By: Mark J. Zavodnyik
Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday, 2:30PM ET, NBC
Notre Dame and Navy renew one of college football’s oldest rivalries for the 83rd time Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Navy starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs returns this week. Dobbs has been hobbled of late by a knee injury he suffered against SMU in October. In last week’s 27-24 loss to Temple, Dobbs sat out the entire game except for the final series when the Midshipmen were attempting a last-minute comeback.
Navy is bowl eligible for an impressive seventh consecutive season. With four games left on the schedule, the Midshipmen are on their way to securing a winning record for the seventh straight year as well.
Sophomore receiver Michael Floyd returns for the Irish after sustaining a broken collar bone against Michigan State on September 19. Floyd is an electric playmaker who can change the entire dynamic of Notre Dame’s offense.
Notre Dame is looking to secure their seventh win of the season and continue their push for a possible BCS berth. The Fighting Irish play at Pittsburgh next week in a game that could determine the BCS fate of both teams.
For now, though, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is tasked with keeping his players focused on Navy.
Keys for a Navy Victory
1) Ricky Dobbs: The Navy offense is back to full strength with their starting quarterback returning to action. Like Jimmy Clausen for Notre Dame, Dobbs is the most important component of the Midshipmen offense.
The 6’ 1”, 198-pound junior from Douglasville, Georgia is a physical player who has a nose for the end zone. Dobbs is the nation’s leading scorer, averaging 12 points per game, and has scored 16 of Navy’s 32 offensive touchdowns this season.
It is no secret that Navy’s triple-option offense is focused on the run game. The Midshipmen have the nation’s third-best rushing offense, averaging 279.8 yards per game on the ground.
Navy does not pass the ball particularly well, averaging just 71.7 passing yards per contest. In fact, the Midshipmen did not attempt a single pass when Dobbs sat out in their victory over Wake Forest two weeks ago.
However, Navy can be an effective play-action passing team with Dobbs at quarterback. His best passing day of the season came against Ohio State in the season opener when he threw for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Navy will look to catch Notre Dame off-guard with a few well-timed play-action passes.
Dobbs’ supporting cast on offense includes Navy’s leading rusher, fullback Vince Murray. The junior from Union, Kentucky was not a starter at the beginning of the season, but he has made the most of his opportunities. Murray currently has a streak of three consecutive games with over 100 rushing yards.
2) Keep Clausen off the Field: Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green has an experienced unit playing much better than it did a year ago. Last season the Midshipmen’s opponents averaged 27.2 points per game. This year their scoring defense average is down to 21.4.
Navy is 59th in rushing defense (137.44 yards per game) this season, and 23rd in passing defense. (178.11)
In his Tuesday news conference, Weis said this Midshipmen defense is Navy’s best since he arrived at Notre Dame.
Navy does not get a lot of sacks (just 11 on the season) or tackles for a loss (32), so it is important for them to get solid, consistent play from the heart of their defense: the linebackers.
Navy has been fortunate to get production and leadership from a trio of solid linebackers. Senior Ross Pospisil is Navy’s leading tackler with 65 total tackles. The Temple, Texas native is an emotional leader for the Midshipmen and the team’s defensive captain.
Linebackers Tyler Simmons and Tony Haberer are second and third respectively in team tackles. The ability of Navy’s linebackers to make reads, stay in position, and lead the defense is vital for the Midshipmen to keep the scoring down.
The most effective component of the Midshipmen defense is their ability to end drives on third down. Navy is ranked sixth in the country in third down defense. By getting off the field on third down, Navy can rely on its ball-control offense to establish the game’s rhythm.
Navy will severely limit Clausen and the Notre Dame offense if they can continue to play great defense on third down.
Keys for a Notre Dame Victory
1) Robert Hughes: The junior from Chicago is coming off one of the best performances of his career. Against Washington State, Hughes rushed for 131 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown.
Hughes will likely be the focal point of the Notre Dame running attack again this week. The usual starter, Armando Allen, has been dealing with a sprained right ankle and did not play against Washington State. Allen is listed as day-to-day and Weis may want to rest him in preparation for next week’s game against Pittsburgh.
Navy and Notre Dame have both been very good at controlling the clock this season. The Midshipmen rank second in the nation in time of possession per game (34:18), and the Irish are fifth. (33:19)
Notre Dame wants to dictate the tempo of the game and keep Navy’s clock-eating offense off the field. Hughes’ ability to grind out tough yardage and string together first downs is the key to accomplishing that goal.
A performance for Hughes like the one he had against Washington State will go a long way in earning a victory for the Irish.
2) Eliminate Mental Errors: One would think that Notre Dame is the last program in the country that would fail to take Navy seriously. Notre Dame plays the Midshipmen every year and the Irish are very familiar with Navy’s athletes and style of play.
When the Midshipmen defeated Notre Dame 46-44 in 2007, Navy ended the longest losing streak to a single opponent in FBS history (43).
With all that being said, Notre Dame continues to be a team that makes too many mental mistakes. It seems as though in every game there is a personal foul, holding penalty, or some sort of mental hiccup that slows down the Irish offense or gives their opponent a break.
Statistics show that Notre Dame is not a disciplined team. The Irish commit an average of 6.9 penalties for 60.9 yards per game. On the flip side, Navy is far more controlled; the Midshipmen are the least penalized team in the nation, committing just 3.6 penalties per game.
Compounding the problem, Notre Dame frequently “plays down” to an inferior opponent’s talent level. Four of Notre Dame’s victories have been decided by seven points or less against teams over which the Irish had a clear talent advantage.
This week the Irish face a Navy team that is efficient with the ball and does not make mental mistakes. Should the Irish make silly errors and “play down” to Navy, they will be in danger of losing the game.
Notre Dame’s improving rush defense keeps the Navy triple-option attack under 200 yards for the game. The Midshipmen will struggle to score as Navy does not have enough offensive balance to attack Notre Dame’s poor pass defense.
Floyd makes his presence felt in his return, catching a touchdown pass for the Irish. The Notre Dame offense will have a full complement of skill players for the first time since September, and the Midshipmen will be unable to keep pace.
Score: Notre Dame 31, Navy 17
Photo Courtesy of Notre Dame Sports Information
Friday, November 6, 2009
By: Mark J. Zavodnyik