Friday, November 2, 2007

Navy is no "Gimme"

Much has been written about the historical significance of the Notre Dame v. Navy game. Count me among those who are proud that Our Lady's University honors the Navy's contributions to the University by continuing to schedule the Middies in football.

Before the season began, I think I was in agreement with everyone else in the Universe that, however the Irish might fare over the first eight games, at least we had "four easy wins" lined up for November. Here is the entirety of my pre-season analysis of the Navy game:

I think it's good that we continue to honor Navy because of all they did for Notre Dame during the war years. But Coach Weis doesn't fool around with these lesser foes. The Irish beat the Middies soundly but respectfully, 35-10.
What's amazing to me is how this unshakable faith in the "four easy wins" has persisted despite Notre Dame's 1-7 record and our historically poor offensive production. How, exactly, are we going to beat these next four teams "easily"? WE CAN'T MOVE THE FOOTBALL! WE CAN'T SCORE ANY POINTS! WE HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO GET A FIRST DOWN!

Navy, on the other hand, has been among the most prolific teams in the country at moving the football and scoring points. Normally you'd have to like the chances of a football team that is really good at scoring playing against a team that is really inept at scoring, wouldn't you? If you put both teams in white helmets and gray pants, played the game in Dogpatch State University's Stadium, and didn't tell anyone that one team had beaten another for 43 straight years, you'd have to favor Navy by two touchdowns based upon the numbers, wouldn't you?

Let's look at those numbers:

The Navy Offense. The Middies average 342 rushing yards per game, which ranks them #1 in the country. They generate 450 yards per game in total offense, good for a #16 ranking. Opposing that offense this weekend is the Notre Dame defense which ranks #93 in the country against the run, and #57 in total defense. In compiling their #1 ranking in rushing, Navy has only played one opponent (Ball State) which ranks worse than Notre Dame in rush defense. Rutgers has the 58th best rushing defense, and they surrendered 254 net rushing yards to Navy. Wake Forest has the 34th best run defense, and they gave up 328 net rushing yards to Navy. The point is, Navy has played run defenses ranked much better than #93 in compiling their gaudy rushing totals.

The Irish Defense. How has the Irish defense managed to sink to #93 against the run? The short answer appears to be: They have played some pretty good teams. The first eight games of the schedule had Notre Dame playing teams with the following rankings in rushing offense (as of today): 13, 32, 22, 18, 72, 43, 85, and 27. When you factor into the schedule the facts that (1) Notre Dame's offense has been unable to control the ball, thus leaving the defense out on the field for too long, and (2) Many Irish opponents ran the ball heavily late in games to run out the clock and preserve big leads, it isn't surprising that our rush "D" numbers don't look good. It's pure conjecture, but you have to figure that our rushing "D" numbers would be much better (though not great) if the defense was getting any help from the offense.

Navy "O" versus Irish "D". There's no getting around the fact that Navy runs the ball exceedingly well, using their option package. Their rushing numbers are not a fluke, they weren't compiled against patsies. Notre Dame's defense has been vulnerable to the run all year. What gives me some reason for optimism is that Notre Dame's problems defending the run this year have been more about physical match-ups than assignments and scheme. Certainly there have been some busted assignments. But the bigger problem has been bigger opponents. Although Trevor Laws and Pat Kuntz & Co. have played their hearts out this year, they have frequently just been overmatched physically when facing power running teams. Against Navy, our defensive front seven, perhaps for the first time this season, figures to be more physical and athletic than the offensive line they are facing. Therefore, we should have fewer problems with getting blown off the ball or shoved out of the hole than we have to date. This means that if our guys make their reads we should be able to slow Navy down a little. We'll still have problems when our inside linebackers need to get to the edge - because at times they have proven themselves too slow to contain the outside run when the defensive call requires it. We'll blow some reads and miss some tackles. But as the game wears on Law and Kuntz and friends will wear down the Navy O-line and start disrupting plays in the backfield. That's when we'll see some turnovers that will help the Irish win the game, if we're still in it.

The Navy Defense. Navy's defense ranks 105th in the country, surrendering 459 yards per game. The current offensive rankings of Navy's eight opponents are: 102, 13, 22, 114, 72, 97, 90, and 3. That's an average ranking of #64. Clearly, Navy has been pushed around by some pretty pedestrian competition, even teams with horrible offensive rankings (Duke at 114, Pitt at 97, Wake Forest at 90) amassed over 400 yards against Navy.

The Irish Offense. It's been well documented that Notre dame's offense is dead last (#119) in the country. We haven't run, we haven't passed. But, our schedule really has been brutal. The current total defense rankings for our eight opponents are: 7, 12, 21, 36, 56, 42, 20, and 4. That averages out to a ranking of 24.75. Thus, on average, Notre Dame's offense has played every game against a Top 25 defense. It's not surprising that our young offense has struggled against such quality competition. The "worst" defense we faced was Purdue (#56), and the Irish actually outgained the Boilermakers. The next worst defense was UCLA (#42), who we beat.

Irish "O" versus Navy "D". Unlike the Irish defense, which has struggled this year because of poor physical match-ups, Notre Dame's offensive woes have not been "match-up" problems. The problems on offense have been assignments and scheme, and unforced errors. The offensive line has been confused about who to block. Defensive linemen and linebackers have been running loose in the Irish backfield untouched. The pulling guard has been running right past the defender who, naturally, makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterbacks haven't spotted John Carlson wide open at the sideline. Or the ball has been poorly thrown, or dropped. If you're letting a linebacker get a free run at your quarterback, it matters little that the linebacker is 5' 10" and 175 lbs instead of 6' 2" and 210 lbs. Thus, while one would expect the larger, more athletic Notre Dame players to simply run over Navy's defense, it isn't that simple. IF the O-line can pick up the right guys, they should be able to block them. IF the fullback can spot the blitzing linebacker, he should be able to handle him. IF the QB can read the coverage correctly, he should be able to find a wide open receiver for a touchdown, IF he can throw a decent ball. Even with a decided physical advantage, there a lot of mental IFs. If the Irish offense has a good MENTAL game, they should easily put up their best performance of the year. I expect to see "simple" from the Irish offense. Simple blocking schemes in the running game should allow Aldridge, Allen and Hughes to pick up big chunks of yards. I expect that this is the week we see what Armando Allen can really do - all he needs is a step and the Navy defenders won't b able to catch him. In the passing game, we'll see max protection and let Duval Kamara, Golden Tate, and John Carlson make plays against Navy's overmatched DBs. It's a key fact that Navy is ranked 118th in QB sacks - with 5 total for the year. Thus Evan Sharpley will actually have time to survey the field and throw those deep balls he is so fond of.

Bottom line. Navy is going to move the ball on Notre Dame. The option scheme will cause the Irish defenders some problems early and Navy will get a couple of early scores. But by about half-time the defense will have figured it out, and we'll start disrupting the option and forcing turnovers later in the game. The Irish offense will start slow, with a conservative running game used to establish some rhythm and some confidence. We'll answer the Navy scores with long drives of our own in the first half. By the middle of the second quarter, with our confidence growing, the gloves come off and Evan will start slinging the ball around the yard. We'll lead by a touchdown at half time, and by three touchdowns at the end of the third quarter. Coach Weis will take his foot off the gas at that point and empty the bench. Each team scores again and the Irish win 42-17.


sir john said...

It always bothered me that we would take them for granted in prior years. I really get nervous with our fans thinking it's a sure thing. I want to win, I do have to go in thinking we will win but we sure have stunk so far.

Brian said...

From one depressed fan (I'm a BC guy) to another, let me offer my condolences.