Picking up the pieces after their national championships hopes were shattered, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish close out the home portion of their schedule with a dangerous opponent in the Navy Midshipmen. Powered by their triple-option offense, Navy is hoping that the Irish suffer a hangover from the devastating loss at Miami.
One of the few certainties in this contest is that the Midshipmen will almost exclusively run the ball, a game plan that’s served head coach Ken Niumatalolo and his recent predecessors well. Navy enters the game with a 6-3 record and is coming off a game against SMU that they nearly watched slip away in the second half. The Midshipmen have split their four games away from Annapolis in 2017.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch:
Josh Adams vs. Micah Thomas
After seemingly being stopped at every turn in Miami, Adams needs to get his Heisman campaign back on the road. Prior to the win over Wake Forest, he was a prime candidate for the prestigious award, but 62 yards on 21 carries over the past two weeks are numbers that have the ability to short-circuit that bid quickly.
Thomas led Navy in tackles last year at inside linebacker and is currently hovering near the top of that category in 2017 with 60 tackles on the year. He’s got the speed to cover both sides of the field and also brings enough size to bring down runners quickly. He’s an athletic player who can also get back into pass coverage, with his team-leading three interceptions one example of that ability.
Notre Dame Defense vs. Zach Abey
After being shredded for 237 yards in Miami, the Irish have to be able to contain the Midshipmen’s signal caller Abey, who’s run for 1,202 yards this season and scored 13 touchdowns. He’s carried the ball just over 40 percent of the time this year, so it stands to reason that remaining fixated on his every move should be the central focus on Saturday. Abey was forced to sit out last week with shoulder trouble, but is expected to be back for this clash.
Irish defenders need to shore up the team’s run defense, which has struggled in the last two games. During the first seven contests this season, Notre Dame’s defense gave up an average of 138 yards rushing and only allowed a single runner into the end zone. During the past two weeks, those numbers are 238 yards per game and six touchdowns, respectively.
Tommy Kraemer/Robert Hainsey vs. D.J. Palmore
The Irish duo will have their hands full with Palmore, a senior captain who leads Navy in tackles-for-loss with 10.5 on the year and ranks among the team leader in sacks. Palmore has been a familiar figure around the ball, collecting 50 tackles and having recovered three fumbles, forcing one of them.
Kraemer and Hainsey are coming off a game in which they struggled to both protect Brandon Wimbush and give him room to run. Palmore’s incursions into the opponent territory makes him someone who needs to be watched, so a return to the steady improvement shown by this pair prior to the Miami debacle would be a good sign.
Te’von Coney vs. Malcolm Perry
Over the past month, Coney has emerged from the large shadow that Nyles Morgan had been casting, having averaged over 10 tackles per game during that time frame. Collecting a team-high 83 tackles for the year, Coney’s ability to get into enemy backfields also finds him atop the tackle-for-loss chart with 10.5 on the season.
Coney will be challenged by the 5-foot-9 Perry, who’s coming off a monster game against SMU in which he ran for 282 yards. Despite the fact that Navy rarely throws the ball, Perry serves as one of their chief weapons in that area, having grabbed 10 passes this year. Recruited as a quarterback, he was forced to handle that role last week because of the injury to Abey. Perry’s own status might be open to question because of the ankle injury he suffered in that SMU game.
Chase Claypool vs. Tyris Wooten
Against Wake, Claypool had his best day yet for the Irish, snagging nine passes for 180 yards. With the Irish back home in South Bend, Wimbush may want to return to that comfort zone after a rough outing against Miami. Both Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown are at the top of the Notre Dame receiving chart with 26 catches.
Until this season, Wooten was toiling as a reserve wideout for the Midshipmen until he was shifted to corner last spring. He quickly adapted to the new role and moved from a backup into the starting unit. He leads Navy with eight pass breakups, though he has shown some vulnerability this season when it comes to being able to react in quick fashion.