a ton of credit for addressing issues that caused last season’s collapse. First and foremost, Niumatalolo completely overhauled the defensive coaching staff. That meant pushing longtime defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson into retirement, which was tough because Niumatalolo and Pehrson worked side-by-side on the staff for a long time. No single move has meant more to Navy’s turnaround than the hiring of Brian Newberry as defensive coordinator.
Also, committing to Malcolm Perry as the starting quarterback and empowering Malcolm by tailoring the offense to suit his strengths was huge. That also involved improving Malcolm’s passing ability, which has clearly shown this season. Malcolm was a running back playing quarterback last season. This season, Malcolm is a true quarterback in every sense of the word and showing great leadership. Lastly, Navy has recommitted to running the triple-option. In recent years, the Midshipmen had gotten away from the read triple option and were calling a lot of zone read running plays.
• What has made Navy’s defense so effective under Newberry and co-coordinator Norwood?
Wagner: Newberry is the defensive coordinator. He is designing the game-plan and making the calls from the press box. Norwood has brought great experience after serving as defensive coordinator at Baylor, Kansas State and elsewhere. However, make no mistake that this is Newberry’s defense. Newberry has a system that is very unpredictable. It involves bringing pressure from different positions and angles and constantly changing things up.
Newberry has put tremendous emphasis on third down stops, which was the single-greatest weakness of the Navy defense in recent years. Navy is dramatically improved in that area and pretty much every other major defensive category. Again, it’s a combination of a different mindset, better schemes and smarter play-calling.
• Which defensive players need to perform well against Notre Dame?
Wagner: Navy’s primary playmakers so far this season have been inside linebacker Diego Fagot along with outside linebackers Nizaire Cromartie and Jacob Springer. Those three are key elements of the blitz package and must make plays in order for Navy to win this game. Safeties Kevin Brennan and Evan Fochtman have both been really good as well and will need to continue their strong play in this game.
• How has Perry developed since the Irish last saw him?
Wagner: As mentioned earlier, Perry has developed into a quarterback and has that mindset. He’s vastly improved as a passer as the numbers clearly indicate. He’s showing leadership in the huddle and on the sideline, while also doing a great job of orchestrating the offense. He’s making good reads at the line of scrimmage and distributing the ball properly based off those reads. Obviously, Perry is a real game-breaker — a threat to go all the way at any time. That has never changed and his home run threat potential is not to be underestimated.
• If Navy pulls off the upset, why do you think that would be the case? If Notre Dame wins, why do you think that would be the case?
Wagner: Navy is on a roll and playing with a ton of confidence. If the Midshipmen win it will be because Perry has played great on the offensive side of the ball and broken a couple long touchdown runs, while the defense has risen up and held Notre Dame to a reasonable number in terms of points. I think everyone is very interested to see what type of game-plan Newberry unveils, but you can bet it begins with stopping the run, first and foremost.
• Score prediction: Notre Dame 34, Navy 31.