SOUTH BEND – Playing Navy is never fun.
The Midshipmen have developed a distinctive brand of offensive peskiness that makes taking them on the football equivalent of spending a Sunday doing household chores. Beating Navy means beating the triple option and beating the triple option generally means staying resolutely disciplined for four quarters, for which Navy will control the ball for the lion's share of the time. The Midshipmen make up for gaps in talent by shortening the game, sitting on the ball and keeping the opposing offense off the field for as long as possible. That makes for a difficult matchup even when Navy isn't particularly good. When the Midshipmen are enjoying a successful season, as they are this year at 7-1, it can become a nightmare quickly.
Notre Dame's defensive gameplan ultimately boils down to one imperative: get off the field. That's easier said than done against maybe the best option quarterback Navy has had since Keenan Reynolds was on campus: Malcolm Perry. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Perry has already rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, the most of any quarterback in the country, at 6.6 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns. Focus too much attention on him, however, and he will pitch or hand off to any number of talented running backs or fullbacks, including (but not limited to) Nelson Smith, Jamale Carothers and C.J. Williams. Carothers is the big-play threat, averaging 9.9 yards per carry with eight touchdowns on 36 attempts. Perry has also proven that he is capable of making plays in the passing game on the rare occasions Navy decides to go to the air. On 53 passes this season, Perry is averaging 13.6 yards per attempt with five touchdowns. With top defensive end Julian Okwara out with a broken leg, Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji will have to hold their own the edge to keep Navy from marching methodically down the field.
On offense, the name of the game for the Irish will be maximizing possessions, because they likely won't get many. When the Midshipmen won this matchup 28-27 in 2016, Notre Dame had only six possessions in the entire game. That leaves little room for error for Ian Book and Co. and any turnovers will be disastrous. Book looked much better against Duke last week, putting up maybe his best performance of the season with 310 total yards, including a career-high 139 on the ground. He showed some improved pocket presence and completed several balls down the field, although some of that can be attributed to a solid performance on the offensive line against a less-than-impressive Duke defensive front. Navy is similarly undersized on the defensive line, but has held its own in the trenches, giving up just 3.3 yards per carry. Linebacker Jake Springer is just 6-1 and 205 pounds, but he has 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks this year.
This is the first time since 1978 that these teams have faced off when both are in the top 25. Notre Dame has won seven of the last eight matchups in this rivalry, but this is one of the best teams Navy has had in that stretch (maybe the only one better is the 11-2 2015 team). The Irish will have their hands full and will have to be focused and locked in for 60 minutes. We'll see if this veteran-laden but banged-up Notre Dame team has the mental toughness to get it done.